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Deconstructing Rabbani's Assassination

By M. K. Bhadrakumar

It begins with a detached look at the bonding between him and Pakistan's military leadership.

The Afghans invariably had a twinkle in their eye when they referred to ‘Ustad.' Burhanuddin Rabbani was incomparable in the pantheon of colourful Afghan heroes. He evoked respect as an Islamic scholar, while his jihadi pedigree was impeccable; he was admired for the ease with which he criss-crossed Afghanistan's political and ethnic divides and yet he was by far the tallest of the Tajik leaders; he was endearing for his nameless vanities and yet was dangerously susceptible to pomp and flattery; he was feared for his political skills but he was also fickle-minded to the point of being unreliable; and, of course, he was adorable as a staunch nationalist.

Rabbani was a man of many parts. Unlike his Jamiat commander, Ahmed Shah Massoud who remained in Panjshir through the Afghan jihad in the 1980s, Rabbani was based in Pakistan and was one of the ‘Peshawar Seven' during the jihad of the 1980s, which, in turn, necessitated or enabled him to forge a close working relationship with Pakistan's military and security establishment, so much so that when the bitter rivalries over the leadership of the Mujahideen government in Kabul erupted in early-1992, the then Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif anointed him as the ‘interim president.' But then, Rabbani got so accustomed to the presidency that he wouldn't vacate it, and Islamabad couldn't dethrone him. Unsurprisingly, some bitterness followed when the Taliban forcefully drove him out of Kabul, but a cordial relationship resumed nonetheless when after a lap of absence he visited Islamabad in his new capacity as the head of the High Peace Council (entrusted with the mission to reconcile the Taliban). Pakistan's Army chief Parvez Kayani hosted him in the GHQ in Rawalpindi as a mark of honour to someone, who, despite the ebb and flow of time, remained a familiar figure, after all.

Any attempt to deconstruct Rabbani's assassination should begin with a detached look at the bonding between him and Pakistan's military leadership. No doubt, it was complex, enriched by Rabbani's networking with the ‘Islam Pasand' parties in Pakistan and the various ‘jihadi' elements in the region as well as with the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). Conceivably, Gen. Kayani saw him as a potential interlocutor who could help Pakistan reach out to the camp of non-Pashtuns, especially the ‘Panjshiris.' Rabbani had complicated equations with Massoud and the Panjshiris as a whole, and there were acute moments when the two sides barely tolerated each other. What helped the volatile equations going nonetheless was that without Rabbani as figurehead, the Shura-e-Nazar (headed by Massoud) would have remained provincial. Massoud needed Rabbani politically, and the ‘Ustad' lacked military skills while the commander made up for it.

Although the same cannot be said today for the street-smart ‘Panjshiris' of the post-Massoud era, they were still wary that Rabbani's influence remained consequential in vast swathes of the Tajik regions as far away as Ismail Khan's Herat in the west and the Ustad's native Gorno-Badakhshan in the remote Pamirs. Again, his excellent ties with Iran, his sagacity to keep lines open to the Taliban and his virulent ‘anti-Americanism' were also of interest to Pakistan. Therefore, despite initial apprehensions that the Northern Alliance (NA) saga brought Rabbani into proximity with India in the late 1990s, the Pakistani military leadership showed pragmatism by accepting him as the point person in an intra-Afghan dialogue. Arguably, Pakistan assessed that if any non-Pashtun leader had a chance of bringing the NA groups on board the reconciliation process, it was Rabbani.

Suffice to say, time will tell whether Pakistan suffered a grievous loss in Rabbani's assassination. The repercussions could be manifold. One, the hawkish ‘Panjshiris' and other intransigent NA groups will use Rabbani's assassination to block any accommodation with the Taliban, which indeed would be a disastrous slide to civil war. Two, an axis might develop between these intransigent NA elements and the United States on the basis of a congruence of interests. (This was what the NA suggested in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.) Equally, a polarisation would further isolate President Hamid Karzai. The U.S. agenda to corner Mr. Karzai gets a fillip in these changed circumstances. At any rate, the deck gets cleared now for the U.S. to mop up residual opposition to the strategic agreement that it is keen to conclude before the peace conference begins in Berlin in December.

Surely, the biggest gain for the U.S. from Rabbani's departure is that the idea of the ‘Afghan-owned' peace process that Mr. Karzai spearheaded (which Washington never really favoured) has come a cropper. With the non-Pashtun NA groups in rebellious mood, Mr. Karzai has a hard time carrying forward the dialogue with the Taliban. He cannot easily find a replacement for Rabbani. If the credibility of the High Peace Council was never really high, it is literally in tatters today. Besides, Mr. Karzai needs to focus on his own political survival as his isolation, which began with the murder of his half-brother Wali Karzai, becomes acute. His opponents in the Parliament challenge his constitutional authority. The government's functioning has suffered and the President is unable to get his cabinet posts filled. On the other hand, the Americans constantly pillory him for being ‘ineffectual' and hold him responsible for the failure of the U.S.'s Afghan strategy. An impression has been created that so long as Mr. Karzai remains in office, the drawdown of U.S. troops is hard to implement on the ground. It is more than a blame game. The U.S. would have preferred to directly handle on its own terms the reconciliation process with the Taliban, without involving Mr. Karzai (or Pakistan).

In sum, deconstructing the death of Rabbani produces strange patterns. Most certainly, those who ‘gained' include both the intransigent NA groups and the “alien mercenaries of organised terrorism,” as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad pithily described. What is absolutely certain is that Mr. Karzai has ‘lost' heavily. He needs to figure his way forward. Some fingers instinctively pointed at Pakistan for being responsible for Rabbani's murder — principally, those of irate NA elements who are jostling for political space and courting foreign sponsorship. The U.S., which is generally keen to pile blame on Pakistan at the present juncture didn't. The Indian statements also reserved judgment.

In Rabbani's last interview — with a Russian television channel — he admitted that he was skating on thin ice. He said: “Today, I cannot say that Mullah Omar has agreed to participate in the peaceful negotiations, or that he has denied this possibility completely. In my opinion, today the Taliban leadership has trends towards peace, and these trends do have a certain power. They realise that the country's security is in their interests as well. No doubt, presently there are divisions within the Taliban leadership operating in the country as well as beyond… We understand that there are issues within the movement, and there are certain forces that can cause problems… Some forces intend to undermine the peaceful process and the negotiations with the Pakistani government.

“Certainly, the people of Afghanistan do not want foreign troops to remain … and we don't want our nation's security to depend upon a foreign military presence. It is unacceptable… However, considering the critical security situation in our country, the lack of stability and the continuing armed clashes, we have to tolerate the foreign military presence.

“We have received assistance as well as certain commitments from the countries of the region, especially Pakistan, and we expect it to start making some practical steps… The biggest challenge [with Taliban] … is the issue of representation of negotiators and, again, a lot depends upon Pakistan's attitude… As soon as the government of Pakistan decides that it is time to seriously tackle the issue of peace in Afghanistan and undertake the task of providing their assistance and protection to our country, I'm sure the peace process will be out of the deadlock.”

It was a candid interview. Rabbani wasn't sure Mullah Omar was in the peace process, nor was he sure the Taliban supremo was conclusively rejecting it — the “unknown unknown,” as Donald Rumsfeld would say. Rabbani said the Afghan people opposed foreign occupation but he went on to acquiesce with U.S. military presence. He underscored there were forces that resented his dealings with Pakistan, but he complained that Pakistan wasn't cooperating, either — although it had mastery over the insurgents. Quite obviously, there was no fire in his belly and he seemed to be going forward for no greater reason than that there was no turning back.

Rabbani probably had the foreboding that a shroud of strategic ambiguity was surrounding him. The intriguing part is where he stood vis-à-vis the U.S, finally. His ‘anti-Americanism' was apparently mellowing. What, then, was the purpose of his mission to Tehran, which was his last port of call? Was he crossing a ‘redline'? Put plainly, Rabbani seemed to have juggled far too many balls in the air, which in today's Afghanistan meant inviting trouble — even for an Ustad.

The writer is a former diplomat.

Source: The Hindu, New Delhi