On the evening of September 20, 2011, former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani was killed by a suicide bomber whom he thought had come to discuss the possibility of peace. In life, Rabbani was a soldier and a statesman, a warrior as well as a peacemaker and in death, he is a symbol of the cost of the long struggle to restore peace to this war-torn land. His son Shuja Rabbani remembers the man he was and his vision for Afghanistan.
Q. What was it like having Burhanuddin Rabbani as your father? What sort of a man was he?
Burhanuddin Rabbani was the type of father who was always there for his children and while he would guide and advise us, he always let us make our own decisions. He was the type of man who led by example, an intellectual who was very logical in his approach and a person who fought for what he believed in. He staunchly believed that the Afghan people should be empowered through knowledge and education. Many of Afghanistan’s political leaders’ foundations come from my father’s political party and that is clear evidence that his method of empowerment and inclusion works very well for Afghanistan. He was a very good- natured man who never lost his cool, anyone who knows him would tell you that he was an extremely down-to-earth person.
Q. What was his vision for Afghanistan?
He wanted to see an Afghanistan where people are not running away from their country and where every child is schooled and made familiar with Afghan history, culture, and national identity. Being an Islamic scholar, he wanted a moderate Muslim state with full religious freedoms for Afghans, not one where Shias and other minorities are being slaughtered the way they are under the Taliban.
Q. Your father’s tenure as president was marked by instability and factional fighting. There were also allegations of widespread corruption. What did he say about that and what are your views?
The infighting was a result of some rogue power-hungry Afghans who tried to take over Afghanistan through violent means. Unfortunately, because of these rogue Afghans, all Mujahedeen have been lumped in one category and are blamed by critics for everything under the sun that has gone wrong. The Mujahideen are the pride of Afghans and I am proud of being the son of a Mujahideen leader.
As far as corruption goes, billions of dollars have been poured into Afghanistan today and enormous assistance of all kinds is given by the international community — yet, corruption is rampant. The Afghanistan my father was heading was far more crippled — systems and processes were not even given a chance to be put in place due to the civil war caused by rogue Afghan elements serving the interest of others.
I hate to break it to my fellow Afghans, but even some expatriate Afghans who are citizens of developed countries currently working as ministers and in other positions of power, and who one would think would set examples, are actively engaged in corruption. Elimination of corruption is an enormous challenge and we must not forget that it existed in all previous leaderships too — critics of post-Soviet leaders never mention that. My message to Afghans is to stop focusing on the problem and start providing solutions to make things better and move forward.
Q. Your father witnessed the pre-soviet period, the Afghan war and its aftermath, as well as the post-9/11 period. What did he tell you of those times?
My father once said that if it was not for the Mujahedeen, Afghans would be speaking Russian today. He could not have been more right. When people talk about Afghanistan before the fighting broke out they make Afghanistan, and Kabul in particular, seem like it was another Paris or New York. That was not the case. Freedom came only to those who decided to embrace atheism through Communism. The rest lived under subjugation and tyranny. My father, along with other Mujahedeen, decided not to accept Communism or to be enslaved by Communists. All atheists are not Communists but in Afghanistan, all Communists were atheists and they killed countless people in the most barbaric ways imaginable and enforced atheism on everyone through their propaganda. One of the incidents I heard from one of the women who attended my father’s funeral services was about her husband. Some Afghan Communists had snitched to the Soviets that he was a believer and they drove nails into his eyeballs. Other cases involve public beheadings of Afghan Muslims with chainsaws and driving over people with Soviet tanks. These very same Communists of yesterday are now wooing the West by claiming to be “democracy-loving people”, “human rights activists”, “women’s rights activists”, “secularists” and so on. The Afghan people and our youth must not let themselves be deceived by such people, who have their own set of agendas. It is just as important for the international community to recognise the true colours of such political chameleons. The most notable ones are Malalai Joya, a former MP, and her aunt Bilqees Roshan who is currently serving as a Senator in Afghanistan.
Q. You’ve spoken about the extremism of the Communists, but with the rise of the Taliban, Afghanistan saw another kind of extremism, this time garbed in religion.
Islam in Afghanistan is a way of life. It is a part of our culture and identity, and that is what the Mujahedeen fought for: to have an Afghanistan that has a strong sense of values, morals and principles. Afghanistan has witnessed both extremes: atheism through Communists as well as extremist religious beliefs through the Taliban — both were rejected by Afghanistan. It is therefore clear that Afghanistan will never accept extremists on either side of the spectrum and there has to be a middle ground. The Communists fought to force women to take off their burqas and the Taliban fight to force women to wear them. What we should be fighting for is for women to have a choice of their own as individuals.
Q. But following your father’s death that middle ground seems even further away, and there are fears of increased fighting and civil war
Civil war in Afghanistan was a carefully planned and instigated war and not a desire of the post-Soviet Afghan leaders which included people like my father. The absence of international support, the lack of resources to build much-needed infrastructure, and the ‘loyalty-for-rent’ of some Afghans led to the civil war. I use the term “loyalty-for-rent” to describe Afghans whose loyalty is to money and greed, not their country; those who are willing to work to forward the agenda of different organisations that pay them and are willing to compromise their integrity, values, their people and their country.
Thankfully, today the international community in Afghanistan is a witness to the problems Afghans like my father faced. Back then, my father was all on his own. My message to the people of Afghanistan is to become the change in Afghanistan they want to see. How they want to make that change happen is entirely up to them, but I hope it will be through peaceful means.
Q. What were your father’s views on the western powers and the international coalition. Do you believe their aggressive actions and presence are counterproductive to the peaceful future of Afghanistan?
People are very quick to attack the western powers because it has always been the easy thing to do. We are at war against terrorism globally and the West has also been a victim. Of course there are always casualties in war and people who expect no casualties in a war have either never given any sacrifices themselves, or simply do not understand war and what it takes for them to enjoy a free and peaceful life in a sovereign country they can all call home. No one seems to talk about all the positive changes and contributions the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and international aid organisations like USAID of United States and AusAID of Australia have done for Afghanistan.
Q. Many in Afghanistan are blaming Pakistan for playing a role in your father’s death.
I would not be doing justice to either the Pakistani or the Afghan public if I did not mention that certain Pakistani leaders are the leading contributors to Afghan turmoil. For example, General Pervez Musharraf always promotes ethnic division in Afghanistan and believes in the ethnic supremacy of one group over others. It was this fascist mentality that led to Pakistan’s recognition and unconditional support of the Taliban regime. Interestingly, every Pakistani I have met who supports the Taliban, also happily enjoys consumption of alcohol and other activities that would get them killed immediately if they were to live under a Taliban-style Islamic state.
As far as my father’s death is concerned, the suicide bomber was a Pakistani citizen and all the evidence that was collected was traced back to Pakistan. This included the phone calls, the address of the house where the meetings took place, pictures, co-conspirators etc. The evidence was submitted to Pakistani officials in Kabul and it only took Pakistan two days to throw the ball back to Afghanistan and say it was an inside job. If Pakistan has any evidence to prove that, we would be happy to sit with them and get to the bottom of it. But when the Pakistani government refuses visas for Afghan investigators and when the former head of ISI refers to international terrorists as “just as much of a Pakistani citizen as I am (referring to himself)”, it begs the question as to how much the ISI knows and why they are not being transparent. As a result, the world is led to believe that the Pakistani government does endorse terrorism through proxy groups and puppets like the Taliban.
If we continue to get mixed and conflicting messages from Pakistan, we will pursue my father’s case as well as those of other slain Afghan leaders, starting from Ahmed Shah Masood onwards, through an independent UN enquiry commission. We want to find every single person who was involved: from the ordering to planning to where the bomb was assembled, every individual who paid for it, anyone who helped in these chain of murders, and we will pursue them as long as it takes and find them wherever they are and bring them to justice.
Q. How important do you think the relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan is for the peace process and the future of the region?
Very important. After all, leaders come and go but nations do not. After my father’s assassination, Pakistan is likely to see a more vocally confrontational Afghanistan. Personally, I expect the Afghan government and our allies to have a transactional relationship with Pakistan from now on. Both Pakistanis and Afghans are highly emotional and patriotic people, and they must learn to ask questions of their governments and learn to detect the troublemakers amongst them. My father consistently encouraged strong relations with Pakistan. In his official trip to Pakistan, he encouraged Pakistanis to resolve their differences with India and he sent the same message to India on his visit there. It puts us in a very difficult position to see Pakistan not have a healthy relationship with India. As for the peace process, he never had any serious concerns in regards to its success because time and again, in every regional visit he made and in all meetings that took place, he was convinced that many Taliban are ready to embrace life in the new Afghanistan.
Q. But the Taliban do not seem to have any real interest in negotiating. Do you think they will ever be reconciled?
They are brainwashed by a militant ideology. Afghanistan will be moving forward so it is up to them to adapt or be left behind and find themselves alone. They were used as puppets by specific governments for a specific agenda and will continue to be used. Once they have fulfilled their purpose, they will be left on their own. While there are many Afghan Taliban factions, Afghans tend to associate the Taliban with Pakistan and this is due to the enormous support they received from Pakistan. If such support stops, I believe Afghanistan will no longer see any active Taliban. One of the terms of the High Peace Council was that if the Taliban agreed to reconcile and take any positions in the Afghan government, they would do so by accepting the democratic system and rule of law. This meant respect for human rights which includes women’s rights and the right to education and other changes that Afghanistan has adopted as a nation.
Q. What steps do you feel both Afghanistan and Pakistan need to take to strengthen their bond?
If Pakistan does not want to see Afghanistan pointing fingers at it, it will need to proactively track down militant groups and cooperate on all levels possible. For its part, Afghanistan needs to acknowledge that it too has rogue elements within its own government and must continue the dialogue on ways to improve the security situation in both countries
Q. Let’s talk about the Haqqani network. There have been allegations that they are responsible for your father’s assassination. Do you believe this is a knee-jerk reaction, or is there some evidence to this?
It is still too early in the investigation to determine how many groups were involved but there is no doubt that the ring of terrorist organisations all work together and supplement each other
Q. What would you summarise as being the internal issues in Afghanistan that continue to affect its stability?
In my opinion, one of the biggest internal issues is the sense of entitlement in government posts that the new players in the Afghan political scene have — this is in reference to expatriate Afghans who came to Afghanistan only after 9/11 with a very arrogant approach. Afghans must learn to earn in Afghanistan, even if they come from other countries with a tremendous set of knowledge and skills. Nothing comes for free and if they are to earn the people’s lasting support and respect, they have to genuinely help without any agendas. The true test of such players will come when it is time to stand up for Afghanistan.
Secondly, the ethnic divide is plaguing Afghans. Growing up, I never came across Afghans who would ask about my ethnicity but now I am consistently asked by foreigners about my ethnicity and even whether I am a Sunni or a Shia. This approach to Afghanistan is extremely dangerous and those who try to endorse this type of division amongst Afghans in any manner will have no future in Afghanistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, November 20th, 2011.