End of a warlord

Print edition : October 21, 2011

Burhanuddin Rabbani. The suicide bomber who killed him had explosives hidden in his turban. - VAHID SALEMI/AP

The assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani by a suicide bomber on September 20 is the latest high-profile terrorist incident in the country.

THE assassination of former President Burhanuddin Rabbani by a suicide bomber on September 20 is the latest high-profile terrorist incident in Afghanistan. In the last couple of months, leading Afghan political figures and senior government officials have been successfully targeted by the Taliban.

In the middle of July, President Hamid Karzai's half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who was the strongman of Kandahar, perished in a hail of bullets. The killer was the head of his trusted security detail. A few days later, Mohammed Jan Khan, a top presidential adviser, was killed in Kabul. Ghulam Haidar Hameedi, the Mayor of Kandahar, was eliminated on July 27. He was a close ally of Wali Karzai. Mohammed Daud Daud, the police chief in charge of northern Afghanistan and the commander of the elite 303 Pamir Corps, was killed in a Taliban bomb attack on May 28. President Karzai himself has survived four serious assassination attempts so far.

The success rate for the Taliban this year has been chilling. From 2001 to 2010, only a handful of Afghan leaders died at the hands of the resistance. But this year, the situation seems to have changed dramatically. It is obvious from the figures that the Taliban and its allies can now choose their targets at will. The recent Taliban operations reveal indirectly that the group has infiltrated the higher echelons of the bureaucracy and the security services. In the past three months, the Taliban has launched three big attacks on important targets inside Kabul, using suicide bombers and commandos with rocket-propelled grenades.

After a suicide attack in January 2010, the United States Army had set up 25 security checkpoints, together dubbed as the Ring of Steel, around the capital. The security zone was manned by 800 officers of the Kabul city Police Command Battalion. The Taliban has been adept at circumventing the Ring of Steel, no doubt aided and abetted by sympathisers in the Afghan security services. As it is, Afghan Army soldiers and police personnel have been routinely turning their guns on their American patrons. According to North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) figures, between March 2009 and June 2011, 57 foreign troops were killed in 19 attacks.

At the time of his demise, the 71-year-old Rabbani was the head of Afghanistan's High Peace Council. The council, formed with much fanfare last year, was trying to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban on behalf of the Afghan government. President Karzai had made the signing of a peace deal with the Taliban his highest priority. The Barack Obama administration had given its tacit support to the move. But the Taliban, according to all available evidence, has so far refused to enter into meaningful talks with the U.S.-supported government in Kabul. It has repeatedly stated that serious talks can only begin after the U.S.-led occupation forces leave the country.

Besides, the choice of Rabbani was a controversial one as he was the former leader of the Northern Alliance, which was at war with the Taliban until the time the Americans invaded the country. Rabbani was also known to be close to Iran and India. The two countries were major supporters of the Northern Alliance. Pakistan, always wary of India's growing clout in Afghanistan, never really trusted Rabbani. One reason why Karzai chose Rabbani was to get the support of the leaders and the warlords of the erstwhile Northern Alliance for his ambitious plans to bring peace to Afghanistan.

Initially, Rabbani took his job seriously. The Peace Council was provided with a large amount of cash by the government $200 million according to reports in the Western media. He crisscrossed Afghanistan in a bid to establish contacts with lower-level Taliban leaders and sympathisers. He travelled to various capitals, including Washington, New Delhi and Teheran, to keep the governments informed about the progress being made in the reconciliation bid and to establish contacts with exiled Afghans. Earlier in the year, the Afghan government had claimed that senior figures in the Taliban had started talking with the Peace Council. It later turned out that the key person negotiating on behalf of the Taliban was an impostor who took the Afghan government for a ride. In recent weeks, Rabbani had started criticising the Taliban openly saying that the group would never agree to negotiate in good faith.

Esmatullah, the suicide bomber who killed Rabbani, had said that he represented the Quetta Shura (the Taliban leadership headed by Mullah Omar). According to reports, the Afghan President, who was in New York, had urged Rabbani to meet urgently with Esmatullah, who had been staying in Kabul as the guest of the High Peace Council for over a week. The assassin could walk in to meet Rabbani with a bomb hidden in his turban.

With the U.S. downsizing its troops rapidly, Karzai is in a hurry for some sort of a rapprochement with the Taliban. He cut short his official visit to the U.S., where he had gone to attend the annual United Nations General Assembly meet, after hearing of Rabbani's death. While addressing a joint press conference with Obama, Karzai emphasised that Rabbani's martyrdom would not deter his government from the quest for peace. Obama described the death of Rabbani as a tragic loss and said that the U.S. remained committed to creating a path where Afghanistan and its people can live in freedom and safety and in security and prosperity.

But the putative peace talks could now be put on the back burner. Senior politicians and warlords identified with the Northern Alliance have been heaping insults on the Taliban after the assassination of Rabbani, saying that negotiations should not have begun in the first place. Now they are urging their supporters to start preparing for a military confrontation with the Taliban once again. The influential Tajik minority may distance itself further from the Pashtun- dominated government in Kabul.

The Taliban has denied online that it was responsible for the assassination. The U.S. and the Afghan government are hinting at the involvement of a group that is aligned with the Taliban. Washington had blamed the Haqqani group for the 20-hour siege of the U.S. embassy and the NATO headquarters in Kabul in early September. Admiral Mike Mullen, the U.S. military chief, told the media that he could not confirm that the Haqqani group was behind the killing of Rabbani. All the same, U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta told the visiting chief of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Shuja Pasha, in the third week of September that he wanted Islamabad immediately to crack down on the Haqqani group, which has strong support in North Waziristan along the border with Afghanistan. Panetta went on to threaten operational steps against Pakistan if it did not stop supporting the Haqqani group.

General John Allen, commander of the U.S.-led force in Afghanistan, pays his last respects as the coffin bearing Rabbani's body is displayed at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on September 23.-SHAH MARAI/AFP

Admiral Mullen, in his meeting with Pakistani Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani in the second week of September, demanded immediate military action against the Haqqanis. On September 22, he told the U.S. Congress that the Haqqani group was the veritable arm of the ISI.

Washington and New Delhi allege that there is a nexus between the Haqqani group and the ISI. President Karzai too has made similar allegations on various occasions. The Indian government blames the Haqqanis for the July 2008 attack on its embassy in Kabul that killed 41 people and another car bomb attack outside the embassy the next year. Officials in Islamabad, on the other hand, say that Washington is unable to come to terms with the resurgence of the Taliban and is trying to pin the blame for its military and political setbacks on Pakistan.

Rabbani, a former warlord, rose to fame fighting against the Communist-led government in Afghanistan which had come to power in the late 1970s. In December 1979, the Soviet Union despatched a force in response to an SOS from the beleaguered government in Kabul.

Washington almost immediately started arming and training the fundamentalist mujahideen (holy warriors) for a war against the progressive Najibullah government which was intent on land reforms and the emancipation of women. The U.S. found a useful ally in Rabbani, the leader of the Jamaat-i-Islami Party.

Another favourite was the Haqqani group, led by the father-and-son duo of Jalaluddin and Sirajuddin, which was specially trained by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and supplied with lethal hand-fired Stinger surface-to-air missiles via the ISI. The journalist Steve Coll, in his well-received book Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and bin Laden wrote that the CIA and the ISI came to rely on Haqqani for testing and experimentation with new weapons systems and tactics. CIA officers, according to Coll, regarded Haqqani as a proven commander who could put a lot of men under arms at short notice. He had the CIA's full support.

After the Mujahideen victory and the takeover of Kabul, Rabbani gained an unsavoury reputation as a power-hungry politician. In the bloody upheaval that followed the collapse of the Najibullah government, it was Rabbani who emerged as the President of Afghanistan by virtually seizing power. Rabbani was President from 1992 to 1996. He was not accepted by many of the other American-financed and trained warlords, mainly from the dominant Pashtun clans, after he forcibly took over the presidency. Thousands of innocent Afghans perished when Rabbani was at the helm as the mujahideen warlords clashed frequently over turf, money and power.

After being driven out of Kabul by the Taliban in 1996, Rabbani became the nominal leader of the Northern Alliance. The military leader of the Northern Alliance, which comprised non-Pashtun ethnic groups, was the more charismatic Ahmad Shah Masood. Masood was the first Afghan leader to fall prey to a suicide bomber. He was killed on September 7, 2001, two days before the terror attacks on the U.S.

The two events may not be connected, but the U.S. support for the mujahideen, followed by the invasion of Afghanistan, has definitely impacted on South Asia with a devastating effect. For the Americans, the impending Taliban takeover of Afghanistan could be a case of the chickens coming home to roost.

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