Kim Sengupta: A controversial, charming man who had a key role to play


Burhannudin Rabbani enjoyed being a controversial and contentious figure, fond of declaring that anyone in Afghanistan's public life who was against compromise was selfish and did not have the country's best interest at heart.

He was not, he would stress, like his fellow Northern Alliance commander Abdul Rashid Dostum, who changed sides with alacrity and frequency during the long and bitter years of the civil war. When, at a lunch Rabbani had organised with journalists, I suggested that it was people like Dostum who had inspired the old joke: "You can never buy some Afghans – you have got to rent them by the hour," he laughed uproariously. Rabbani would say that it was his desire to put Afghanistan first which led him to accept President Karzai's offer of becoming the head of the Peace Council set up to negotiate with the enemy. It meant he had to put aside his long standing antipathy towards the Taliban, against who he had fought some of the most vicious battles of the conflict.

Rabbani would say privately that he did not trust many of the Taliban and other militant groups, while denying vehemently that this had anything to do with the fact that he was a Tajik and they were, predominantly, Pashtun.

The main problem, he would claim, was the malign interest of the ISI, the Pakistani intelligence service, who controlled and directed swathes of the insurgency.

Rabbani had hoped that his scholarly knowledge of Islam and his track record of defending the faith against the Russians and then the semi-secular left-wing regimes of Babrak Karmal and Najibullah would open up a degree of common ground with the Talibs.

But he despaired of what he saw as their simplistic and reactionary stance in the interpretation of religion. In particular he remained alarmed at their subjugation of women, contrasting it with his own time in the Mujaheddin, when he had insisted that everything possible should be done to facilitate education for women. Rabbani was not, however, a paragon of wisdom and restraint in the civil war.

Like the other participants, he had blood on his hands, especially during the storming of Kabul in the last days of the Communist government and the bitter internecine strife which followed among the Mujaheddin.

The Afghan capital was shelled relentlessly, causing a huge number of civilian deaths.

As journalists, most of us failed to put Rabbani under critical questioning for his culpability in this lethal episode. This was partly to do with the fact that he seemed a better person than many who had been through that period and since reached positions of power.

It was also because many in the media fell for the charm of the old man with bright eyes often crinkled in a smile over the flowing white beard who did seem capable of bringing people together.