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Mohammad Rabbani
18 April 2001 - The Independent by Kate Clark

Mohammad Rabbani was the deputy leader of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan. He was one of the original members of the Taliban, the group of religious scholars who first captured the world's attention when they emerged out of nowhere to seize Afghanistan's second city, Kandahar, in 1994.

Rabbani had received an Islamic education at home in Pashmol village in Kandahar province, before going on to an Islamic seminary. The invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union in 1979 put a stop to his education as he volunteered for the jihad. His role in the civil war ended when the Soviet army withdrew in 1989, but other members and factions of the mujahedin fought on, first against the Afghan Communist government and then against each other.

It was a time of lawlessness and chaos. The Communist government fell in 1992 and Afghanistan was fought over by factions of the mujahedin. Kandahar was particularly bad _ a battleground for commanders turned warlords who looted, took bribes and threatened to rape or murder any inhabitant who had not fled.

Rabbani and about 30 other religious students _ or Taliban _ decided to take the warlords on, first in the border town of Spin Boldak and then in Kandahar itself. "Our concern," said Rabbani at the time, "is the establishment of an Islamic system and the elimination of unrest and cruelty from our country."

At the same time, they opened up trade routes to Central Asia for Pakistan, the country which has remained the Taliban's main backer. It was the equivalent of a revolution. The Taliban spread through the south, east and west of the country _ defeating or co-opting local commanders with barely a fight. Rabbani, who had been a prominent mujahedin commander, attracted many fighters to Taliban ranks.

In 1996, the Taliban seized the Afghan capital, Kabul, and it was Rabbani who gave the dramatic press conference from the presidential palace claiming victory. He became the head of the Kabul council _ the equivalent of Prime Minister in the new Taliban government, second only in rank to the reclusive supreme leader Mohammad Omar.

Rabbani was accused of ordering the execution of the former Communist president, Dr Najibullah, who had taken refuge in a United Nations compound _ in revenge, it was said for the murder of several of Rabbani's relatives by the secret police when Najibullah had been its director. The grisly mutilation and hanging of the ex-president and his brother shocked the world. This was the first event which tarnished the Taliban's reputation internationally. Rabbani always denied any responsibility.

After Kabul, the Taliban pushed northwards and encountered their first real resistance from Afghans who condemned their hardline vision of Islam and their narrow power base. Commanders and fighters from all ethnic groups and regions have been absorbed into the Taliban ranks. However, with very few exceptions, power has remained concentrated in the hands of the original southern mullahs who founded the movement.

The capture of Kabul was the high point of Rabbani's career. Soon after, he disappeared out of public life for a while. He later said he had been sent abroad for medical treatment: "The fact is that when the Taliban forces seized Kabul I was with them and I witnessed some scenes which led to mental pressure." There have been continual reports that, despite his official seniority, he was sidelined among the senior ranks of the Taliban.

There were also reports of rifts between him and the Taliban's leader, Mohammad Omar. Comments were made last August when most of the senior Taliban made a rare public appearance together at a military parade held to celebrate Afghanistan's independence and Rabbani was seated on the edge of the grandstand. This was a symbol, people said, of his marginalisation within the leadership.

Rabbani denied any differences, but he certainly became less active. His worsening health was also a factor. In recent months, he was looking noticeably haggard and drawn. The United Nations made a humanitarian exception to its ban on senior Taliban officials taking international flights and flew Rabbani to Pakistan several times for treatment for liver cancer.

They also flew his body back to his birthplace in Kandahar for his funeral in the Taliban's Martyr's Cemetery. The Taliban is still a very young movement. Apart from a few commanders who have died in fighting, Rabbani is one of the first leaders to die. "He was first and foremost a commander of the jihad in Kandahar," said the Taliban Foreign Minister, Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil, "and secondly a religious scholar." Rabbani leaves the movement he helped to found increasingly isolated internationally and bogged down in civil war. He is survived by two sons. In keeping with Afghan Pashtu tradition, no public mention has been made of any surviving female relatives.

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