RIP Burhanuddin Rabbani, leader of moderate Afghan Islamists against USSR

September 21, 2011

(Supporters of Burhanuddin Rabbani, former Afghan president and head of the government's peace council, hold a picture of him as they stand outside his house a day after he was killed in Kabul September 21, 2011/Ahmad Masood)

When I was Reuters chief correspondent for Pakistan and Afghanistan in the mid-1980s, Burhanuddin Rabbani was an Islamic scholar fom Kabul who had become the exiled Peshawar-based leader of Jamiat-i-Islami, the best of the Islamic groups fighting the Soviet occupation of their homeland. The famous commander Ahmed Shah Massoud was one of his leading fighters. Rabbani┬á stood for an independant Afghanistan with a traditional Islam, in contrast to the radical Islamists supported by Pakistan and the United States whose leading figures — Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani — now support the Taliban. I interviewed him back then, but that was before electronic copies of our stories. Here is our report from Kabul on the reaction to the Taliban assassination of Rabbani:

Afghans gathered to mourn assassinated former president and chief peace negotiator Burhanuddin Rabbani on Wednesday, World Peace Day, as fears mounted that his death could deepen ethnic divisions and nudge the country towards civil war. Rabbani, perhaps the most prominent Afghan to be killed since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, died at his home on Tuesday when an insurgent he was due to hold talks with detonated explosives concealed in a turban.

The killing was widely seen as a strong statement of Taliban opposition to peace talks and the latest in a string of high-profile assassinations to shake the confidence of ordinary Afghans that security can be maintained as foreign forces withdraw.

Rabbani was Afghanistan’s most influential ethnic Tajik and his killing is likely to exacerbate ethnic divides, which could do more to damage peace efforts than the loss of a negotiator whose achievements were limited during his 11 months in charge.

“Our enemies must know that, with our Mujahideen, the soldiers of our martyred leader, we will take revenge on the bloodthirsty predators,” said Atta Mohammad Noor, governor of northern Balkh province and a former Mujahideen commander loyal to Rabbani.

“Be sure that for every drop of his blood, thousands of soldiers and brave men will rise up and come to the battlefield against you,” he said in a video message from Mazar-i-Sharif.

Read the full story here. For another view, see Rabbani Assassination: An Afghan Understanding by Jon Lee Anderson in the New Yorker.


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