The Struggle of Rabbani and Fahim After Masoud’s Assassination; Magic Against the Magician

By: Mehran Muwahhid

Burhanuddin Rabbani, the former leader of the Jamayat-E-Islami party, met his demise at the hands of a suicide bomber who allegedly concealed a bomb in his turban. At the time of his unfortunate death, Rabbani held the esteemed position of leading Afghanistan’s High Peace Council. He had also been a prominent figure within Afghanistan’s Muslim Brotherhood movement, diligently translating numerous articles from Brotherhood thinkers into Persian. For several decades, Rabbani stood as a formidable political force in Afghanistan. From 1992 to 2001, international documents formally recognized him as the President of Afghanistan.

The turn of events after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001 drastically altered Rabbani’s political landscape. Prior to this, certain members of the Jamayat-E-Islami party had attempted to pressure him into relinquishing power, but their endeavors proved fruitless. After the capture of Kabul by the United Front, also known as the Northern Alliance, with the air and financial support of the United States, Rabbani was unwilling to concede political authority. He sought to retain power, at least temporarily, and capitalize on his enduring political influence. However, a combination of factors, including internal discord among his party members, notably former Afghan Vice President Mohammad Qasim Fahim, as well as pressure from the Americans, who even resorted to firing missiles near his residence in Kabul’s Wazir Akbar Khan area as a form of intimidation, ultimately compelled him to relinquish power to Hamid Karzai.

Numerous questions arise in the aftermath of the events following Kabul’s fall in 2001. This discussion, however, centers on whether Rabbani played a role in the post-Taliban dynamics and whether all the missteps were solely attributable to his “brothers.” Over the years, Rabbani and his supporters have consistently propagated the idea that the Northern Alliance’s failures and setbacks during this period were primarily due to the incompetence of Fahim and Abdullah Abdullah, the former Chairperson of the High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR). They argue that had these individuals heeded Rabbani’s counsel and retained leadership within the government, they would not only have averted failure and weakness but also maintained the initiative for an extended period.

To what extent does this claim, often wielded to undermine Fahim, Yunus Qanuni (former Afghan vice president), and Abdullah, and occasionally utilized in Tajik local conflicts, align with historical and objective facts?

Crucially, the Americans, driven by the desire to retaliate against al-Qaeda and restore their tarnished prestige, displayed a marked unwillingness to collaborate with Rabbani in any capacity. Fahim and his associates recognized the futility of pursuing a course of action based on a fictional premise. While they were not entirely content with working alongside Fahim, their primary objective was to distance themselves from Rabbani. Rabbani, in an interview with Afghan history researcher Ekram Andishmand, asserted that Westerners exerted no pressure on the Northern Alliance. However, subsequent reports, including revelations from former U.S. Special Envoy for Afghanistan’s Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, in his book “Envoy,” explicitly divulged that Rabbani, motivated by fear of B52 airstrikes, and Fahim and his colleagues, driven by avarice, acquiesced to a compromise that led to Karzai’s prominence. Hence, the primary cause of Rabbani’s isolation lay with the Western powers. Yet, as he failed to acknowledge or comprehend this fact, his adversaries accused Jamayat-E-Islami of opportunism, betrayal, and treachery.

Another pivotal aspect is Rabbani’s central role in selecting Ahmad Shah Massoud’s successor immediately after the latter’s assassination on September 9, 2001. This decision, made within a small circle without consulting other frontline leaders, entrusted Fahim with the responsibility of overseeing military and, consequently, political affairs. Rabbani acknowledged this in an interview with Andishmand on March 8, 2005, expressing his intention to appoint Ahmad Zia Massoud, Ahmad Shah Massoud’s brother and his son-in-law, as the successor.

However, Rabbani did not elaborate on the qualifications that made Ahmad Zia an appropriate successor to Ahmad Shah Massoud. Despite attributing Ahmad Zia’s eligibility to his association with the “family of Engineer Massoud,” the truth is that Rabbani favored a familial connection, specifically his son-in-law, for this role. Conversely, Fahim, who was physically present during the events, adamantly opposed any alternative to Massoud. Rabbani appeared conflicted and failed to provide a clear rationale. He also mentioned that Fahim had “problems” during those days and dispatched his son-in-law, Habil, to assist with these issues.

Evidently, Rabbani was alluding to “financial problems” plaguing Fahim. On some occasions, Fahim had disagreements with Massoud on certain matters, endeavoring to secure Rabbani’s economic support under this pretext. Despite other leaders, such as Ismail Khan and Abdul Rashid Dostum, suggesting a collective consultation to appoint Massoud’s successor, Rabbani dismissed these requests and, with the input of a few unassuming and inconsequential individuals, designated Fahim as Massoud’s successor.

Much of Fahim’s popularity during Massoud’s lifetime was predicated on a game instigated by Rabbani in which Fahim was a pawn. Recognizing Fahim’s disposition, Rabbani provided substantial financial resources to gain influence over him, with the expectation that Fahim could be employed against Massoud when necessary. However, with Massoud’s passing and the arrival of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, all of Rabbani’s aspirations were thwarted. The person Rabbani had elevated was marginalized. In such instances, it is akin to the saying: “the magic returned to the magician,” or, in English, “the plan backfired.”

Following the fall of the Taliban regime and a retrospective analysis of historical events, it became evident that there was a general reluctance to extend Burhanuddin Rabbani’s presidency. Rabbani appeared passive, devoid of a substantial role in leadership and management. However, he harbored aspirations to retain the perks of the presidency. Understandably, those responsible for the intricacies of war and politics found this approach unfair. They contended that it was unjust for them to shoulder the burdens while privileges were bestowed upon someone who contributed minimally to their collective successes.

On at least two occasions, first during the Herat summit and later when Abdul Rahim Ghafoorzai was appointed prime minister during the resistance period, Ahmad Shah Massoud and his associates attempted to diminish Rabbani’s authority or have him removed. Unfortunately for them, events did not transpire according to their desires. In the final years leading to Massoud’s tragic death, tensions between Rabbani and Massoud became increasingly palpable. When Mohammad Qasim Fahim assumed leadership, given these experiences, he was unwilling to bear the cost of Rabbani’s continued presence at the helm without commensurate benefits. Consequently, it became apparent that fewer individuals favored Rabbani’s continued tenure. Those who later regretted Rabbani’s removal sought to capitalize on the wave of dissatisfaction among supporters of the “Resistance Zone” following the Bonn Agreement.

Although Rabbani reluctantly relinquished power to Hamid Karzai and retreated into isolation, his personal animosity towards Fahim and others drove him to employ various means to undermine his colleagues. An opportunity swiftly presented itself when Karzai, influenced by the counsel of Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. Special Envoy for Afghanistan’s Reconciliation, and other foreign actors, removed Fahim from the vice presidency. In Fahim’s stead, Ahmad Zia Massoud was appointed, effectively reviving Rabbani’s influence. To convince Ahmad Zia Massoud to accept the position as Karzai’s deputy, Rabbani took the initiative in collaboration with Abdullah, effectively sidelining Fahim.

During Afghanistan’s first-ever presidential elections, Karzai initially appeared unopposed, and Fahim anticipated that Karzai would appoint him as his deputy. Karzai himself inclined towards this decision and was apprehensive about the consequences of excluding Fahim. However, foreign influences, including Khalilzad, Jean Arnault (the Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy on Afghanistan), and the Japanese ambassador in Kabul, coerced Karzai into considering an alternative. Khalilzad and others proposed that Ahmad Zia, Ahmad Shah Massoud’s brother, be chosen as Karzai’s deputy in the presidential election. This decision was premised on the assumption that selecting someone from Massoud’s family would preempt potential protests. Karzai announced this decision in the presence of Northern Alliance leaders, including Fahim, Qanuni, and Abdullah, which led to Fahim’s departure in anger.

According to Khalilzad, Fahim and his associates pressured Zia to rescind his decision and withdraw from Karzai’s election team. This decision was subsequently conveyed to Karzai, leaving the Karzai-Khalilzad alliance perplexed and at an impasse. Time was slipping away, and Karzai expressed frustration, attributing his predicament to the “foreigners” and their misguided advice.

Significantly, Khalilzad noted that Abdullah, ostensibly aligned with Fahim’s camp, rushed to the aid of Karzai and Khalilzad. Abdullah proposed a solution that broke the deadlock, suggesting that Rabbani, Zia Massoud’s father-in-law, could persuade Ahmad Zia to join Karzai’s election team.

Khalilzad personally visited Rabbani, who promised to “resolve the issue.” After a conversation between Rabbani and Zia Massoud, the latter promptly registered as Karzai’s deputy in the election (pp. 228-229).

Rabbani’s attempt to shift the responsibility for post-Bonn events within the “Jihad and resistance area” onto Fahim and others is a glaring injustice. The presence of Zia Massoud as Karzai’s deputy, both after Fahim and since the fall of 2003, was a direct outcome of Rabbani’s actions and efforts. The weaknesses and setbacks experienced in the “resistance area” cannot be solely attributed to the two or three years during which Fahim shared power with Karzai. Zia Massoud’s initial vice presidency represented one of the bleakest periods for Tajiks during the twenty-year span of the republican regime. Rabbani’s endeavor to replace Fahim with Zia Massoud can be perceived as a pursuit of personal ambition.

While it is true that Fahim lacked political acumen, possessed a superficial and crude understanding of power, and made mistakes that weakened the resistance movement, it is incorrect to claim that Fahim and others made no effort to safeguard collective values and interests. Khalilzad explicitly mentioned in “Envoy” that the main reason Western diplomatic, and possibly military, officials sought to distance Fahim from Karzai’s side in the 2004 elections was Fahim’s obstinate nature. They preferred a Tajik figure beside Karzai who lacked maturity and competence but was obedient and compliant, attributes embodied by Ahmad Zia. Rabbani colluded with the Americans and Khalilzad to sideline Fahim in favor of Zia Massoud, providing Tajik legitimacy to Karzai’s administration. In the midst of Rabbani’s political maneuvering, one must question why he did not reflect on his own actions before ruthlessly undermining the lives of others.

Andishmand, who conducted the aforementioned interview with Rabbani, asserts that when parts of this interview were published in the book titled “The US and Afghanistan,” he encountered disappointment and dissatisfaction. The nature of Andishmand’s questions during the interview reflects his own dissatisfaction with the prevailing circumstances, indicating his desire to steer the interview in a direction that ended up tarnishing Fahim and his reputation.

Several years ago, I inquired of Andishmand why, when Rabbani lamented in the interview that the “brothers” were engaging in deals and undervaluing their principles, he did not probe him about his role as the head of the Mujahideen government and why he did not intervene in these dealings. Does this not imply that Rabbani had completely lost his significance and influence? Andishmand conceded that Rabbani should have addressed this question, but he refrained from posing it at that moment. Presumably, in that tense and polarized atmosphere, there was little room for questions that delved into the matter with objectivity.

Several years after the interview, Rabbani consented to lead the Peace Council. By doing so, he demonstrated his political competence, albeit constrained by opportunities. Nevertheless, the Peace Council remained a symbolic and ineffectual institution with no substantive role in peace decision-making. The Americans formulated and executed their plans independently, without heeding the Afghan government’s requests. Notably, Rabbani’s initial action upon affiliating with Karzai and assuming the leadership of the Peace Council was to attempt to persuade Karzai to appoint his son as the ambassador to Turkey.

During his zenith in the resistance movement, Rabbani accused others of compromising and selling out their principles. What changed in these intervening years that Rabbani’s cooperation with Karzai, supporting him during a precarious period, was considered acceptable and justifiable, while the actions of others in more favorable circumstances were branded as selling out their values? The answer to this question is apparent. Rabbani acted under the perception that if he held power, global peace would prevail. Conversely, if he was not in power, he would criticize those in authority and wage a psychological war against them.

In conclusion, the assertion made by Rabbani and his supporters that Fahim and his colleagues engaged in negotiations and bartered the principles of the resistance during the Bonn conference is devoid of merit for several reasons. Firstly, as he claimed, when the “brothers” struck deals, Rabbani served as the head of the Mujahideen government and had the authority to halt such transactions. While ordinary individuals have the right to critique the actions of their leaders, the person occupying the highest position should have exercised his authority instead of resorting to criticism and reprimand. Rabbani himself was involved in these profitable or unprofitable dealings. Qanuni has repeatedly asserted that Rabbani was well-informed about all proceedings at the Bonn conference, with all decisions receiving Rabbani’s approval.

Secondly, Rabbani played a role in Fahim’s demise. Prior to the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud, he attempted to pit Fahim against Massoud by providing him with a substantial sum of money. Furthermore, his unilateral decision to appoint Fahim as Massoud’s successor without consulting others constituted a significant error for which he should have shouldered responsibility. His removal from the political arena following the Taliban’s downfall was the outcome of his own flawed decisions.

Thirdly, Rabbani, in collaboration with Khalilzad and Abdullah, introduced Zia Massoud onto the stage in an effort to isolate Fahim. Zia’s appointment as vice president marked a pivotal moment in the resistance movement, indicating a decline in the political arena. Rabbani, like other former resistance leaders, pursued personal privileges for himself and his family as a primary objective. He was willing to promote his son-in-law, Zia Massoud, who lacked a comprehensive understanding of global affairs and remained ensconced in his insular world, to a high-ranking government position without any notable achievements. He was not prepared to set aside vendettas against domestic rivals for the greater collective good. When he approached Karzai, his initial action was to secure an embassy appointment in Turkey for his son. None of these aspirants for leadership exhibited a grand vision.