By D Suba Chandran
Early this month, Burhanuddin Rabbani, former President of Afghanistan was assassinated by a Taliban suicide bomber. Why did the Taliban brutally dispose off Rabbani, the leader of Afghan Peace Council, which was entrusted with the responsibility of negotiating with the Taliban? Does the killing signify the end of rapprochement between the Karzai led government and the Taliban? Or, does the Taliban harbour any other strategic plans and see Rabbani as a stumbling block, just like Ahmad Shah Massoud who was subsequently assassinated in 2001?
The similarity between the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud and Burhanuddin Rabbani is startling. Both were ethnic Tajiks and former Mujahideen leaders, who fought against the Soviet troops during the 1980s. Of all the Mujahideen leaders, both were highly prominent for their independent thinking, visible in its stance outside the ISI-CIA combination during the 1980s and the 1990s when the Taliban was on its offensive. And both remained highly critical of Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan until their death.
Thus, it is important to revisit the assassination of September 2001 to understand what has occurred almost ten years later. Ahmed Shah Massoud was a strong leader with military acumen, though he was ousted from Kabul by the Taliban with support from Pakistan. Knowing well that the US attack in 2001 will invite a back lash, the Taliban and al Qaeda sought to neutralize the most powerful Afghan leader, whom the international community would have supported against the Taliban. It was no coincidence that Massoud was assassinated a few days before 9/11.
Rabbani’s assassination assumes significance for a similar reason today. With the 2014 deadline fast approaching, it is important for the international community to transfer power and governance of Afghanistan to a relatively strong government. Hamid Karzai, the current President, unfortunately is not able to provide a stable governance structure, which can instill confidence amongst the Afghan people and the international community. Karzai’s government exhibits weakness and corruption; if there was to be an alternative Rabbani would have proven to be a strong candidate.
Perhaps, the Taliban has already started implementing its strategy for 2014. If there has to be a change in the political leadership of Afghanistan, Taliban wants to ensure that there are no alternatives available. Killing Rabbani fits very much into this strategy and the overall objectives of Taliban. First, those who believe in the existence of a moderate Taliban or expect that the Taliban would be willing to share power with Karzai or any other political leadership will be forced to reconsider their strategy. Taliban has made it apparent through its actions that it is unlikely to share power with any other political group after 2014. In fact, if they can survive the assault led by the combined militaries of the international community, why would they live in peace and share power with any other entity? It will rather target capturing other political platforms – most obviously, the political leadership or tribal jirgas. Rabbani’s assassination might be the first in such a series.
Second, it is important to gauge how the minority communities of Afghanistan view the assassination of Rabbani. Rabbani, though a Tajik, commanded respect from various ethnic communities in Afghanistan, for instance, the Uzbeks and the Hazaras, whom the Taliban had butchered in the 1990s. These three minority communities are extremely apprehensive of the pashtuns dominating the Afghan political structure. All these equations were carefully considered by Karzai (an ethnic Pashtun)before making Rabbani the head of the High Peace Council and entrusting him with the responsibility of internal reconciliation. It was meant to be a master stroke so that all ethnic communities could breathe in peace.
Karzai believed that under Rabbani’s leadership the High Council would not negotiate with the Taliban directly and reach any understanding that would undermine the role of these minority communities. Now that Rabbani is assassinated, Karzai will find it extremely difficult to find a replacement and to convince the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras that a reconciliation process could be initiated at all.
Since each of these ethnic communities have their own militias, (though under control now) the danger of violent confrontation cannot be totally ruled out now. Rabbani’s assassination has made the internal reconciliation process amongst the ethnic communities anything but peaceful. Consequently, the international community should at present prepare for a civil war situation within Afghanistan.
Finally, the assassination also highlights where the Taliban stands vis-à-vis the internal peace process and reconciliation. Many, especially in Pakistan and the US, have been trying hard to convince themselves and the rest of the international community that there is a section within the Taliban, which is moderate and which can be negotiated with. This might be true to a certain extent but the “immoderate” sections within the Taliban have other plans.
As the head of the council, Rabbani was delegated to negotiate with the Taliban by way of a strong backing from the Afghan Parliament, pashtuns and other minority communities. By assassinating Rabbani, the Taliban has sent a clear message to the Peace Council and the reconciliation process: Rest in Peace. Amen.
D Suba Chandran
Director, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies & Visiting Professor, Pakistan Studies Programme, Jamia Millia Islamia
email: [email protected]