Afghanistan in the shadow of Ahmad Shah Massoud

The story of 9/11 is in reality the story of the legendary Afghan freedom fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud

Many in Western political circles viewed him as a fundamentalist, a label that Massoud only qualified [File: Reuters]

For many young people, the story of war in Afghanistan begins with 9/11. They know who Osama Bin Laden is but not many know who Ahmad Shah Massoud was. They do not know the story of 9/11 is in reality the story of Ahmad Shah Massoud.

I met Massoud in 1999. He was the legendary commander who had nested in the strategic valley of Panjsher, north of the capital Kabul. From there in the 1980s, he fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, exacting heavy tolls on the Red Army. By the end of the occupation in February 1989, Massoud had expanded his military influence throughout northern Afghanistan and politically had emerged as the most influential man, not just in Afghanistan but in the region. The Wall Street Journal in fact labeled him as “The Afghan Who Won the Cold War“.

In 1992, when the West was busy dealing with the aftermath of the Soviet collapse in Eastern Europe, Afghan mujahideen managed to capture Kabul, as the Communist government collapsed due to internal ethnic and tribal divisions. Massoud was the man who captured Kabul. But the mujahideen of Afghanistan were divided along ethnic and tribal affiliations. With the exception of only nine months in 1929, for the first time in centuries, power had shifted from the Pashtuns to the Tajiks of Afghanistan.

Both Massoud and Burhanuddin Rabbani, the head of the political party to which he belonged, were of Tajik ethnicity. In the years that followed, Burhanuddin Rabbani became the president of Afghanistan. However, the tribal and ethnic fault lines proved too much and with outside interference, a bloody war erupted between parties that once fought side by side against the Soviet occupation. Massoud blamed Pakistan and Iran for supporting various armed groups.

By 1994, Massoud had survived many attempts to dislodge him from the capital by the leader of Hezb-e-Islami, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a Pashtun backed by Pakistan. Previously, Massoud had captured Kabul when General Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek militia leader, had defected from the Communist government. But in 1994, General Dostum allied himself with Hekmatyar and another prominent politician Sebghatullah Mojadidi, who ironically was the president of the newly formed mujahideen government in the initial two months, as part of an agreement. Mojadidi was bitter because he was not allowed to extend the term of his presidency. Together they launched a coup, but it was foiled by Massoud.

In the same year, a new, previously unheard of force mushroomed in southern Afghanistan. They called themselves Taliban. They came raising a white flag with no writing or symbols on it, and claimed to fight for peace and Islam. They were well armed. By 1995, Massoud managed to defeat the forces of Ali Mazari, a pro-Iranian ethnic Hazara from west Kabul. At the same time, he managed to drive the forces of Hekmatyar and General Dostum out of Kabul, only to be faced with a new enemy – the Taliban. 

The initial foot soldiers of the Taliban were genuine Muslims, with concerns for the people of the country. They were the children of Afghan refugees in Pakistani religious schools, but they became the fuel of a war that had roots in the capitals of the regional and global powers. As the Taliban captured more territory and merged with the locals, they fell victim to tribal customs and affiliations. However, within a year they had experienced tank operators, jet fighters and helicopter pilots. The answer to how students from religious schools could operate complex war machines, lies in the nature of the people that joined them. 

The Pashtun faction of the Communist party as well as hundreds of local and tribal commanders who were previously fighting against Massoud had joined the ranks of the Taliban. In short, the Taliban had become the Trojan Horse of Pashtun nationalism, but in the name of Islam. The Taliban was nothing but a conglomerate of disenfranchised Pashtun tribal fighters who dreaded the fact that a non-Pashtun has taken control of the capital. With the support of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and US petroleum companies, the Taliban unified the Pashtuns and managed to capture most of Afghanistan.

During their conquest of Afghanistan, they came across existing al-Qaeda camps. Since the Taliban had risen in the name of Islam they had no choice but to accept al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda used the Taliban as a host to further its own global agenda. Al-Qaeda had its eyes on the northern mountains of Afghanistan, which at the time was in the hands of Massoud. The northern mountains are strategic impregnable mountain ranges that are ideal for a guerrilla force, extending its operations to central Asian countries and China.

On one occasion, Massoud told me that Osama Bin Laden had asked him for a base in Parian region of Badakhshan province. Massoud said he could not do that because that area was their most strategic retreat. But the relationship between Massoud and Bin Laden was rocky from the early days of the war against the Soviets. There is no doubt that the al-Qaeda leader had made a strategic and opportunistic decision with the rise of the Taliban. For him, the fact that the Taliban was against any modern system of governance and supported the implementation of Islamic Law based on local interpretations was good enough.

The greater geopolitics of the region in relation to global issues was more important for al-Qaeda than the local politics of Tajik and Pashtuns. Perhaps ignoring the local politics was Bin Laden’s biggest mistake, nevertheless, he had decided to work with the Taliban and in doing so they placed themselves firmly against Massoud.

Massoud told me that he had no quarrel with the al-Qaeda leader but it was Bin Laden who was waging a war against him. This conversation is recorded and available on YouTube. It happened off camera but one of his aides had apparently recorded it.

On September 9, 2001, two al-Qaeda members, posing as journalists, found their way to Massoud. During the supposed interview, they detonated explosives hidden in their camera killing Massoud.

Massoud was a Sunni Hanafi Muslim. At the age of 16, he was recruited by the Islamic movement with ideological ties to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Massoud wanted an independent prosperous Afghanistan living in peace with its neighbours. He wanted the people to choose their government. He spoke of democracy in the context of the people of Afghanistan, who are Muslims. Massoud did not support a liberal democracy where Islamic Law would be watered down or abandoned in the name of moderation. For this reason, many in Western political circles viewed him as a fundamentalist, a label that Massoud never opposed but only qualified.

It is said that Massoud’s greatest enemy was his stubborn independence. When he was approached to make a deal with the Taliban, he had responded by saying: “If I have a place left beneath me to the size of my hat I will fight.” On other occasions, he had said: “If surrendering to the powerful was in our calculations, we would have surrendered to the Soviets.”

Towards the end of his life, he was convinced that not only Pakistan but the US and Saudi Arabia also support the Taliban. In an address to his fighters Massoud once said: “After years of fighting, finally we see that the US and the Saudis enter into negotiations with us on behalf of the Taliban…”

Massoud issued repeated warnings that the world is on the verge of a political and security tragedy, but his warnings were shrugged off as the warnings of a Muslim fundamentalist losing the war. To date, Western officials and media refer to him as a “warlord” even though he was the defence minister of a UN-recognised government of Afghanistan. It appears that by some measure, no government is legitimate if it is the product of jihad.

Massoud’s assassination was followed by the attack on the US on September 11. The 9/11 attacks became the catalyst for the US invasion of Afghanistan. More than a decade later, Afghanistan is first on the list of the most corrupt countries and the third poorest nation on Earth. With the exception of major highways, which are needed for military purposes, it remains entirely underdeveloped.

Now the US is in its last phase of withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban are strong as ever and Kabul is gripped in uncertainty as the US-brokered deal on the formation of a government of national unity is broken down. The government of national unity was agreed upon in principle because the April elections were massively fraudulent. In the first round Abdullah Abdullah, a close friend and confidant of Massoud, won 46 percent of the vote while his opponent Ashraf Ghani who is widely believed to be favoured by the Western governments, won 31 percent.

Since the constitution sets 50+1 percent as the benchmark for winning the election had to go to the second round. But in the second round due to systematic fraud Ashraf Ghani has won by a massive swing of some 30 percent, according to the preliminary results, despite the fact that voter turnout in the second round was reported to have been lower. Abdullah has rejected the results.

The country is on the verge of war and Massoud is missing. 

Hashmat Moslih is a political analyst and commentator on Afghanistan. He has an MA in International Urban and Environment Management and served as an advisor to the former president of Afghanistan Burhanuddin Rabbani.