ReflectionsThe day Burhanuddin Rabbani was to leave Tehran on September 19 after attending the First International Islamic Awakening Conference (September 17–18), I had briefly chatted with him about prospects for peace in Afghanistan.
The day Burhanuddin Rabbani was to leave Tehran on September 19 after attending the First International Islamic Awakening Conference (September 17–18), I had briefly chatted with him about prospects for peace in Afghanistan. He expressed optimism although he did not reveal that an alleged Taliban emissary was waiting for him in Kabul bearing an “important message” from Mullah Muhammad Omar. As the “Taliban emissary”, one Esmatullah, was ushered into Rabbani’s heavily guarded house by Rahmatullah Wahidyar, a former deputy minister in the Taliban government, the emissary exploded his bomb killing Rabbani and five others. The bomb had been hidden in the “emissary’s” turban. He was housed in a government guesthouse for three days awaiting Rabbani’s return. The former Afghan president had addressed the Islamic Awakening Conference, his last appearance on the international stage, just before returning home to a violent death. The news was received with shock and dismay.
In deference to him, Esmatullah was not frisked before being allowed into Rabbani’s home. The decision proved disastrous. It also reflects how desperate President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan is for a deal — any deal — with the Taliban that he and his regime are prepared to take such risks, including not checking unknown emissaries who claim to be carrying important messages.
Rabbani was appointed head of the High Peace Council last year. He had served as president from 1992 to 1996 when the Taliban, erupting from Qandahar in October 1994, drove him and his Northern Alliance forces from Kabul. Although a Tajik, Rabbani was considered a moderate in a country known for violence. He spoke Pushto as fluently as he did Darri, the Afghan variant of Persian. He had cultivated good relations with many influential Pashtun figures and was respected by most Afghans, hence Karzai’s decision to appoint him to head the Peace Council. Rabbani was also perhaps the only person who could persuade his fellow Tajiks to accept a deal with the Taliban.
In New York, to attend the new session of the UN General Assembly, Karzai cut short his visit and returned home to deal with another, perhaps the most serious in a series of crises that have engulfed his beleaguered regime. Messages of condolences poured in from Iran and Pakistan as well as condemnation of the dastardly act. Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, leader of Hizb-e Islami also condemned Rabbani’s assassination and blamed the US for the crime. Given that the Taliban have not claimed responsibility for the attack raises questions about the identity of the perpetrator(s).
Many Afghans and other observers believe the Americans are linked to the attack. Interestingly, an American delegation had just emerged from meeting Rabbani when the bomber was ushered in. He did not try to kill the Americans, certainly an enticing target. The Americans have opened their own channels of communication with the Taliban. Whether these have been at a sufficiently high level is debatable but it is well known that some contacts have occurred. Observers also point to the Taliban’s opening offices in Qatar and Turkey. These are meant to facilitate easier contacts between the Americans and the Taliban without others intruding in or influencing them. The elimination of Rabbani would serve this purpose. The Americans perhaps feared that Rabbani was beginning to make headway with the Taliban even though the latter have insisted all along that there will be no talks until all foreign troops are out of Afghanistan.
Rabbani’s assassination will also provide Washington with the justification to prolong its military presence in Afghanistan, something a majority of Americans oppose. Despite suffering a stunning military defeat, Washington wants to secure permanent military bases in Afghanistan hence the pressure on Karzai to sign a strategic agreement for American troops to remain after the 2014 announced withdrawal date.
The Pakistanis are also unhappy with US attempts to bypass them and deal directly with the Taliban. The Pakistanis feel they have invested much in life and blood in America’s ten-year war and do not want to be left out of a future set-up. They fear a hostile regime assuming power in Kabul, especially one with close links to India. This would also expose their eastern front to grave danger. For decades Pakistan’s policy has been formulated on confronting India in the east; it could hardly afford another hostile front in the west.
Regardless of the identity of the perpetrator(s), it has become clear that the noose around the US-backed Karzai regime is tightening. As America suffers more military defeats and opposition to the war at home escalates, Washington will resort to other desperate measures. The murder of Rabbani may be part of these desperate acts. The agony of the Afghans meanwhile continues as they pay an ever-escalating price in the big powers’ great game.
Zafar Bangash is Director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought