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Rabbani's Life And Death Reflect Afghanistan's Troubled Politics

Understanding complex figures like Burhanuddin Rabbani can shed light on Afghanistan's current plight.
Understanding complex figures like Burhanuddin Rabbani can shed light on Afghanistan's current plight.
Burhanuddin Rabbani, the former Afghan president who was assassinated on September 20, was one of a generation of Afghan leaders to define and reflect his country's violent history over the last 40 years.

Understanding these controversial personalities helps make sense of Afghanistan's current instability and future prospects.

Figures like Rabbani fought against the Soviet occupation and in the subsequent civil wars. They were villains, foreign agents, rapacious warlords, and corrupt tycoons to their opponents. But they were legendary guerrilla leaders, freedom fighters, spiritual guides, and harbingers of a new Islamic order in Afghanistan to their supporters.

Rabbani, 71, was simply called "ustad" or teacher, for his credentials as a former professor at Kabul University's Shari'a (Islamic Law) Faculty.

He was one of the pioneers of the contemporary Islamist movement in Afghanistan in the late 1960s, which was inspired by the revivalist pan-Islamism of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

As the head of Jamiat-e Islami, as the movement is known, he attracted the wrath of Kabul's secular government.

Islamism Colored By Ethnic Politics

In the mid-1970s, Rabbani was among the leading Islamists who went into exile in neighboring Pakistan, years before the 1979 Soviet invasion.

In the diverse ethnic mosaic of Afghanistan, Rabbani's Islamism was always colored by ethnic politics. Thus the followers and leaders of Jamiat-e Islami mostly shared Rabbani's Tajik ethnicity.

The group turned into one of the leading anti-Soviet guerrilla organizations in the 1980s and was lavishly funded by the West. This gave Rabbani the credentials to be selected as the second mujahedin president after the fall of the Afghan communist regime in 1992.

While the mujahedin reveled in the glory of their victory over the Soviet occupation, they failed to deliver peace to Afghanistan.

From Kabul's Arg-e Shahi royal palace, Rabbani saw mujahedin factions fragment into warring parties as thousands of Afghan civilians died in the civil war of the 1990s.

Many accused Rabbani of having dirty hands. The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has named Rabbani as one of several Afghan leaders who may have committed war crimes in the early 1990s.

If it wasn't war crimes he was being accused of, then other Afghans saw Rabbani as preferring to cling to his largely ceremonial post instead of pursuing peace.

To an extent, his hands were tied: The mess in Afghanistan was not just the result of the failure of mujahedin leaders, but the result of meddling by Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and India and being abandoned by other members of the international community.

Rabbani and his allies in the Northern Alliance, however, survived the rise of the Taliban. Islamabad backed the hard-line rural militia in the hope of establishing control over Afghanistan and denying its South Asian arch-rival India any space in the Hindu Kush.

The Taliban rank-and-file believed that the way to salvation for Afghanistan was to cleanse it of the mujahedin, the communists, and even the moderate royalists who came before them.

Thwarting The Taliban's Quest For Legitimacy

Confined to an Afghan mountain valley after the Taliban had swept through much of the country by 1996, Rabbani remained the internationally recognized president of the country.

His major success lay in preventing the Taliban from gaining any international legitimacy and characterizing them as facilitators of Al-Qaeda's global terrorism.

Former mujahedin commander Ahmad Shah Masud
Rabbani lost his best military commander, Ahmad Shah Massud, to an Al-Qaeda suicide attack on September 9, 2001.

But the group's terrorist attacks in New York and Washington two days later changed his political fortunes.

Two months later, Rabbani moved into Kabul's sprawling presidential palace. A month later, he reluctantly stepped down to make room for the new leader, Hamid Karzai, who had been chosen by the UN-backed Bonn conference.

The Western intervention was a boom time for Afghanistan's anti-Taliban leaders. With the U.S. Special Forces hunting their former Taliban enemies, the warlords underwent an outward transformation.

While many of them abandoned their traditional garb for smart business suits, their political and social roles didn't change.

They made millions -- some say billions -- in drug dealing, property snatching, security contracts, and countless shadowy deals. They praised democracy, but intimidated opponents and filled government ministries with supporters.

Much of Afghanistan's past has been defined by the failure of the mujahedin leadership. With the peace process Rabbani was shepherding now in peril, this failure will also shape the country's future.
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.