One of the most senior Afghan leaders has been killed in a suicide bombing at his home in Kabul. Burhanuddin Rabbani was a founder and leading activist in the Afghan Islamist movement in the 1960s and 1970s, one of the seven leaders of the (Sunni) mujahedin parties in the 1980s and – at least formally – president for almost a decade. More recently, he has been an MP and chairman of the High Peace Council, charged with seeking to make peace with the Taleban. AAN senior analyst, Kate Clark assesses Rabbani’s life and what his death may mean for the prospects of peace.
Burhanuddin Rabbani and a reported three other people were killed, and Massum Stanekzai, Secretary of the High Peace Council, was seriously injured in the suicide attack which was carried out apparently by a man (or possibly two men) whom Rabbani and Stanekzai believed had been sent from the Taleban leadership. The explosives were reportedly hidden in the man’s turban; he detonated them when he came forward to greet Rabbani with a hug.
Although many of the media reports referred to him as the lead peace negotiator, Rabbani’s record hardly merited the description of a ‘peace-maker’. Indeed, in relation to his most recent incarnation, many Afghans and observers remained sceptical of the High Peace Council and Rabbani’s role in it, questioning whether it was really set up as a serious body or something more cosmetic – designed to give the appearance that the government was seeking peace. Such scepticism, however, seems irrelevant this evening. Whether or not Rabbani and the High Peace Council were serious about making peace, if the Taleban claim this killing, it sends a powerful message that they are not interested in talking. This would make Rabbani’s assassination highly significant and dangerous for the prospects of an end to the war in Afghanistan.
The killing is poisonous in other ways, laying open again the fracture lines of the last real bout of civil war (1996-2001) when the ‘northerners’ – the old Northern Alliance, who were mainly non-Pashtuns – were fighting the largely Pashtun Taleban. Putting Rabbani in charge of the High Peace Council had been a way for President Karzai to try to reassure this constituency, who are on the whole not keen on a deal with the Taleban, that their interests would not be sold out in any negotiations.
For these northern jihadi leaders, already reeling from the killings of Generals Daud and Seyidkheili earlier this year, Rabbani’s assassination is a further blow to any confidence they might still have had that their interests would be protected. His killing will further harden sentiments against any deal making. Already one of the other major northern leaders, the governor of Balkh and Jamiat stalwart, Nur Muhammad Atta, has asked (on Tolo television), ‘How are we supposed to negotiate with these wild devils?’ Rabbani may not have been a peace-maker, but his killing may well harm the prospects for a negotiated end to the bloodshed.
The attack also ends the life of one of the major Afghan political figures of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
Rabbani’s beliefs eventually – and only through various historic accidents – helped shape the nation’s politics. Perhaps the most significant influence on his beliefs came when he travelled to Cairo in the late 1960s to study at the prestigious al-Azhar University. He returned a convert to the ideas of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan ul-Muslimin), determined to spread their ideology at home.* During the 1970s, he was an Islamist activist at that cauldron of ‘modern’ Afghan politics, Kabul University, where he taught Islamic law. He hooked up with more senior ‘Brotherhood’ figures whose names are now not so well known,** as well as with students who would, like him, become giants of the Afghan political stage in the following decade, particularly Ahmad Shah Massud and Gulbadin Hekmatyar.
The fault line which was to dog the Jamiat-e Islami and which eventually led to Hekmatyar’s breaking away and the bloody and continuing rivalry between the Jamiat and Hezb-e Islami ‘brothers’ was forged in the 1970s. Enmities developed largely over whether they should play a reformist, softly softly approach – Rabbani and Massud’s position – or pursue revolution, as favoured by Hekmatyar. The Islamists did indeed disastrously try to seize power in 1975.***
Ironically, it was three years later, when the communists (who had also been nurtured on the politics of Kabul University) successfully staged a coup d’etat, that the Islamists, Rabbani among them, were catapulted to an influence and power they could never have gained in more normal circumstances.
The money and arms sent by the US, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and others was channelled largely to the Islamist parties, enabling them to benefit from and control the popular jihad which had been sparked by the Soviet occupation. Rabbani’s influence dates from this period, when he was, not a field commander fighting the Red Army, but leader of the Jamiat-e Islami, sitting in Peshawar and receiving and doling out funds and weapons to mujahedin.
When the Najibullah regime fell in 1992 and the mujahedin took Kabul, what was supposed to be a revolving presidency among the various parties revolved only once, being passed on by Sibghatullah Mujaddedi to Rabbani in June 1992. Rabbani then clung to the Afghan presidency for almost a decade. His refusal in 1992 to pass on the leadership of the country became one of the bones of contention among the mujahedin parties,**** helping lead to ferocious fighting until the Taleban drove all the parties out of Kabul in 1996. Over the next five years, Rabbani found himself becoming president of an ever smaller rump state, until in the end, his ‘Islamic State of Afghanistan’ comprised only his home province of Badakhshan and bits of various other provinces, including the Panjshir Valley. When, in 2000, I went to Faizabad – a city famous for its multiple commanders – people remarked wryly that Rabbani was not even in control of the city, let alone the country.
Yet, he drove in his Mercedes the few dozen metres from his house to his office and swept grandly up a red carpet to greet me. Fortunately for him, few nations recognised the Taleban government which left him as the default officially recognised president – with control of printing the currency and of most of Afghanistan’s embassies – until the inauguration of Hamed Karzai in December 2001. Rabbani had flown back to Kabul to take up the reins of power immediately after the Taleban were ousted, returning to a capital which still associated him with the bloody civil war of the mid-1990s. In the few weeks Rabbani was in charge, he spent everything that was left in the Afghan treasury, an estimated 8 million dollars – a fact that he admitted without embarrassment: he had paid off his frontline commanders.
In the ten years since then, Rabbani never held such grand titles again. He served as an MP and, most recently, as the head of the High Peace Council. Yet, these official positions did not cover the full extent of his continuing influence – at the presidential palace, among the ulema and in the jihadi networks, especially among former Jamiat commanders, and as a major, northern, non-Pashtun leader. His death will reverberate.
* Rabbani was born in the village of Yaftal in Badakhshan and studied first there and then at the Abu Hanifa religious school in Kabul and the Faculty of Shari’a at the university where, on graduating, he was appointed professor. He subsequently went to al-Azhar.
** The senior figures at this time were Abdul Rahim Niazi, Engineer Habib ul-Rahman and Ghulam Muhammad Niazi. Ghulam Muhammad Niazi was the dean of the Sharia faculty of Kabul University, founded the first Islamist circle in 1957 and was jailed and executed during Daud’s short-lieved republic (1973-78). Abdul Rahim Niazi was the leader of the students’ wing of the Afghan Ikhwan who later morphed into Jamiat-e Islami. More on Jamiat’s post-2001 development in: Thomas Ruttig: Islamists, Leftists – and a Void in the Center. Afghanistan’s Political Parties and where they come from (1902-2006), Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, Kabul/Berlin 2006, read it here.
*** The added twist to the enmity – or so the story goes – was that, after Massud fled to Pakistan following the 1975 coup, Hekmatyar denounced him to Rabbani as a traitor and asked Rabbani to give him the ‘spy’. Rabbani, however, took Massud’s side.
**** Rabbani first postponed a leadership shura (the shura-ye hal-o-aqd) and then – so his opponents alleged – rigged it, ensuring it was dominated by Jamiat. The shura elected him president. His supporters always denied the charges of rigging.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020