A suicide bomber killed my old friend, Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani, former president of Afghanistan, last week in Kabul, shaking his war-scarred nation to its core.
Rabbani, a renowned Islamic scholar from the Tajik minority, was one of the original leaders of the Afghan resistance to Soviet occupation.
I first met him in the most unlikely of all places: Toronto, Canada.
It was 1982. He and four other Afghan resistance leaders -- known as mujahedin -- were discreetly trying to raise money from North American Muslim communities to buy arms and supplies to fight Soviet occupation.
As one of only a few journalists writing about Afghanistan's unknown and seeming hopeless struggle against the world's greatest land power, I was invited to meet them on a brisk fall day in a small vocational college next to Lake Ontario.
The five mujahedin leaders, dressed in traditional Afghan garb, and turbans or chitrali hats, were cooking up a pot of curry in a student dormitory they had been loaned.
Rabbani was an imposing man, with dark, gentle eyes and a scholarly manner. I asked him how he could hope to defeat the mighty Soviet Union which in those days had 100 armored and mechanized divisions.
"Allah will provide. What is important is that our faith is strong." His faith was to prove far stronger than my doubts.
I met Prof. Rabbani a number of times during the anti-Soviet Great Jihad, both in Peshawar, Pakistan's wild border town, and inside Afghanistan. Each time he embraced me like a son and assured me victory would be won.
And so it was. In 1989, the wise, humane new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, ordered his army out of Afghanistan. "Graveyard of Empires."
Prof. Rabbani became Afghan president for four years. At his term's end, he refused to leave office. Bitter Pashtun-Tajik rivalries surged.
The seven mujahedin groups fell out, then battled one another like wolves. Afghan Communists battled Islamic forces. The majority Pashtun, who had done most of the fighting against the Soviets, battled the minority Tajiks, Uzbek and Hazra, many of whom were allied, overtly or secretly, with the Soviet occupiers.
Prof. Rabbani's party, Jamaat Islami, led the anti-Pashtun Northern Alliance. When Pashtun Taliban emerged in the early 1990's, his movement led the anti-Taliban fight. But Rabbani had by then become a figurehead. His Northern Alliance was really run by Tajik warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud, backed by the brutal communist Uzbek general, Rashid Dostum.
In recent years, retired Soviet KGB and GRU (military intelligence) officers claimed Massoud was a Soviet "asset," who actually sabotaged mujahedin war efforts in hopes that Moscow would make him leader of Afghanistan -- a classic KGB false flag operation. I saw this happen numerous times.
Massoud was killed two days before 9/11 by assassins sent by Osama bin Laden, a bitter foe of the Afghan Communists.
The US then allied itself to the Northern Alliance and invaded Afghanistan. Contrary to fables about CIA agents of horseback, Russian generals and troops conducted most of the ground operations, aided by US B-52 bombers. The northern Tajiks became the power behind the US-installed figurehead, Hamid Karzai.
In recent years, Prof. Rabbani was made head of the Afghan Peace Council. It was a seemingly hopeless task. Taliban and other Pashtun resistance groups refused to talk a real peace until all foreign troops occupying Afghanistan withdrew. They, their children, and their grandchildren would fight the foreign invaders until driven out.
US hopes Rabbani might splinter Taliban by getting various sub-units to switch sides -- as happened with the Sunni resistance in Iraq -- failed. But Rabbani was also an Afghan patriot who worked for reconciliation and was one of a few Tajik leaders acceptable to the Pashtun Taliban.
So who then murdered my old friend? He had many foes. A splinter group from Taliban? Tajik communists sabotaging any peace with Pashtun? A murky personal vendetta so common in Afghanistan?
Another old friend, the anti-Taliban warlord Hadji Kadir, who became vice president of Afghanistan, was murdered in Kabul in 2002. His gunmen had protected me from communist attempts to kidnap or kill me. Yet another old comrade in arms from the 1980's Great Jihad, the impetuous Abdul Haq, was captured and executed by Taliban after he threw in his lot with the Americans.
Killing a man in his own home violates Pushtunwali, the sacred Pashtun code of honor. Use of a suicide bomber strongly suggests remnants of al-Qaida. But we may never know.
An old Afghan friend who had taken me to meet Prof Rabbani in the mid 1980's, just wrote me: "if it was not for your support and some other western writers, the world would not have known, appreciated and supported their fight for freedom (the mujahedin) He always appreciated and admired your courage and support (a lot of prayers were said for your success and safety). The Muslims have lost a great mujahid (holy warrior) and Afghanistan lost a great leader and peacemaker. May Allah bless his soul."
To that I say, "Amen."
copyright Eric S. Margolis 2011