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Death Of A Statesman: Burhanuddin Rabbani

Afghan soldiers carry the coffin of slain Afghanistan High Peace Council and former President Burhanuddin Rabbani during his funeral at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on September 23, 2011.
Afghan soldiers carry the coffin of slain Afghanistan High Peace Council and former President Burhanuddin Rabbani during his funeral at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on September 23, 2011.
In the spring of 1974, Afghan state police stormed Kabul University to arrest Burhanuddin Rabbani, then a renowned professor of Islamic jurisprudence.

An impassioned orator and a graduate of Egypt's Al Azhar University, Rabbani was seen by the government of President Mohammed Daoud Khan as one of the key proponents of political Islam. Islamism was one of the few credible alternatives to the communist ideology that was then growing rapidly among both among educated urbanites and the rural population of Afghanistan.

With the help of devoted students, the thirtysomething professor slipped through the ring of policemen around the university and embarked upon an epic journey through the heartlands of ethnic Pashtuns. Local tribesmen helped him on his way to the safe haven of Pakistan, where he found the financial and political support to become one of the key figures of the Afghan opposition. By 1979, the mild-mannered professor was transformed into the spiritual leader of the legions of young Afghans eager to wage holy war against the Soviet invasion.

Nearly 40 years later, on the eve of post-Taliban Afghanistan's second presidential election in 2009, Rabbani told the story in his quiet study on the top floor of his tightly guarded home in the posh Wazir Akbar Khan district of Kabul.

"They didn't ask questions," Rabbani told me. "They didn't know who I was. They brought me char-grilled corn and milk and bread." An ethnic Tajik, Rabbani recalled with a hint of nostalgia the hospitality extended to him by Pashtun tribesmen as he made his way to Peshawar, in Pakistan, so many years before, the Afghan state police in hot pursuit. Back in the early 1970s, ethnicity was not yet the convulsive issue it would later become.

A Life Of Contradictions

In some ways, that story of Rabbani's escape exemplifies the contradictions of an eventful life. Until the very end, Rabbani -- who became Afghanistan's president when mujahedin forces took Kabul in 1992 -- rejected those who depicted his party, the Jamiat-i Islami (Islamic Society), as an ethnic Tajik faction. He insisted that it also included a sizable proportion of Pashtuns, Uzbeks, and Hazaras who shared the same values.

That he was assassinated on September 20, 2011 by an assailant whose turban (a traditional piece of tribal clothing) concealed a bomb marked an ironic end to a long, tumultuous career in a country that has not known peace in over three decades. Given that Pashtuns dominate the groups that oppose the present government in Kabul, it is entirely possible that Rabbani was felled by the very "Pashtun extremists" denounced by those among his political allies who were skeptical of the peace process.

It was, in fact, manifest that most of the leading figures in his party were non-Pashtuns. And it is undeniable that his own rise to power brought the Tajiks of Afghanistan a degree of wealth and political power unprecedented in the country's history.

At the same time, the circumstances of his demise prompted the inevitable speculation that the assassination was actually an inside job. "The Professor" -- as he persisted in being called despite his previous status as head of state -- was tightly guarded by his security detail. The road in front of his house was barricaded, and anybody who entered his home was thoroughly searched. Indeed, there was enough discontent within Rabbani's own camp -- disgruntled former members of Jamiat-i Islami -- to provide grounds for a whole host of conspiracy theories.

Appointed head of the High Peace Council by President Hamid Karzai, Rabbani, in the twilight of his years, was entrusted with a mission vital to the survival of the post-Taliban government. In calling for dialogue with "our angry brothers" (a euphemism for the neo-Taliban), Rabbani surprised Afghans who had come to view him as one of the country's most determined opponents of Taliban rule. Among those caught off-guard were members of his party, who accused him of selling out their cause for the sake of his own political survival. Others defended his change of position as a mark of pragmatism. And then there were those young and ambitious politicians within Rabbani's camp who resented him for his refusal to step aside in their favor.

Political Survivor

In 2001, when Washington's military campaign toppled the Taliban regime in Kabul, Rabbani managed to stage an improbable comeback after teetering on the brink of political oblivion. By stepping aside in favor of political newcomer Karzai, America's chosen candidate, Rabbani not only acquired an ally in the new order but ensured his own political survival, effectively reinventing himself as an "elder statesman."

In October 2002, I interviewed Rabbani while he was visiting his family in Sharjah. During an hour-long conversation, he refuted the claim that he had been marginalized since stepping down.

"Our aim was to unite the Afghan people, so when I stepped down, I did so in the interest of the Afghan people," he said.

It was a period when some of the larger-than-life figures from the days of the jihad against the Soviet Union had been relegated to pariah status. International human rights organizations accused some of them of committing heinous crimes against humanity during the civil war.

The Godfather

Rabbani shrewdly refrained from running in any of the presidential elections himself. Instead, he lobbied behind closed doors to secure choice positions for his own candidates -- serving as a political godfather of sorts to the ethnic Tajik community. And though he was periodically dismissed as "irrelevant" to the Afghan political scene, it would have been a mistake to downplay either his backroom influence or his uncanny understanding of Afghan and regional dynamics. By his own account, he often served as "an adviser" to President Karzai in recent years. It is less clear, of course, how much of this advice Karzai actually accepted.

During my interview, Rabbani urged Washington to tread carefully in its hunt for residual Taliban and Al Qaida forces. Otherwise, he said, the U.S. risked "provoking the Afghan people." It was a concern that proved well-founded.

"We suffered immensely from the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. But looking for them now is not like it was in the beginning. There are no longer any centers or bases in Afghanistan. If there are people still left in Afghanistan, the Americans need to go about it in a way that does not provoke our people."

Supporters of Burhanuddin Rabbani hold a portrait of him as they stand outside his house on September 21, one day after he was killed in Kabul.

Rabbani demonstrated his political survival skills once again later that same year, during Afghanistan's first presidential election. President Karzai had appointed Ahmed Zia Masud as his vice presidential running mate. Masud was both Rabbani's son-in-law and the younger brother of the slain mujahedin commander Ahmed Shah Masud, who had also been minister of Defense during Rabbani's presidency.

Matters were complicated by the announcement that then Education Minister Yunus Qanuni, who served as a key military strategist for the late Ahmed Shah Masud, had decided to run. That prompted fears of a schism within the Jamiat-i Islami. But Rabbani was confident that his loyal constituents and the bulk of the mujahedin who served under him would come to his support. Karzai won nearly 55 percent of the vote; Qanuni settled for 17 percent. Rabbani's support proved critical to Karzai's victory.

The White Beard

In 2009, I met Rabbani for the last time. By now a bona fide "white beard" (an Afghan term for venerated elder), he talked mostly about the heady days of the 1960s and 1970s, the early phase of his political career. He recalled his years of exile in Pakistan and his friends who were killed after the Afghan communist takeover in 1978. He spoke of the Soviet invasion, and mentioned, in passing, a young Osama bin Laden, who had come to Afghanistan to take part in the holy jihad against the Red Army.

"In those days, [Osama bin Laden] had come with an Arab organization concerned with refugees, health, and education," he recalled. "Later on, some of the young Arabs decided to join the jihad. They formed a group under bin Laden's command. He was very quiet. He wouldn't talk much. You never got the feeling that he was a fighter, or that he even liked fighting."

Rabbani also recalled the momentous defeat of the Soviets. After the collapse of the pro-Moscow government of Mohammed Najibullah in 1992, Rabbani's forces were the first to enter Kabul -- prompting weeks of rocket attacks by his arch-rival, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. He recalled the day he went to meet Hekmatyar and asked him to stop the attacks.

"He told me, half joking: 'You are alone. I can capture you.' I told him: 'Capture me, but don't attack Kabul. You're giving the mujahedin a bad name!'"

As this exchange highlighted, Rabbani had a way with words. In later years, his detractors derided him as a smooth-talking deal-maker. But others praised him as a savvy coalition-builder.

Controversies notwithstanding, former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani was an integral player in Afghanistan's contemporary history. I suspect he will be remembered by most as the ideologue-turned-freedom fighter who went on to assume the role of a peacemaker. It is not a simple story. In Afghanistan it could hardly be otherwise.

Tanya Goudsouzian is a journalist who has covered Afghanistan since 2001. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL