Political Landscape

Another Hit at the High Peace Council: Arsala Rahmani Killed (amended)


One of the leading reconciled Taleban, Arsala Rahmani, who was also a senator and, until last month, acting head of the High Peace Council, has been shot dead in Kabul. On 3 May, the Taleban declared they would be targeting High Peace Council members in their ‘Spring Offensive’, but a spokesman has said they did not kill Rahmani. The dead mawlawi had been a major mujahedin commander in the 1980s, a Supreme Court judge during the mujahedin government of the mid-1990s and deputy minister for higher education during the Taleban regime. From 2002, he actively called for reconciliation. However, his and others’ early efforts were rebuffed until after the Taleban insurgency took off. By this time, argues AAN senior analyst, Kate Clark, the opportunity for them to play any major role in reconciliation had been lost. (With contributions by Thomas Ruttig).

After the Taleban were defeated in 2001, Arsala Rahmani and other former senior Taleban sat in Islamabad for three years, urging the new, US-backed, Afghan government in Kabul to let the movement reconcile. In 2002, they revived one of the oldest Afghan Islamic parties, Jamiat-e Khuddam ul-Furqan.(1) Initially created as an anti-communist party in the 1960s, it became a nucleus of the ulema-dominated mujahedin faction, Harakat-e Enqelab-e Islami (the Islamic Revolution Movement), which in turn, became a major contributor to the Taleban when they emerged in 1994. In 2002, the members of Khuddam ul-Furqan hoped the party would become a political vehicle to bring Taleban, especially those from Loya Paktia and neighbouring Ghazni, into the new post-2001 political dispensation.

Other key members in 2002 included: Mawlawi Abdul Hakim Mujahed, the former (but never officially recognised) Taleban ambassador to the UN, Qari Habibullah Fawzi, the former Taleban diplomat in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, and Mawlawi Rahmatullah Wahidyar, the former deputy minister for Martyrs and Refugees for the Taleban and the Rabbani governments, who also in September 2011, introduced – according to the government, unwittingly – the man who would murder the former president and head of the High Peace Council, Burhanuddin Rabbani. Fawzi’s father, an alem from Ghazni, had been one of the selected members of the 2002 Emergency Loya Jirga. (For more detail on Khuddam ul-Furqan, its history and its influence within the High Peace Council, see Thomas Ruttig’s paper for AAN here.)

According to Anand Gopal, Arsala Rahmani and Mawlawi Abdul Sattar Seddiqi organised a meeting of the entire senior leadership of the Taleban except for Mulla Omar, in Karachi, in 2002. They agreed in principal, wrote Gopal, ‘to find a way for them to return to Afghanistan and abandon the fight, but lack of political will by the central government in Kabul and opposition from some sections of the US leadership meant that such approaches were ultimately ignored.’

Gopal has documented the way efforts by Taleban like Rahmani to make peace during those early years were spurned, while, at the same time, predatory actions against leading former Taleban commanders by some members of the new post-2001 government and their US military allies (including imprisonment, torture, death in detention and double-crossing) sparked off the insurgency.

Starting in 2003, Khuddam also attempted to work through the UN, with the group expressing its support for the UN’s role in the peace process and asking for UNAMA’s good offices to establish contacts with the Karzai administration. Its representatives said that Khuddam wanted to become a political movement in Afghanistan and needed UNAMA’s support so that its leaders would not be ‘delivered to Guantanamo’; they said, ‘all people outside the country’ should be allowed to return and contribute ‘to help the Afghan people’. At the same time, Khuddam was open about its rejection of what it saw the dominant role of the former Northern Alliance in the Kabul government and its concern about the role of ‘secular’ politicians there. It also criticised the US troops for mainly ‘targeting Pashtuns’.

It was only in 2005 that President Karzai gave permission for Rahmani’s group to come to Kabul, just as the growing Taleban insurgency made these potential peace-makers of little practical value. The reconciliation of Rahmani and the others was carried out through political sponsorship at the highest levels (National Security Council, plus the personal endorsement of President Karzai). Rahmani, himself, was appointed a senator by the President. Others from his group ran for parliament, but only as individuals; Khuddam was not allowed to register as a political party. As Michael Semple wrote in his 2009 USIP study on reconciliation, ‘[the group’s] activities were kept far too limited to make any strategically significant impact.’

Indeed by 2005, the group’s move to Kabul may well have looked to former comrades like appeasement. Those among the Taleban who wanted to fight were then in the ascendency. They were to include former comrades of Rahmani in the Mansur wing of Harakat. It remains, after the Haqqani network, the second major Taleban network in the south-east, with its current leader, Abdul Latif Mansur, sitting on the Quetta Council.

Nevertheless, the Taleban/Harakat/Khuddam ul-Furqan group in Kabul continued to argue for a negotiated settlement to the war, including with the publication of a seven-point peace plan, ‘Peace, Step by Step’ in 2008, which recommended measures for confidence building, round-table discussions and a loya jirga.(2) Rahmani and his comrades were eventually to come to more public prominence in 2010. Among the seventy members appointed to the newly-established High Peace Council seven, possibly eight, of them were stalwarts of this group.

Rahmani had served in successive Afghan regimes since 1992. He was a madrassa-educated scholar, born in Paktika in the late 1930s/early 1940s. He fought in the anti-Soviet jihad with Harakat-e Enqelab-e Islami, becoming a major commander and, for a time, in charge of the group’s main base in Shahikot in the mountains in the south-west of Paktia, from where mujahedin could launch operations into four provinces.(3) When the pro-communist government of Dr Najibullah fell in 1992, many Harakatis served in the mujahedin governments between 1992 and 1994. Rahmani sat on the Supreme Court.

However, it was with the rise of the Taleban in 1994 that Harakat found a more natural fit. Members of its youth wing, including Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil and Abdurrahman Zahed (who would go on to be the Taleban’s foreign and deputy foreign ministers), made the initial contacts with the new group and, later that same year, Harakat’s leader, Mawlawi Muhammad Nabi Muhammadi (who had served as an MP in Zaher Shah’s parliament), declared allegiance to Mulla Omar and that Harakat would dissolve itself into the Taleban. In the Emirate government, Rahmani was appointed minister for higher and vocational education and several comrades became deputy ministers. This knot of former Harakatis, with the Khuddam ul-Furqan network also remaining intact, was powerful enough within the Taleban that the district of Zurmat, where many of them came from, was nick-named ‘Little Kandahar’.

Rahmani, then, had featured in most of the governments since 1992 and had networks both inside the government and in the armed opposition. He was deputy head of the High Peace Council (HPC) and head of its prisoner release committee; he actively pressed for the release of Taleban. After the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani last year, Rahmani served as acting head of the HPC, until the appointment of Rabbani’s son, Salahuddin, last month. Yet despite Rahmani’s position and his regular comments in the press (see, for example here and here, it is simply inaccurate to call him a ‘peace broker’, a ‘senior peace negotiator’ or a ‘peace envoy’. The High Peace Council has proved to be a toothless organisation and the locus of any negotiations have not lain here.

There were warm words today, from the US embassy – Rahmani’s killing was a ‘tragedy’ – and from ISAF – ‘his decision to help make the future brighter for Afghans serves as an inspiration to us all and his contributions will be missed’ (read the full statement here)(4), as well as from the government, but the time when Rahmani might have made a difference, in the early years of the Karzai government, has been long gone.

As to his assassination, the only known details so far are that gunmen in a white Toyota Corolla – the most popular model of car in Afghanistan – killed Rahmani as he drove to work close to his house in Dehburi, in western Kabul. According to some reports, the weapon had a silencer which, if true, would be unusual in this war.

On 3 May, the Taleban said they would be targeting High Peace Council members, but today, spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed, said they had not killed Rahmani.

‘It is true that at the beginning of our spring operation we announced that among many other entities and individuals we will target members of the so-called High Peace Council,” Mujahid told the New York Times, ‘and we are still committed to our campaign against the so-called members of the so-called High Peace Council, but again I insist that the Taliban were not behind today’s assassination.’

(Deleted: No other group has claimed responsibility.) Amendment on 14 May 2012: Meanwhile, Afghan media report (herehere and here), in turn referring to Pakistani media, that a Qari Hamza has claimed responsibility for the murder in the name of a ‘Mulla Dadullah (Feda’in) Front’. This group has occasionally popped up in media reports since the death of Mulla Dadullah, a notorious Taleban commander killed in Helmand in 2007. In two different reports from December 2008, an Afghan news agency mentioned one Mulla Shahabuddin Atal as a ‘commander’ then as the spokesman of Mulla Dadullah’s front and a Mulla Faruq Mansur as ‘the front leader’, after it had claimed responsibility for the abduction of a number of ANA soldiers in Chinarto district of Uruzgan. In the latest reference so far (at least as known to us), it was mentioned as responsible for a suicide attack in Kandahar in April 2010 by another Afghan news agency. It is not clear, however, whether this front is a genuine splinter group or just a network within the Taleban that is allowed, or allows itself, some greater autonomy than usually would be tolerated by the Taleban leadership.

1) Meaning ‘Servants of the Discerner’. Al-Furqan is one of the titles of the Qur’an and refers to its attribute of distinguishing good from evil. The party’s origins are somewhat unclear. Even members give different years for its establishment, either 1964 and 1966. The first post-2001 leader was a member of the Mujaddidi family, Hazrat Muhammad Amin Mujaddedi, in reverence to the party’s founding institution, the madrassa, Nur al-Madaris, in Andar district, a few kilometres outside Ghazni city. Mujaddidi was later sidelined.

2) The first step recommended the Afghan government convincing the international powers that a military solution to the conflict was not possible, followed by initial contacts between all parties focussing on confidence building measures, including an end to the Taleban destroying civilian infrastructure, a release of some Taleban prisoners and no more international military operations unless approved by the Afghan government. The plan’s next step was the creation of a jirga of mutually acceptable Afghans who would work out a peace plan, followed by round table talks with all parties, with UN and Organisation of Islamic Conference support, and security guarantees for Taleban participants, then the de-listing of Taleban by the UN Security Council, a ceasefire and a loya jirga which would vote on the round table discussions and would proceed to end the war. See Thomas Ruttig’s paper cited above.

3) Shahikot was also the site, in March 2002, of the last major holdout of the Taleban and al-Qaida after the 2001 US intervention; in the battle which is known by the US as Operation Anaconda, the Taleban brought down a US helicopter, but were completely defeated. Four nearby villages were also destroyed and the population fled; in 2006, when this author visited, they had only partially been rebuilt.

4) Rahmani himself was only taken off the UN sanctions list in July 2011; that meant he could travel and his assets were unfrozen.

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Thematic Category: Political Landscape