Burhanuddin Rabbani: Politician who led Afghanistan's High Peace Council and served as president

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was killed by a suicide bomber at his home in Kabul, was at the forefront of politics during some of the most turbulent years in Afghanistan's history.

A former president of the country, he had recently been appointed head of the High Peace Council, which was established to work towards a political solution to the decade-long war alongside members of the Taliban who were willing to renounce violence and work within the new constitution. "His martyrdom is an expression of his ultimate sacrifice to restore harmony in this country," the HPC said. His murder dampened hopes of furthering peace negotiations with Taliban insurgents and will also hamper efforts to keep in check regional and ethnic rivalries, which feed the insurgency.

Rabbani had been the leader of a powerful mujahideen group that had fought against the Soviet Union. He served as Afghanistan's president from 1992 to 1996, when he was deposed following the Taliban take-over of the country. Although seen by many as a controversial figure, Rabbani was nevertheless seen as one of the country's cleverest and most influential politicians and as such was a pragmatist who viewed engagement in the reconciliation process as a way of securing his position, and that of his Northern Alliance, in a post-US Afghanistan.

Rabbani's assassination was the latest and most high-profile in a series of killings of senior politicians and security commanders in recent months, and perhaps the most significant since the US-led invasion toppled the Taliban regime in 2001. In July, President Karzai's half-brother Ahmed Karzai was killed at home in Kandahar by his own head of security. Two months earlier, General Daud Daud, the highest-ranking police commander in northern Afghanistan, died in a suicide bomb attack. The latest attack, in Kabul's supposedly secure diplomatic zone, highlighted the Taliban's daring and reinforced their claim that no one was safe wherever they may be. The attack came in the wake of a day-time assault by insurgents on the US Embassy and Nato headquarters that deepened a sense of insecurity in the capital.

Burhanuddin Rabbani was born in the largely Tajik town of Faizabad, on the Kokcha River in the north-eastern province of Badakhshan, in 1940. Upon finishing school, he attended a religious school in the capital, Kabul, before enrolling at the university where he studied Islamic Law and Theology. Soon after graduating in 1963 he was employed in the law department, where he became known as an outspoken critic of the secular reforms of King Zahir Shah's regime.

In 1968, Rabbani completed a Masters degree in Islamic philosophy at the Al-Azhar University in Cairo. He then returned to Afghanistan, where the High Council of the Jamiat-e Islami party, a radical Islamist movement, gave him the task of organising students to campaign against the government's secularisation policies. By 1972 he was the party's leader but fled to Pakistan in 1974 when the government sought to arrest him.

With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Rabbani became a key figure in the Mujahideen, guerrilla fighters who fought the Soviet-backed government; according to analysts, the work done by Rabbani in the universities had already led to the setting-up of many of the Islamic groups which later became the Mujahideen. Jamiat-e Islami was one of seven Pakistan-based anti-communist groups, known as the Peshawar Seven, backed by the US and other Western countries as well as China, which waged war against the Soviets, who eventually withdrew in 1989. In 1992, after a bloody civil war, Rabbani led his party, which had evolved into a successful fighting unit, back into Kabul as the Communist-backed regime collapsed following Moscow's withdrawal.

Inheriting a country in disarray,Rabbani became president initially for a year, on a rotating presidency, before the government split along factional and ethnic lines. This led to a second brutal civil war that was halted only by the rise of the Taliban, who had emerged from among the PashtunMujahideen to capture Kabul in 1996. Remarkably, Rabbani had so far clung to power, despite his troops carrying out widespread human rights abuses. During his tenure, he enforced strict Islamic codes in Kabul, closing cinemas, banning alcohol and forcing women to wear the hijab. Public hangings were carried out in a park near Kabul's central bazaar.

With their fall, Rabbani and hisfollowers retreated to their homelands, but he soon emerged again as an influential figure, nominal leader of thepowerful Northern Alliance, formed mainly from minority Tajiks and Uzbeks, who opposed Taliban rule. In 2001, in response to the attacks of 11 September, British and American forces and the Afghan United Front – or Northern Alliance – launched Operation Enduring Freedom, invading Afghanistan with the goal of dismantling the Al-Qa'eda network and ending its use of Afghanistan as a base. The Taliban regime was removed from power and the Northern Alliance swept into Kabul. Rabbani headed the Jamiat-e Islami party.

Initially in opposition to the US and UN-backed President Hamid Karzai, Rabbani and the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance eventually sided with the government, although he had no further major political role. Naturally, Rabbani had many enemies, as he espoused what some argued were more enlightened Islamic principles, anathema to Taliban hardliners. One such principle was his support for the right of women to work and the right of girls to enter higher education.

In late 2010, backed by many in the international community, Karzaiestablished the High Peace Council with Rabbani as its surprise head, but as a Tajik leader who had fought the predominantly Pashtun Taliban he was viewed with suspicion by some Taliban leaders, so little progress was made. His death has been seen by someobservers as a direct attack on thepolitical process.

In addition, like some other high-profile leaders, Rabbani was dogged by allegations of corruption, while several human rights groups had accused him of war crimes committed during the vicious fighting that killed or displaced hundreds of thousands of Afghans in the early 1990s. His death may further upset the delicate and at times increasingly fraught relations between Afghanistan's different ethnic groups. The beaten 2009 presidential candidate, Abdullah Abdullah, said, "He was a jihadi leader. From the beginning to the end of his life he did his best to bring peace and stability to this country, and it is a big loss for all Afghan people."

Burhanuddin Rabbani, politician and religious scholar: born Faizabad, Badakhshan Province, Afghanistan 1940; died Kabul 20 September 2011.