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Son Follows Father as Afghan Peace Talks Chief

Salahuddin Rabbani named as High Peace Council chairman, a post his father held when he was murdered last year.
By Khan Mohammad Danishju

Commentators in Afghanistan have questioned a decision to replace the late Burhanuddin Rabbani with his son as head of peace negotiations with the Taleban, saying the appointment looks like a move to consolidate President Hamid Karzai’s power.

On April 14, Salahuddin Rabbani, previously ambassador to Turkey, was selected head of the High Peace Council, which is tasked with reaching out to the Taleban and other insurgent groups.

His father, a former Afghan president and leader of one of the mujahedin factions, was assassinated on September 20, 2011, when a visitor arrived at his home claiming to be a Taleban peace envoy and detonated explosives concealed beneath his turban. (See Rabbani Killing Casts Doubt on Afghan Peace Efforts.)

The murder left a seven-month gap at the top of the 68-member body, which was set up in October 2010 and includes figures with backgrounds in various armed factions, including the Taleban.

Ataullah Ludin, who sits on the High Peace Council, told IWPR its members agreed on Salahuddin Rabbani unanimously.

The council’s selection was approved on April 14 by Karzai and a group of politicans that included Vice-President Mohammad Qasim Fahim, Balkh provincial governor Atta Mohammad Nur, and parliamentarian Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf.

Karzai’s spokesman Aimal Faizai Faizai said Karzai settled on the younger Rabbani only after protracted negotiations with politicians and other leaders.

Waqif Hakimi from the Jamiat-e Islami party, formerly led by Burhanuddin Rabbani, says the family connection will strengthen Salahuddin’s position, and that he is a well-educated, high-profile figure who is well-placed to lead the peace effort.

Faizai told IWPR there were three reasons for the choice – “first to maintain national unity, second to pay homage and respect to his martyred father for all his services to the country, and [third] the fact that he is a well-educated, young man with proven experience of diplomatic work for the government”.

Others, however, question whether the 40-year-old has enough gravitas to be taken seriously by the insurgents.

Hamidullah Faruqi, spokesman for the Truth and Justice Party, described the High Peace Council as inherently flawed, and said neither father nor son had been the right appointment.

“Its structure and leadership have severe shortcomings, and appointing Burhanuddin was not the right move,” he said. “Although his son is well-educated and young, his influence in politics and among the population doesn’t amount to anything. There are people who are better educated and have more popular support.”

Burhanuddin Rabbani was a complex figure whose life was closely entwined with Afghanistan’s recent history. During the 1980s, he led Jamiat-e Islami, a powerful mujahedin faction which fought against the Soviet-backed government.

When the mujahedin entered Kabul in 1992, Rabbani was made president, a period in which there was virtually no government as the various armed factions fought for control of the capital, reducing parts of the city to rubble in the process.

Fleeing to his stronghold in the mainly Tajik northeast of Afghanistan when the Taleban captured Kabul in 1996, Rabbani became nominal head of the Northern Alliance, a coalition of armed factions that joined with the United States in 2001 to force the Taleban from power.

Whilst undoubtedly a heavyweight, Rabbani attracted controversy as the High Peace Council’s first leader. Some critics argue that having fought the Taleban for so long, he was not in an ideal position to negotiate with them.

In 2005, the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch called for an investigation to determine whether Rabbani could be held culpable for abuses relating to the early phase of the civil war in 1992-93.

To some commentators, the decision to pass the position from father to son looks like cronyism.

Political analyst Fazel Rahman Oria believes Karzai chose Rabbani’s son in an attempt to woo politicians from Jamiat-e Islami.

“The president wanted to maintain Jamiat under his control rather than see it join his political opponents,” Oria said.

Wahid Mozhda, another political analyst, suggested that the president picked Rabbani because he was expected to take over the leadership of Jamiat-e Islami, “thus paving the way for Karzai to exert influence over Jamiat... and bolster his own position.”

Mohammad Fahim and Atta Mohammad Nur, who took part in the final approval, were formerly senior commanders in the Jamiat militia.

Others commentators argue that Salahuddin Rabbani is a more impartial figure than his father, but lacks the political clout needed to forge peace.

“The peace question is not some minor thing that can be resolved by appointing one individual, or by setting up a council,” Mozhda said.

Salahuddin Rabbani was not the only candidate for the post of High Peace Council chairman.

Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, a former mujahedin leader now in his eighties, also put his name forward. Mojaddedi has been leading the Afghanistan Peace and Reconciliation Commission, a separate body from the High Peace Council, since its inception in 2005. When the post went to Rabbani, he resigned in protest.

“His resignation letter has reached the president, but has not been accepted,” Faizai said.

Among Kabul residents, opinion was divided about the appointment.

For Guldin, a 40-year-old from Logar province now living in the capital, it said a lot about how Afghanistan was governed.

“Positions and seats are all inherited and outsiders... are not allowed to occupy those posts,” he said. “The government of Afghanistan is not committed either to achieving peace or to building institutions.”

Although the Taleban have not said whether they were behind the elder Rabbani’s murder, Yaqub Kohan, a 47-year-old journalist, said it would be difficult for Salahuddin to negotiate with them.

“How can he work wholeheartedly with the Taleban, or harbour warm and genuine feelings towards htem?” he asked.

Others like Mirza Mohammad, a 27-year-old Kabul resident, were more optimistic about what Rabbani’s appointment could mean.

“Jamiat is a powerful political party in Afghanistan, and if it is prepared to work with the government now that Salahuddin has been appointed, isn’t that a good thing?” he asked.

Khan Mohammad Danishju is an IWPR-trained reporter in Kabul.