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Hichem Karoui: Tracing Rabbani’s murder
September 25, 2011
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Either with Pakistanis or Afghans, with Iraqis or Palestinians, the United States seems these days reduced to a reactive, defensive, even accusative role, instead of a proactive voluntary constructive endeavour. Concerning Pakistan, an operation that was very likely an important victory for the Obama administration (the killing of Osama Bin Laden) has turned into a sour diplomatic imbroglio.

The distrust grew to the point that the US officials charged bluntly their Pakistani allies, Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), of using the Haqqani network (named after its leader Jalaluddin Haqqani) as proxies in Afghanistan, in order to get a key role in any forthcoming political deal, when the coalition troops withdraw from this country.

The Haqqani network (which gained notoriety while fighting against the Soviets in the 1980s) is active in the tribal region of Waziristan, to the north-west of Afghanistan. It is accused of fomenting and executing the attacks against the Nato headquarters and the US embassy in Kabul (Sept.13), which had left 15 dead and injured more than a hundred people, among them 77 Americans.

The charges concerning the ties between ISI and Haqqani network are now a serious case, since the US ambassador in Pakistan himself, Cameron Munter, mentioned in an interview with Radio Pakistan last Saturday “evidence linking the Haqqani network to the Pakistani government.” A few days later, it was the turn of Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to point to “the need for the ISI to disconnect from Haqqani and from this proxy war that they’re fighting.”

In Afghanistan itself, the murder of former president and head of the High Peace Council (HPC) Burhanuddin Rabbani on Sept.21, left an impression that the Taliban are still opposed to the kind of peace deal proposed by a government installed and protected by the United States. 

It is noteworthy that the crowd that gathered at the death of Rabbani was chanting “death to Pakistan, death to ISI.” It is not a secret that many Afghans accuse Pakistan of interfering in their affairs.

However, the point where the two ends of the thread join each other is when Pakistanis and Afghans express deep resentment toward the US handling of their domestic politics. After all, for many decades, Washington was the main ally of ISI and the Afghan Mujahedeen. Washington may feel disappointed by this logic, but it is hardly a wrong point.

Maybe we should start with the notion that, anyway, the US which has been very active in the region for several decades, cannot overlook its own responsibility in the current and future shaping of the regional balance, whether it is favourable or unfavourable to its role, interests, and objectives. This is a matter of commonsense. 

The problem of the US with Pakistan and Afghanistan is almost the same than its problem with Iraq, the Palestinians, and much of the MENA states. It concerns its handling of the elite from an exclusive intelligence/military perspective for the sake of security objectives that are not necessarily primary requirement, at the expense of a more multidimensional relationship that would aim at building trust-bridges with the population and the civil society, not with the corrupt elite.

Let us remind the reader that when Jalaluddin Haqqani became a field commander in Mawlawi Yunis Khalis’s Hizb-e-Islami, he received significant support from the CIA and from Pakistan’s ISI, enabling him to build a sizable and powerful militia force around the mid-eighties. According to a US report issued by the Institute for the Study of War, Haqqani is “influenced by radical Islamist principles drawn from the early Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.”

It is also interesting to recall that Haqqani had received a ministry in the government of Burhanuddin Rabbani; yet, he defected to the Taliban in 1995.

Is the Haqqani network connected to the murder of Rabbani? This is not an easy question. Haqqani is a Pashtun (from Ghilsai tribe). The Taliban leadership to whom he was connected are from the Durrani tribe and particularly from Kandahar. Rabbani was Afghanistan’s most influential Tajik and as a man appointed by president Karzai as the head of HPC in charge of contacting the Taliban Pashtun, had he represented a kind of threat to the authority of Haqqani among the latter?

Anyway, Haqqani’s loyalty to the Taliban is beyond doubt, if we believe some intelligence reports. In 1997, after their massive defeat in Mazar-e-Sharif, he remained loyal while facing large defections from his troops. The Taliban rewarded him by appointing him as Minister of Tribal Affairs.

In late September 2001, Mullah Omar appointed him the commander-in-chief of the Taliban armed forces. Therefore, this is not a subaltern in their chain of command, but well a key player.

Concerning his connection to the ISI, it goes back to the days of the fight against the Soviets. In May 2008, Pakistan’s Army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani has reportedly referred to Haqqani as “a strategic asset.”

There were also reports about talks in North Waziristan (early March 2009) between Sirajuddin Haqqani (one of his sons) and a top ISI official. Several other examples point to a relationship that did not weaken over the years between Haqqani and ISI. For both sides the stakes are too high not to entertain such a useful relationship.

Nevertheless, these overlapping ties are not enough to make evidence of a secret collaboration that would turn into planning attacks against the Americans and their plans for Afghanistan and Pakistan,  and much less so for the murder of Rabbani.

True, the Haqqanis were said to be opposed to recent talks between the representative of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, Tayeb Agha, and US State Department officials in Qatar and Germany earlier this year. Yet, according to some press reports, published a few days before Rabbani’s assassination, Sirajuddin Haqqani (the actual leader) pledged to support the Taliban leadership in any future peace talks.

So far, the US officials did not charge Haqqani with Rabbani’s assassination, but only with the attacks against their embassy and Nato’s headquarters in Kabul.

So, the picture is somewhat blurred and the murder of Rabbani may well remain for a certain time obscure and unclaimed.

THE AUTHOR AN EXPERT IN US-MIDDLE EAST RELATIONS AT THE ARAB CENTER FOR RESEARCH AND POLICY STUDIES (DOHA INSTITUTE).

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