Region | Rabbani's Assassination and the Endless Circle of Afghan Violence
by NUSHIN ARBABZADAH
22 Sep 2011 01:19
[ opinion ] There was poetic justice to the veteran Afghan jihadi leader Burhanuddin Rabbani's death yesterday at the hands of anti-state terrorists. After all, Rabbani began his own political career as a rebel, intent on deposing the governments of Zahir Shah and Daud Khan in the 1970s, and those of the communist regimes in the 1980s and early 1990s. In a political career that spanned 40 years, Rabbani spent more than half trying to bring down the Afghan state through guerrilla warfare.
It was ironic that he was killed at a time when for once he was pursuing peace rather than war. With the Taliban's ongoing assassination campaign of key state figures, the aging jihadi leaders of Rabbani's generation are getting a taste of their own medicine. This time around, they are the state and the state is once again under attack by violent, self-righteous rebels. Little wonder, then, that Rabbani's fellow jihadi leader, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, reacted with a melodramatic proclamation that his heart was bleeding drop by drop for Rabbani. The Taliban are out for revenge, intent on killing every jihadi leader that came (or, in many cases, came back) to power in 2011 with the help of the U.S. army. The situation is eerily reminiscent of the early 1990s, when the Soviets effectively abandoned their Afghan partners, supplying weapons but no help.
To betray, subvert, and rebel was the way Rabbani responded to the very state that had given him a chance in 1968 to study Islamic law in the most prestigious university of the Muslim world, the Al-Azhar of Cairo. Kabul's plan was to create a new class of highly trained imams, who would establish a coherent, reformed justice system. The half-baked imams of Afghanistan's valleys and villages had not only frequently failed to administer justice, yielding widespread public discontent, they were also a constant source of anti-state agitation. To train and co-opt them seemed like the ultimate solution for the recurrent problem of religious uprisings and popular protests against a failing justice system.
In Rabbani's case, however, Kabul's plan backfired. The young scholar had his own dream of leadership. Returning to the Afghan capital equipped with a graduate degree, instead of putting his knowledge at the service of his people, he decided to fight the very state that had blessed him with a scholarship, setting up an Islamist opposition party in 1971. In 1973, when Daud Khan came to power through a bloodless coup d'état, Rabbani fled to Pakistan, running his Jamiat-e Islami from the safety of exile. In the end, his murderers came from the same land that had once given Rabbani refuge to engineer his violent rebellion against a legitimate state. Even more ironic is the fact that he knew his killers, keeping in touch and trusting them even though he was aware of their Taliban links. The famous Afghan strategy of keeping one's options open backfired this time -- the Taliban are an entirely different breed from their flexible mujahedin predecessors.
But it is still true that the structure, strategy, and geography of the primary anti-state movements have remained essentially the same in Afghanistan since the 1970s. Since then the rebels and the state kept swapping places, taking power and subverting it interchangeably, depending on luck and the might and commitment of their international backers. If in the first three decades of his career Rabbani was attacking the state, in the early 1990s he stopped fighting only because he himself had become the state. But his 1992 presidency was brief and soon he found himself forced into exile by a new group of rebels, the Taliban. In 2001, luck was once again on Rabbani's side. The Taliban made international enemies, leading the United States to oust them after 9/11. The game of musical chairs took an unexpected turn and Rabbani once again became part of the state while the Taliban resumed the role of rebels. The actors swap places but the game of violence and shifting power goes on.
With such a bewildering record of rebellions, shifting alliances, and switching of sides, it is little wonder that the "enemy" is inveterately ghostlike and altogether uncertain in Afghanistan. Once upon a time, Rabbani, too, was a leader of a flexible ghost army. The fact that he died unwittingly embracing his own killer shows that for today's Afghan government and its American partners, the enemy remains a shifty ghost whose true loyalty can never be pinned down reliably. It was this same lack of a consistent profile that allowed a Quetta shopkeeper last year to present himself as a key Taliban negotiator. The imposter was only found out when he came face to face with President Karzai, but by then he had already pocketed large sums of money.
This time around, the negotiator's face was known to Rabbani. According to the Taliban spokesman, the negotiator used to be a frequent guest and a trusted visitor -- which is why, instead of being searched for explosives, he was greeted with a hug. Such informality is typical in Afghan culture, where people rely on unspoken codes of honor rather than vigorous background checks to distinguish between friend and enemy. It was a mistake to rely on the Taliban's Afghanness. After all, their abuse in assassinations of Afghans' sartorial symbols of identity, the turban and the burqa, demonstrates that they no longer adhere to traditional codes of honor. They are something else altogether.
The circle of violence that Rabbani helped precipitate during the peaceful decade of the 1970s thus turned in grimly logical fashion yesterday, with Rabbani literally and metaphorically embracing violent death at a rebel's hands. What goes around comes around and this, in a phrase, is the history of Afghan politics.
Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau