My old friend, Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani, former president of Afghanistan, was killed by an assassin in Kabul last week, shaking his war-scarred nation to its core.
Rabbani, a renowned Islamic scholar from the Tajik minority, was one of the original leaders of the Afghan resistance to Soviet occupation.
I first met him in the most unlikely of all places: Toronto, Canada.
It was 1982. He and four other Afghan resistance leaders – known as mujahidin - were discreetly trying to raise money from North American Muslim communities to buy arms and supplies to fight Soviet occupation.
As one of only a few journalists writing about Afghanistan’s seemingly hopeless struggle against the world’s greatest land power, I was invited to meet them on a brisk fall day in a small vocational college next to Lake Ontario.
The five mujahidin leaders were cooking up a pot of curry in a student dormitory they had been loaned.
Rabbani was an imposing man, with dark, gentle eyes and a scholarly manner. I asked him how he could hope to defeat the mighty Soviet Union.
“Allah will provide. What is important is that our faith is strong.” His faith was far stronger than my doubts.
I met Rabbani a number of times during the anti-Soviet Great Jihad, both in Peshawar, Pakistan’s wild border town, and inside Afghanistan. Each time he embraced me like a son and assured me victory would be won.
And so it was. In 1989, the wise, humane new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, ordered his army out of Afghanistan. “Graveyard of Empires.”
Prof. Rabbani was Afghan president for four years. At his term’s end, he refused to leave office. The seven mujahidin groups fell out, then battled one another like wolves. Civil war erupted between Afghan Communists and Islamic forces, and between majority Pashtun, who had done most of the fighting against the Soviets, and minority Tajiks, Uzbek and Hazra, who were mainly allied with the Soviets.
Rabbani’s party, Jamiat Islami, led the anti-Pashtun Northern Alliance. When Pashtun Taliban emerged in the early 1990’s, his movement led the anti-Taliban fight. But Rabbani had become a figurehead. His Northern Alliance was really run by Tajik warlord Ahmed Shah Massoud, backed by the brutal Communist Uzbek general, Rashid Dostam.
In recent years, retired Soviet KGB and GRU (military intelligence) officers claimed Massoud was a Soviet “asset,” who actually sabotaged mujahidin war efforts in hopes that Moscow would make him leader of Afghanistan – a classic KGB false flag operation. I saw this happen numerous times.
Massoud was killed two days before 9/11 by assassins sent by Osama bin Laden, a bitter foe of the Afghan Communists.
The US then allied itself to the Northern Alliance and invaded Afghanistan. Russian generals and troops did most of the ground operations, aided by US B-52 bombers. The northern Tajiks became the power behind the US-installed figurehead, Hamid Karzai.
In recent years, Prof. Rabbani was made head of the Afghan Peace Council. It was a seemingly hopeless task. Taliban and other Pashtun resistance groups refused to talk a real peace until all foreign troops occupying Afghanistan withdrew. They, their children, and their grandchildren would fight the foreign invaders until driven out.
US hopes Rabbani might splinter Taliban by getting various subunits to switch sides – as in Iraq – failed. But Rabbani was also an Afghan patriot who worked for reconciliation and was probably the only Tajik leader acceptable to the Pashtun Taliban.
So who then murdered my old friend? He had many foes. A splinter group from Taliban? Tajik Communists sabotaging any peace with Pashtun? A murky personal vendetta so common in Afghanistan?
Killing a man in his own home violates Pushtunwali, the sacred Pashtun code of honor. Use of a suicide bomber strongly suggests remnants of al-Qaida.
An old Afghan friend who had taken me to meet Prof Rabbani just wrote me: “if it was not for the your
support and some other western writers, the world would not have known, appreciated and supported
their fight for freedom. He always appreciated and admired your courage and support (a lot of prayers were said for your success and safety).
The Muslims have lost a great mujahid (holy warrior) and Afghanistan lost a great leader and peacemaker. May Allah bless his soul.”