An Audience With Berhanuddin Rabbani, The Grand Old Man Of The Afghan Mujahideen
“This is possible,” he said. “As I read history, when a nation’s problems become this complex and they are not solved, that could result in violence and revolutions and other unwanted things. Water is very soft, but if you put it under pressure, it will explode.”
Throwing his formidable weight behind the surging opposition to Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s backroom entreaties to the Taliban, Rabbani warned that any hint of political concessions to the Pashtun-based terrorist movement could provoke Afghans to take up arms against their own government. "There is a limit to the patience of the people. Beyond that limit, no one can be patient anymore."
My report of our conversation appears in today's National Post, but it's the background to all this that is especially chilling. It's not just speculation about what might happen. The big story here is about what is happening already, and as always, pereption counts for everything in Afghanistan, and there is no intrigue like Afghan intrigue.
No matter how well-intentioned, President Karzai's "peace at any cost" approach to the Taliban's counterrevolutionary insurgency is bonding the conservative leaders of Afghanistan's religious and ethnic minorities with some of Afghanistan's most progressive forces - women's rights leaders, human rights activists and pro-democracy reformers. The anti-appeasement revolt is directly related to an all-out, last-ditch effort to entrench a transparent, functioning and accountable democracy in this country, with Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's front-running challenger in last year's fraud-plagued presidential election, digging in for the long haul.
First, a bit about Rabbani and why it matters what he says.
Now 70, Rabbani has seen Afghanistan's agonies from a singularly advantageous perch. As a young Tajik Afghan from the northern reaches of Badakhshan, Rabbani saw Islam as a way to escape the crushing grindstones of the Cold War. In the 1960s, he traveled to Cairo, becoming one of the bright young proteges of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. He was one of the first scholars to translate the works of Sayed Qutb, the grandpappy of Islamism, into Dari.
It was Rabbani who led the U.S.-backed mujahideen alliance in its long and bloody resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. At the helm of Jamiat-e Islami, Rabbani took over as Afghanistan's first post-Soviet president in 1992. But by this time the Americans had washed their hands of Afghanistan, and Rabbani was left helpless while the various mujahideen fractions, fronts and crime syndicates that he'd brought together ended up turning the country into an abattoir and an opium racket. Then the Taliban took over, and things got worse. Still formally president through the years of anti-Taliban resistance, Rabbani led the mujahideen "Northern Alliance" that drove the Taliban from Kabul in 2001. It was only with Rabbani’s blessing that Karzai clinched the presidency of Afghanistan’s interim government the following year.
Largely untainted by the atrocities that blacken the reputations of several mujahideen commanders who ended up in Karzai’s original inner circle, Rabbani looms over Afghanistan’s powerful warlord bloc. He also chairs the legislative committee of Afghanistan’s parliament.
To understand the urgency of Rabbani's warnings - and to understand why he's not just speculating about some possibly nasty future scenario - you'll want to notice three things.
The first is the point raised by Niamatullah Ibrahimi, research officer with the London School of Economics' Crisis States Research Center in Kabul: "With these latest talks about negotiating with the Taliban, ethnicity is now the most divisive issue in Afghanistan."
The second is Rabbani's reference to the conservative Pashtuns who form the emerging core of President Karzai's inner circle. While he wouldn't name names, Rabbani says Karzai's advisers include at least some of the authors of a 1999 tract that calls for the ethnic cleansing of perhaps half of Afghanistan's population, including Tajiks, Uzbeks, and the long-persecuted Hazaras, among the country's minority Shiites.
The third is the key difference in President Karzai's recent enthusiasms about courting the Taliban. Until now, Karzai has enjoyed broad support for his proposition that Pashtun "sons of the soil" who give up the gun, renounce Al Qaida and accept the Afghan constitution should be welcomed back into the multicultural Afghan family. His latest initiative, which has won some support in western capitals, is an ambiguous package that could include even cabinet posts to Taliban leaders, and at the very least, would provide grants of money - and land - to Taliban fighters.
During our conversation, Rabbani pointedly observed that President Karzai's previous "reconciliation" approach, partly bankrolled by Canada, served mainly to disarm anti-Taliban militias among the country's Uzbek, Hazara, and Tajik minorities. Rabbani says he is all in favour of "national reconciliation," but he fears something else entirely is going on.
"If poverty is the only thing that creates insurgency, then why in Bamiyan and other provinces, there are many poor people living, but there is no insurgency? In the secure areas, they are not growing opium, and they are poorer.
“Definitely, we want peace. We don’t want war. So this is the question. Firstly, we ask, the work that Karzai has started, is it about bringing peace and security in Afghanistan? Karzai thinks of it more of an ethnic issue, not a national question. He didn’t share it even with Parliament. Bringing back the Taliban by some kind of reconciliation is not to bring about security. This is to play a card against others. . . It is not playing a national card. It is bringing an ethnic card into play in Afghanistan. The result of that would be to threaten to deprive other ethnic communities of their political rights, their social rights and the other rights they have in the country. ”
This should give you a glimpse of the reasons why Rabbani, among others, is a bit nervous about the motivations and the contents of any "peace at any cost" backroom deal the Karzai regime might strike with the Taliban. It should also shed some light on how it has come to pass that "peace talks" alarms are forging a rare anti-appeasement consensus across Afghanistan’s political class, uniting pro-democracy Pashtuns with former northern warlords, and women's rights leaders with Shia religious figures.
Also, a series of events in recent days has boosted the opposition’s confidence that a sell-out is not just a potentially catastrophic idea, but an unnecessary one. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, considered the second-in-command to the Afghan Taliban’s Mullah Omar, was recently arrested by Pakistani authorities with the help of U.S. intelligence. The British are leading a massive insurgent-clearing operation in Helmand province and it appears to be going quite well. Taliban leader Mohammed Haqqani, brother of the Pakistani Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, was killed along with three Al Qaida associates by a cross-border U.S. drone strike. About a dozen fairly senior Taliban figures have been arrested in Pakistan and Afghanistan in recent days.
Afghanistan’s Parliament has been reduced to reading about Karzai's "reconciliation" schemes in the newspapers like everyone else, and now, President Karzai is engaged in an apparent end-run around the Parliament with a plan to oust United Nations representatives from the country's Elections Complaints Commission.
It's understandable that after last year's election debacle, President Karzai would be busy with manoeuvres to shore up his support among conservative Pashtuns - the Taliban's support base. But add it all up and it looks a lot like a looming threat to the progress Afghanistan has made in women’s rights, democratic freedoms and social progress, and a dire threat to the delicate balance among and between Afghanistan's many ethnic and religious minorities as well.
It was at a conference of more than 60 donor countries in London last month that Karzai surprised delegates with an announcement that his new reconciliation plan would require backing from the Saudi royal family and money from NATO-led International Security Assistance Force nations. The plan, which was a surprise to Afghan parliamentarians, too, would include a national “jirga,” or traditional assembly, to which the Taliban will be invited. The event is planned for this summer.
“The jirga is not legitimate," Rabbani told me. "It does not have the legitimacy of the democratic process. The people who are being invited are being called by President Karzai, not according to the law.” Rabbani stopped short of calling for the boycott of the jirga, however. “I don’t want to discourage people from attending. I am just saying we should implement the law. We should not violate the law.”