Rabbani: unlikely broker for Afghanistan peace

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Burhanuddin Rabbani, who led Afghan reconciliation efforts with the Taliban until his assassination on Tuesday, was a mercurial figure whose personal ambition made him an unlikely peace broker. President of Afghanistan during the 1992-1996 civil war that reduced much of Kabul to rubble, he had a reputation for lusting after power at any cost and leaves behind a legacy as a divisive figure with a poor human rights record. Returning to power briefly when the Taliban fell in 2001, Rabbani left the presidential palace to make way for Hamid Karzai but still tried to flex his political muscle from his villa in the capital.
It was there that the 71-year-old died at the hands of a Taliban suicide bomber wearing explosives in his turban. His credentials as a prominent anti-Soviet Tajik commander and religious party leader gave him a strong backing in the north and secured his role within the cabal of primary power players in Kabul. Tasked with heading the High Peace Council designed to forge peace with the Taliban, Rabbani spent months shuttling from country to country to secure the backing of regional leaders.
But high-profile bartering aside, behind closed doors the insurgents had no trust in the man who once led forces against them.
The Taliban have publicly refused to enter into official talks with Karzai’s Western-backed government and dismissed the High Peace Council (HPC) as a US initiative.
“His real role was preeminent wheeler-dealer who travelled from India to Iran to Pakistan on the fumes of a dying peace effort,” said Afghanistan analyst for International Crisis Group, Candace Rondeaux.
“Like many Afghan politicians of the mujahedeen era he was driven in large part by a personal quest for power. It could never be said he was a unifier.”
But Rabbani garnered respect for his ability to “manoeuvre his way back to power again and again”, she added.
Rahimullah Yusufzai, a Pakistani expert on Afghan affairs, recalls Rabbani from his anti-Soviet days doling out supplies to mujahedeen fighters from a comfortable base in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar. Describing that period as the “high mark” of Rabbani’s career, Yusufzai said he only maintained prestige and power because of his status as a warlord whose support in the northern, non-Pashtun power base was crucial to Karzai.
“He was part of the power equation, his people were ministers in government and he was holding his important position but he was not making any headway,” said Yusufzai. Experts are split on what role Rabbani had, if any, in secret meetings reported last year between Taliban emissaries and the United States in Germany and Qatar.
Rondeaux said that as he came to realise “serious muscle” was being put into peace efforts, Rabbani sought to swap a chiefly cosmetic role for one that would give him a starring role in a genuine movement to reconcile. He succeeded in establishing provincial reconciliation councils, but his exlusion of other senior members on the 70-member High Peace Council had caused personal divisions as he set about pushing his project abroad.
Rushing back from Iran and agreeing to receive at his home the two supposed Taliban emissaries who were in fact his assassins was a sign of how desperate and frustrated he had been, said Yusufzai.
“He could not organise any meetings with any significant (Taliban) leader. All the meetings he had were with former Taliban or insignificant Taliban,” he said.