So colossal have been the human and material ravages our country has suffered during the last decade that no sensitive citizen can but wish Pakistan had followed a different course, one that might have saved our country and people from the nightmare in which we are still trapped.
To start this revisit with the beginning of the crisis we need recall the circumstances only briefly. On the morning of 9/11 terrorists smashed hijacked airliners into the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon outside DC. World media showed horrifying scenes of desperate people hurtling down to death. Three thousand innocent people died. The US Government was stunned. TV channels dubbed the terrible event as ‘war on America,’ commentators recalled the attacks on US embassies in East Africa in 1998 and the USS Cole in 2000 which were masterminded by Osama bin Laden, and soon focused suspicion on Arab students who boarded the airliners as passengers.
Pakistan’s reaction like that of most other countries was spontaneous. The Government strongly condemned the terrorist attack. The President extended condolences and sympathy to the government and people of the United States.
For us in the Foreign Office professional thought turned to implications of the grave event. If speculation about the culprits was proved correct, the US would react like a wounded bear; the UN Security Council would impose sanctions probably including use of force against the Taliban government, and Pakistan would come under more intense criticism as the only supporter of the Taliban government.
President Musharraf returned from Karachi on September 12 and chaired a policy planning meeting attended by Foreign Minister and Foreign Secretary and half a dozen senior military officers.1 We discussed the crisis, generally agreed that the United States was likely to attack Afghanistan and seek Pakistan’s cooperation. Opinion favoured compliance with reasonable demands such as air and land access for US forces, but not military alliance as US interest in the region was again likely to be transient. Everyone agreed that Pakistan must not directly participate in the attack on Afghanistan – a neighbour, friend and fraternal state with which Pakistan has durable bonds of history and culture.
The policy consensus was based on the assumption Pakistan would come under US pressure although no official communication had yet been received from Washington, where it was still morning. Later that day President George W. Bush spoke of ‘a monumental struggle of good versus evil’ and Secretary of State Colin Powell said the US expected
‘the fullest cooperation’ of Pakistan. According to records he ‘phoned
President Musharraf and received a positive response.
The list of seven ‘steps’ for cooperation Washington asked of Islamabad was delivered by the US Ambassador to President Musharraf on September 13. It asked Islamabad to (i) continue to condemn terrorist acts, (ii) break relations with the Taliban government if the evidence implicated OBL and al-Qaeda, and the Taliban continued to harbour them, (iii) cut off fuel supplies to Afghanistan, (iv) stop al-Qaeda operations at its border, and stop recruits from going to Afghanistan, (v) provide intelligence information, (vi) give blanket overflight and landing rights for military aircraft, and (vii) provide territorial access for US and allied operations. The demands contained few surprises. The President gave a positive response.
The significance of 9/11 for US relations with Pakistan was best captured in words by US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. He told the Pakistani Ambassador and ISI Director General, Lt. Gen. Mahmud who happened to be in Washington, ‘the future starts today,’ the situation was ‘black or white,’ Pakistan had ‘a choice to make – either it was with the US or not,’ there was ‘no room for manoeuvre,’
and asked for a ‘yes-or-no’ reply.
Neither Armitage nor any one else however foresaw that the future would bring worse disasters, for the United States itself and for its allies and friends, and especially for Pakistan.
Did Pakistan have an alternative? Even with 20:20 hindsight I cannot think of any. I remain convinced that defiance of US would have incurred more catastrophic consequences. Already isolated internationally as the sole supporter of the Taliban, Pakistan could have become a pariah state at a time when the rest of the world demonstrated solidarity with the United States. NATO countries invoked treaty obligations for joint defence, states of the Gulf region and South Asia issued public statements of support for the United States and some specifically offered transit facilities for US forces. India appeared to regard 9/11 as another ‘opportunity of a century’ to exploit for its own chauvinistic aims, repeated allegations that Pakistan was a state-sponsor of terrorism and offered to join action. Two decades earlier, Indian GHQ had made a feasibility study of attack on Pakistan’s nuclear assets.
With dire dangers looming on the horizon, Pakistan could no longer afford to support the Taliban government. If the latter did not comply with UN resolutions for the expulsion of Osama bin Laden and his network, and if it still did not see the writing on the wall, Pakistan would have to sever diplomatic relations with Afghanistan.
It was notable from the text of the US demands that a decision to attack Afghanistan was contingent on Taliban government’s refusal to expel OBL and al-Qaeda. A demand to this effect was first made in the UNSC resolutions following the terrorist attacks of 1998 and 2000. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia had in fact then suggested compliance to Mulla Umar but he spurned it saying there was no proof of OBL’s involvement. The Taliban Government also paid little heed to the global realities and evinced contempt for the United Nations. Ideological empathy was probably a factor in Taliban’s decision to allow OBL and al-Qaeda to use Afghanistan as a base. Gratitude for their support during and after the liberation struggle was probably not the only factor; for, Afghanistan owed a much greater debt to the United States and Saudi Arabia for their political, military and financial assistance that was indispensable for the success of the Afghan liberation struggle against the Soviet superpower.
The window of opportunity for the Taliban government to rectify defiance remained open for several days. All it had to do was to comply with the resolutions adopted by the UNSC and UNGA on September 12. There would then be no cause for US attack, and their government and people would have been saved from the catastrophe that befell them on October 7.
Pakistan, too, could have taken timely steps to counter the misperception that the Taliban were ‘our boys’ which they certainly were not. Saudi Arabia and UAE took such steps even though they had extended formal recognition to the Taliban government. They down- graded diplomatic relations and bilateral contacts after the Taliban promulgated their anachronistic and extremist interpretations of Sharia law that embarrassed most other Muslim countries. Pakistan, however, maintained normal relations with the Taliban government and even after its refusal to heed UNSC sanctions in 2000 did not distance itself. Opportunities were thus missed that could have saved Pakistan from bracketing with the Taliban. Just as a timely decision by the Taliban would have saved their ‘sole supporter,’ a wise decision by Islamabad might have rescued Pakistan from its friends. We should have heeded
Asadullah Khan Ghalib’s warning:
What benefit? Consider carefully, dana Asad
Friendship with a nadan would lose you life III
If the Taliban leadership was blind to global realities, the US
showed little respect for law or logic in deciding to intimidate Pakistan in order to secure cooperation for attack on Afghanistan. Pakistan had no responsibility for the 9/11 terrorist attack which was traced to Al- Qaeda. Al-Qaeda was a group led by a Saudi outlaw who embarked on organizing like-minded individuals for a war on the United States to avenge the sufferings of the Muslim nations. Pakistan did not support OBL or Al-Qaeda, nor allow them to operate from its territory.
The Bush administration threw reason and equity to the winds and instead of confining its reaction to those responsible for the 9/11 attack, and securing UN sanction for collective use of force against Al- Qaeda and its supporters, it coerced Pakistan to facilitate US attack on Afghanistan.
Manifestly inconsistent with decent norms of diplomacy were the Bush administration’s insulting statements, arbitrary demands and unwarranted threats. There was a glaring hiatus in the threat by President Bush on September 13: if the Taliban did not stop harbouring al-Qaeda Pakistan would be treated like a terrorist. He did not bother to explain why Pakistan should be made to suffer the consequences of a decision by the Afghan Taliban. The same law of the jungle underlay the US National Security Council’s decision earlier that day to require Islamabad to ‘turn the Taliban against al-Qaeda;’ otherwise ‘Pakistan would be at risk.’ In the same vein was Armitage’s hard talk.
Of especial interest to posterity would be the US record of decision- making meetings in order to discover who in the Bush administration was orchestrating these illogical, undiplomatic and offensive messages to Pakistan? An authoritative answer has to await release of classified documents, but I have a hunch based on my experience during visit to Washington three months before 9/11.
I had three scheduled meetings in Washington: with Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Secretary Powell, a gentleman with a record of distinguished service at home and abroad second to none in the Bush administration, extended to me a warm and gracious welcome. He evinced understanding of Pakistan’s predicament and extended good wishes for the success of our efforts to stabilize the economy and improve governance.
Secretary Rumsfeld accorded to me an exceptionally touching welcome. He and Deputy Defence Secretary Wolfowitz came down to receive the Pakistan Foreign Minister at the entrance of the Pentagon with an honour guard. In the talks they recalled the common efforts our two countries made in the 1980s in support of the Afghan liberation struggle, and expressed abiding appreciation for Pakistan’s friendship. The focus during the talks at the Defence Departments as at the State Department was on Pakistan-US friendship.
Afghanistan and the Taliban were hardly mentioned.
On cloud seven with satisfaction at the friendship evinced by the Secretaries of the two most important Departments in the context of Pakistan-US relations, I expected the meeting with Ms Rice to be a routine call. I could not have been more wrong. She lay in wait to pounce on me. I was taken aback by the cold and censorious tone and tenor of her remarks. She embarked on a harangue against the Taliban. Much more disagreeable for me was her criticism of Pakistan: our government’s ‘failure’ to bend the Taliban to abandon unacceptable policies. I gave her the obvious answer: The Taliban like all Afghans were a proud people. They heard friends but pursued policies of their own choice. She arbitrarily assumed Pakistan could have prevailed on the Taliban to follow its advice, failing to realize that as a low income country in worse-than-usual financial straits due to multiple sanctions, Pakistan lacked the means that Great Powers use to influence needy states.
Ms. Rice also overlooked the blunders committed by her own country in deciding on precipitate disengagement from Afghanistan after achieving its aim of humiliating the Cold War rival. The more shortsighted of these was US tolerance if not encouragement of Osama bin Laden’s participation in the liberation struggle against the Soviet occupation. Neither the Afghan Mujahideen nor Pakistan knew much about him but the US had ample information. Also, it commanded enough influence with the Mujahideen to dissuade them from accepting OBL and al-Qaeda volunteers, and prevent them from establishing roots in the fastness of the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The sudden and rapid disengagement of the United States in 1990 left Afghanistan in the lurch, saddled with monumental problems that led to political instability and ethnic strife and paved the way for the emergence of the Taliban regime. Pakistan had to cope with Nuclear sanctions and US aid cutoff that also undermined its capacity to influence the Taliban.
If Ms Rice looks back to the strong opinions she expressed in June 2001 she would see how wrong she was. Her ignorant assumption that Pakistan could have dictated to the Taliban stands exposed: ten years, thousands of casualties, a trillion dollars and incalculable devastation in Afghanistan later, the US has failed to bend the Taliban to its will.
Never in decades of diplomatic dealings with foreign officials at various levels, did I ever encounter an impolite and offensive high official like Ms Rice. In contrast, I have entirely happy memories of working with American diplomats – Ambassadors Jim Spain, Howard Schaffer and Robert Oakley, Under Secretaries Michael Armacost and Thomas Pickering, and Secretary Colin Powell, among others. They were always courteous, open-minded like most educated Americans, understanding and tolerant of differences of viewpoints.
US demands of Pakistan, at first limited in extent, continued to expand. Why Pakistan continued to oblige is difficult to understand. I do not know whether the demands accepted by President Musharraf were later reduced to writing or any other agreement was negotiated with the United States till mid-June 2002 when I relinquished my office due to illness. According to recent revelations nine secret agreements were signed between the two countries during President Musharraf’s regime.
While the contents of the nine agreements are still unknown, it is presumable that their purpose was to secure expanded facilities for US military operations against Al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban. As a result Pakistan’s costs increased exponentially. Al-Qaeda retaliated by instigating religious extremism and militancy. The Afghan Taliban made common cause with Pakistani Taliban. Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan mushroomed, brain-washed youth for suicide bombings and unleashed a campaign of terror that has played havoc with normal life. Pakistan’s losses in blood and treasure sky-rocketed, forty thousand innocent people have been killed, and severe damage was perpetrated on bridges, railways, electricity transmission system and gas pipelines. Valuable public and private buildings and businesses were sabotaged.
Influential opinion in the United States first appreciated Pakistan’s contribution and respected American statesmen even recognized the validity of Pakistani mistrust. The US Nine Eleven Commission censured the decision for preemptory disengagement in 1990. The Bush administration pledged durable commitment and strategic partnership, the Congress adopted the Kerry-Lugar bill in 2009 committing the US to provide $7.5 billon over five years, and the US joined Friends of Pakistan group to pledge a further $5.7 billion in aid to Pakistan.
The promises proved too good to be true; doubts about US commitment proved correct. The slide in Pakistan-US relations began with an isolated incident in January 2011 in Lahore. Raymond Davis was arrested for the murder of two youth but the US claimed diplomatic immunity. Facts and legal explanations by the Pakistan side were rejected by Washington. Secretary of State and then the US President weighed in. Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi was sacked. Washington’s highhandedness and Islamabad’s capitulation humiliated Pakistani intelligentsia who held Mr. Qureshi in high esteem as the best Foreign Minister in decades.
The May 2 US commando operation in Abbottabad was first played down by the Pakistani President who signed a hurriedly ghost-written opinion piece in The Washington Post on May 3, expressing satisfaction over the elimination of OBL – ‘the source of the greatest evil of the new millennium.’ He did not even mention the US violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty. However popular opinion exploded in rage, and the Government back-tracked in even greater hurry. PPP joined the opposition in the Parliament to unanimously condemn the United States.
The rising political, military and popular fury against the United States boiled over on November 26 when NATO bombers killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in Mohmand Agency. This time around the Government made no effort at all to pacify opinion. Reacting instantly, it strongly condemned the attack, rejected US and NATO regrets, suspended transit facility for their forces in Afghanistan, asked the US to vacate Shamsi air base, boycotted the Bonn Conference on Afghanistan despite personal intercessions by President Obama, Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Karzai, and downgraded anti-terrorism cooperation pending review of the ‘rules of engagement.’
The three crises in Pakistan-US relations in 2011 should not have happened had the universally recognized principles of law been observed. The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and the Convention on Consular Relations provide clear guidance as to the legitimate functions and privileges and immunities of officials of diplomatic and consular missions. Pakistan was too lax in admitting a large number of CIA agents and giving them diplomatic visas. Similarly, Islamabad could and should have taken an unambiguous position when the first Drone attacked targets in Pakistan territory and demanded compliance with the UN Charter principle of respect for the inviolability of the territory of another state.
The Foreign Minister has said that now Pakistan would ‘cooperate’
with the United States on basis of its own terms, and these will be made
‘clear and unambiguous.’2 Better late than never!
Apart from rectifying past neglect, attention needs to focus on a number of issues that have arisen in recent years. Since the nine existing agreements with the US are still secret it is not known whether the frequently reported problems of ‘collateral damage’ and damage to highways are covered. If not, it is high time to provide for settlement. Euphemisms like ‘friendly fire’ should not be allowed to deprive innocent victims of reparations for death and injury.
Similarly, mutual responsibilities should be defined in respect of land access for US supplies to its forces in Afghanistan, including fees for use of highways enough to cover costs of maintenance and repair as well as provision of security for vehicles carrying goods in transit from Karachi to the Afghan border.
While announcing intent to seek revised ‘terms of engagement’ the Foreign Minister also affirmed, ‘Pakistan does not wish to ‘ruin’ its relations with the United States.’ That is a provident observation, considering that in the past Pakistan acted emotionally and did in fact ‘ruin’ its relations with the United States on two occasions, and then rued the consequences. In the 1960s politics of slogans led to dissolution of the alliances. But when Pakistan found itself in desperate straits in 1971 our government needed to sue for urgent US assistance.
President Nixon responded and deployed the Enterprise fleet in the Bay of Bengal and warned Moscow of consequences. The Soviet leadership intervened promptly to prevail on India to stop the onslaught against West Pakistan. On December 18, 1971 Mr. Z. A. Bhutto penitently told President Nixon in Washington he would ‘now’ work for better relations with the United States. In 1999, following the failure of the Kargil adventure, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif needed to seek an urgent meeting with President Clinton who intervened to prevent another Pakistan-India war.
Clearly, we should assimilate the lessons of history and work assiduously to avoid tension in relations with US, NATO and others who have been friends and allies for a decade. The tried and tested method for preserving cooperative relations is for the parties to follow established principles of international law. If the nine secret agreements conceded one-sided terms, Pakistan can reasonably seek their rectification. It is inadvisable to make a mountain of a mole hill as was done in the Raymond Davis case by the United States. Pakistan is in no position to dictate its own terms.
This retrospective would not be complete without reflection on costs and benefits of the post-9/11 policy. Reference has already been in Section V to the human and material losses Pakistan has suffered. One cannot put a price on life. Pakistan’s material losses are variously estimated at 50-70 billion dollars. Evidently, research is needed to arrive at a credible figure.
As for benefits, the saving grace of our post-9/11 policy was the end it brought to Pakistan’s international isolation. The world community that had shunned contacts with Pakistan now applauded Pakistan’s decision. Heads of State and Government and Ministers of EU states, OIC members, Japan and United States made a beeline to Islamabad in September and October. The US, European creditors, Japan, and Canada lifted sanctions, wrote off or rescheduled loans, resumed and increased economic grants and lent their powerful support to our requests for credits by World Bank, ADB and IMF. These benefits should be added to the estimated $19.5 billion received from the United States in economic cooperation and security-related transfers.
Another significant benefit of the post-9/11 policy has been containment of the baneful influence of extremists and militants. Al- Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban promoted the terrorist scourge in Pakistan. Their ally – TTP – picked up arms against our state, brain- washed youth to perpetrate suicide attacks, bombed and burnt schools, destroyed valuable assets and infrastructure, rejected Pakistan’s laws and constitution, and posed an existential threat to our state.
Acts of terrorism perpetrated by misguided Muslims – too many of them trained by Al-Qaeda and TTP – have given rise to Islam-phobia in the West and exposed Muslim communities to discrimination, affected their businesses and employment opportunities. Muslim students face obstacles in admissions to institutions of learning for higher studies in science and technology. Innocent Muslim travelers are exposed to humiliation at airports. The threat of revival of ignorant prejudices latent in the history of Crusades poses new barriers to good relations between Muslim and Western states.
Diplomatic remonstrations are unlikely to reverse trends. Especially Pakistan has to demonstrate it will not allow its territory to be used as a ‘cradle’ for terrorism. We can emulate Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Muslim states where the ulema have taken steps to review text books in order to bring religious education into conformity with Islam’s message of moderation and tolerance of differences of faith.
Pakistan has to act expeditiously. Religious extremism and militancy has established roots in our soil. Children are brainwashed and coerced, at times chained and fettered as we saw on TV a week ago. Containment of such trends will require political will and determined action over a long period.
For extrication from the present predicament we need to remember and act on the vision of the founders of the renaissance in South Asia. Syed Ahmad Khan advised the Muslim community to end boycott of modern knowledge. Assimilation of advances in sciences and social fields achieved since medieval times is a precondition for progress. Allama Mohammad Iqbal campaigned for ‘reconstruction of religious thought.’ The leaders of the Pakistan movement were modern men committed to a democratic and progressive polity. The Quaid-i-Azam united Muslims irrespective of sect, and pledged equal rights to all citizens of Pakistan.
Our state is party to the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Respect for the values proclaimed by these and other international covenants, conventions and treaties is imperative for Pakistan’s rehabilitation in the esteem of the world community.
1 For reference notes on Section 1, see Abdul Sattar, Pakistan’s Foreign Policy, pp. 267-284.
2 Express Tribune, Islamabad, December 16, 2011, p. 12.
PROF. BURHANUDDIN RABBANI
Prof. Burhanuddin Rabbani was one of the founders of the Islamic movement in Afghanistan. Alongwith Ghulam Muhammad Niazi, Head of the Shariah department in Kabul University, he was one of the few who had the foresight to realize the dangers associated with President Daud’s obsession with Pakhtunistan and pro-Russian policies. To counter act the increasing Russian and communist influence in Afghan Universities and society he established the Jamiat-e-Islami, with assistance from the Ikhwan-al-Muslimeen of Egypt and the Jamaat-e-Islami of Pakistan. Almost immediately the Pakhtun / non-Pakhtun ethnic divide manifested itself and while in University, Gulbddin Hikmatyar and Ahmad Shah Masood started a feud which has survived to this day.
Following the 1973 coup by President Daud, supported by the Afghan Communists, Rabbani, Hikmatyar and Ahmad Shah Masood, along with all the other Islamic and traditional Afghan leaders had to flee for their lives to Pakistan. Here, President Bhutto found them to be a convenient tool to use against President Daud, in a successful effort to convince him to moderate his extremist policies. However, the 1978 communist coup and the consequent Russian invasion transformed what was a minor sideshow into a national liberation movement, as the Afghan resistance expanded to cover the entire country side. This expansion was, however, accompanied by a massive division as over
130 parties established head quarters in Peshawar and Quetta in the first year of the Jihad, reflecting Afghan society’s ethnic, sectarian and geographic divides. Unable to cope with such a large number of competing groups, President Zia-ul-Haq decided unilaterally to limit the Mujahiddin groups to seven, with a balance between the moderates
* The author is a former Ambassador of Pakistan.
(Jamiat-e-Islami) and Islamists (Hizb-e-Islami of Gulbaddin Hikmatyar and Ittehad-e-Islam of Sayyaf) and traditionalists (Harkat-e-Inqilab-e- Islami Afghanistan of Nabi Mohammadi, Hizb-e-Islami of Yunis Khalis and the smaller parties of Pir. Gaillani and Prof. Mujadaddi). After evaluating the success rate on the battle field, President Zia-ul-Haq also decided unilaterally on the division of assistance, with one-third each being distributed to Rabbani and Gulbaddin (due to their close links with Jamaat-e-Islami of Pakistan) and one third to the rest of the parties. This close relationship with Prof. Rabbani continued to this day as our Ambassador in Kabul had managed last year to get the qabza group in Peshawar to vacate Prof. Rabbani’s personal property worth millions – normally an impossible task in Pakistan.
The difference between Jamiat and Hizb was reflected in their organization which was a result of their leader’s personality and style of governing. Prof. Rabbani was always the scholar who was content with the façade of leadership while he left the day to day running of the organization and the fighting to his extremely competent subordinates. Gulbaddin, on the other hand, ran an extremely tight ship and was personally involved in planning the operations, taking immediate action in case of any lapses. The result in the field was that the capable Tajik field commanders operated as independent fiefdoms, with Ismail Khan(the Prince of Herat) and Ahmad Shah Masood (the Lion of Panjsher) operating their own taxes and customs and foreign policy and establishing direct links with foreign donors. Rabbanis own military strength was limited to his home province of Badakshan,which made it difficult for him to impose his authority outside this area, but Rabbani had the graciousness to accept this reality and, unlike Gulbaddin, did not let it interfere with the priority of continued funding and pursuit of the Jihad. Rabbani also had the shrewdness to initiate contacts with the other non-Pakhtun ethnic groups like the Hazaras and Uzbeks, a policy which was to serve him in good stead in the future; unlike the Pakhtun parties which were more parochial and preferred, as in the past, to trample over the rights of the other ethnic groups in Afghanistan.
I got to know Prof. Rabbani when I was Director (Afghanistan) in the Foreign Office in the early eighties and Counselor in our Mission in New York in the late eighties, where I used to conduct the annual visit of the Afghan Mujahideen leaders to the U.N. Even though I was a junior officer, Prof. Rabbani was always most gracious and polite and with good humor followed the rather severe and hectic program for the New York visits, meeting the media and supporters of the UN resolution on Afghanistan.
I next met Professor Rabbani when he was President in Government and I, as Director General for Afghanistan, accompanied our Foreign Minister, Sardar Aseff Ahmed Ali who had gone to complain about Ahmed Shah Masood’s burning of our embassy in Kabul and launching of a bombing campaign in NWFP. Professor Rabbani was genuinely upset at the turn of events and even though he managed to convince Ahmed Shah Masood to stop the bombing campaign, he was unable to change Masood’s anti Pakistan polices. Masood was in fact quite proud of his policy, making it quite clear to us that he was the final arbiter of foreign policy and Professor Rabbani’s pro-Pakistan views did not matter. The other Afghan leaders from the Hazara and Uzbek communities also blamed Masood and Gulbuddin for the mayhem in Kabul and Professor Rabbani came out relatively blameless. Professor Rabbani took Masood’s snub in his characteristic good grace and was content to be the nominal President which also suited his humble temperament. He took this nomination to the extreme, by remaining President even when his Kingdom had dwindled to only the Provinces of Badakshan and Panjsher. Fate and the counter productive policies of the Taliban intervened and Rabbani, through the Northern Alliance, which he had helped to create, obtained another chance to play a role on the Afghan stage.
After 9/11, however, the US had developed an extreme aversion to Islamic parties and clearly told us during the Bonn Conference that our suggestion of allowing a role for Professor Rabbani in the reconciliation process with the Taliban in Afghanistan was not even worth discussing. They also made this clear to Professor Rabbani by summarily removing him from the Presidential palace. Instead the US preferred to deal with the previous thugs, warlords and drug barons whose excesses and tyranny were responsible for the emergence of the Taliban in the first place. It is interesting that after doing the exact opposite of what was suggested by Pakistan, the US is now blaming Pakistan for the failure of its misconceived policies however, Professor Rabbani’s eminence and reputation were enough to withstand US attempts to sideline him in the new politics of Afghanistan. After about ten years when the US finally realized that there was no alternative to national reconciliation in Afghanistan, Professor Rabbani was given a chance by President Karzai to explore the possibilities of peace by being appointed President of the High Peace Council.
While attending a seminar arranged by the Delhi Policy Group in Kabul in December 2010, I took the opportunity to request for a courtesy call on Professor Rabbani, who was gracious enough to receive me with his usual hospitality. He recalled fondly his long stay in Pakistan during the Jihad and hoped to restore the bilateral relationship to that level again. He was extremely critical of communist elements in Afghan society whom he blamed for working against this policy. He said that he had also told President Karzai that he would not tolerate any hostile statements by the Afghan Government against Pakistan. Professor Rabbani refused to consider his post as a sinecure and was genuinely convinced that he would be able to work out some sort of deal with the Taliban leadership, whom he had known since the Jihad days, when most of them were part of Nabi Mohammadi’s organization the Harkat-e-Inqilab-e-Islami Afghanistan. Professor Rabbani hoped that he would be able to achieve a reasonable settlement with the Taliban and hoped to convince them that their obduracy was being used as an excuse for the prolongation of the war by the US. For this he needed the help of Pakistan and all the other neighboring countries of Afghanistan, including Russia.
He was however, surprisingly quite critical of US policies in Afghanistan and seemed to reciprocate the hostility which the US exhibited towards him. He said that he had made a public statement that any action by the US to work against Islam or Islamic parties in Afghanistan would not be tolerated and would justify the declaration of Jihad against the US presence.
While no one in Pakistan shared Professor Rabbani’s optimism he was given full assurance of any assistance he required in carrying out his mission. In the last few months however, even Professor Rabbani seemed to have realized the onerous nature of his task and had expressed his frustration in a couple of interviews.
This brings us to the question on the motivation behind the assassination. Why would any group or country target a person who was so well respected in his own country and abroad, had no substantive portfolio and was in charge of a peace process which was headed nowhere. Ostensibly the culprits seem to be the Taliban, with the Shura- e-Nazar being quick to blame the Quetta Shura, as well as Pakistan, in order to score political points. However, most of the leaders of the Quetta Shura had good relations with Professor Rabbani during the Jihad against the Soviets and would recall that the seed money of $ 3 Million for the Taliban movement was initially provided by Professor Rabbani, through his Governor in Kandahar, Mulla Naqeeb Ullah. Rabbani had correctly assumed that the first target of the Taliban would be Gulbuddin Hikmatyar who was at that time besieging Kabul. The tactic worked and the Taliban immediately made Gulbuddin irrelevant in the Afghan power equation. The Taliban leadership were also aware that Rabbani did not have any real power and would not unnecessarily target a personality who was respected as an elder statesman throughout Afghanistan. The evidence provided so far by the Afghans has not moved beyond accusing the murderers of coming from Quetta, while failing to provide any links to the Taliban leadership. The charge against Pakistan, supported by Bruce Reidel, is even more ridiculous, as it would imply Pakistan acting against some one who was its closest friend in Afghanistan over the last forty years. This allegation assumes a level of insanity on the part of ISI which they have not exhibited so far.
Confusion on the issue has been compounded by the Taliban refusal to take responsibility for the assassination, which points to a possible split in the movement and a divide between the Quetta Shura and its cadres operating on the ground. This division was first noted by Antonio Giustozzi who coined the phrase the neo-Taliban to describe the Taliban warriors fighting the US who were displaying signs of greater extremism and irrationality and closer links with the Al-Qaeda and other extremist Islamist parties; “exhibiting a process of transition from an ultra-orthodox and narrowly focused interpretation of Islam towards an ultra-conservative but more political and internationalist interpretation”. In the chaotic circumstances prevailing in Afghanistan and the lack of hierarchical administrative structures in the Taliban it is quite possible that one of the Taliban groups closely linked to Al- Qaeda took the action as the opportunity presented itself in order to stem what they felt was a tactic to divide the Taliban, as in the case of the murder of Col. Imam by the Tehreek-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
It remains to be seen how far the plot extended, but what also needs to be investigated is how the NDS (Afghan National Directorate of Security) slipped up so badly in its provision of security to Professor Rabbani. Following the assassination of Ahmed Shah Masood under similar circumstances, the NDS which is packed with Shura-e-Nazar operatives, should have doubly careful about introducing unverified persons to important personalities. The fact that the assassins stayed in a NDS safe house in Kabul for two days places the negligence and incompetence of the NDS on the border of criminality.
The immediate result of the assassination has been the abrupt end of the peace process, as it would take an extremely brave individual to take the risk of negotiating with the Taliban when their only representatives so far have been imposters (the fruit merchant from Quetta) or assassins, as in the present case. This is a double loss, both for Pakistan and for Afghanistan, since it has exacerbated the ethnic divide, encouraged the extremists on both sides and made the prospect of peace a complete chimera. The biggest gainer has been the Shura-e-Nazar whose continual refrain on the impossibility of any negotiation with the Taliban seems to have been vindicated. The U.S was also a gainer as it was rid of one of its most prominent public critics and an irritant in U.S plans to continue its presence through its airbases in Afghanistan. It seems this is the reason behind the accusation by the head of the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s Afghanistan Headquarter, Mohsen Pak-Ayeen ,who directly accused the US as being responsible saying that “Foreign Countries, headed by the US, are seeking to gain a permanent military deployment in Afghanistan and they martyr everyone who is opposed to their permanent presence, including martyr Rabbani”.
The Shura-e-Nazar would now hope to build on its alliance of convenience with the U.S as it seeks to build up its strength for the resumption of the civil war following the US withdrawal. The prospect for the future is therefore quite pessimistic with the most likely outcome being the continuation of the forty year old civil war, most probably for another generation, as the Afghans seem to consider perpetual warfare as a normal state of affairs. Regional countries need to therefore insulate themselves from the mayhem in Afghanistan and the Uzbek proposal for a resumption of the 6 + 3 option (neighboring countries plus US, Russia and NATO) seems to provide a better forum for bringing some sort of security and hope to the Afghan peace negotiations.
As the friends from the Jihad days are slowly being murdered by the Frankenstein monsters they helped create (First Col. Imam and now Professor Rabbani) one is reminded of Dante’s imagined inscription at the entrance to Hades (the Greek Hell) “Abandon Hope All Those Who Enter Here”. Unfortunately, given the atmosphere of gloom and depression caused by Rabbani’s murder its seems an appropriate phrase for the Af-Pak region. It should also provide us an opportunity to reconsider our policy of giving refuge to groups who are acting against our strategic interest and murdering our friends in Afghanistan and Pakistan.