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The Legacy of a Warrior: Ahmad Shah Massoud

Massoud, a warrior who maintained his humanity. (Photograph by Reza Deghati)

“If there had never been a war,” he said, “I would have been a very good architect.”

Ahmad Shah Massoud, a renowned guerrilla fighter of his generation, left behind a mixed legacy after his death on September 9, 2001. A moderate amongst the leaders of jihad who grew extremer every day, few close to him would question the personal dignity of the commander.  His humanity remained intact despite being devoured by the beast of war for more than half of his life. However, what taints his legacy is the involvement of his men in the darkest period of Afghanistan’s history—or Kabul’s history, rather.

The period I speak of is the years between 1991 and 1996, when the government of Dr. Najib was toppled and the Mujahideen moved into Kabul. As their eminent victory over Najib’s government neared after the Soviets withdrew their military power, the Mujahideen grew progressively divided. At the heart of their disputes was the structure of the future government that would move into Kabul. How would the power be divided? And more importantly, who will move into the mouth-watering presidential palace?

As the various factions tightened the noose around Kabul, Najib offered to step down. His attempts to ensure a smooth transition did not reach anywhere for no one listens to the demands of a leader on verge of demise. The country was at the mercy of the handful jihadi leaders who bargained behind closed doors in Peshawer. Pakistani agents sat at the head of the table, trying to broker a deal.

Massoud himself did not have any ambitions of becoming president, that is one certainty of the matter.  He was a king-maker and his word carried a lot of weight, but he had never shown any desire for the seat. He repeatedly said that he had left the issue of leadership of the country to the elders. However, it was his rivalry with Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, a fellow engineering classmate in his younger days, that eventually turned Kabul into the bloodiest killing-ground.

The commanders had delayed an immediate entry into Kabul until a political agreement was reached by the different leaders in Pakistan. A sudden entry would bring chaos in the city, it was said. But Hikmatyar grew restless of the negotiations, and felt that nothing was being achieved. He wanted to move in immediately and claim the ultimate prize for the Mujahideen: the presidential palace. But there was no longer such a thing as the mujahideen. The language used was one of ahzab, or parties, factions. Hikmatyar’s entry meant a victory for his faction, not for all. And Massoud vehemently warned against such an entry. He tried to convince Hikmatyar that he should wait, pending the results of the negotiations in Peshawer. But Hekmatyar would have none of it. So Massoud declared that he would “defend the people of Kabul, the man, women, children, and elderly of Kabul.” And so began the darkest period in history.

For close to five years, until Taliban emerged from the South to rid them all and corner Massoud into Panjsher, Kabul burned in a hellish civil war. The small city was divided up into numerous kingdoms, with a throne on every street. Hikmatyar fired mortars from one end, Charasyab, and Massoud responded from the other, Koh e Telvision. In between, Kabul was looted, raped, and burned until it turned into a ghost-town.

The Legacy:

Any warrior, whether he likes it or not, will have blood on his hands. Massoud is no different. His image, as Afghans see it now, has splashes of blood over it. Whether he pierced his own dagger and drew that blood is questionable.  Did he have men under his command who caused tremendous bloodshed? That is a harsh certainty.

But Ahmad Shah Massoud stands out for one characteristic that many life-long warriors lose in the face of war: the ability to maintain a concerned, moderate, human heart. At every moment of his life, in every speech, in every gesture, Massoud gave the vibe that he had risen from the people, that his struggle was for the people, and that he was firm on the principles of his struggle.

Journalist Sebastian Junger, who visited Massoud for a National Geographic assignment, had this to say about Massoud’s undeniable charisma:

There was something about him – the slow nod of his head as he listened to a question, the exhaustion and curiosity engraved on his handsome, haggard face – that made it clear we were in the presence of an extraordinary man. I found it impossible not to listen to Massoud when he spoke, even though I didn’t understand a word. I watched everything he did, because I had the sense that somehow – in the way he poured his tea, in the way his hands carved the air as he talked – there was some secret to be learned.”

From what his friends and those close to him recall, one gets a sense that Massoud was a man  firm on upholding his principles at all times. In time of peace, that is an easy task. But when you are cornered into a ditch for years and your enemy threatens to destroy you every moment, it takes an extraordinary man to stay firm, to stay true, and to maintain a kind heart.

Little anecdotes help us put this picture of Massoud together. General Daoud Daoud, one of Massoud’s commanders and the recent Deputy Minister of Interior, shares this story:

We were in Kabul. A professor at Kabul university came to Massoud and complained that his daughter had been taken by the son of a commander. Massoud ordered Fahim [his intelligence chief at the time, the current Vice President of Afganistan] to return the girl to his father at any cost. In fact, Massoud said he would not eat until the girl was returned to his father. Fahim said that the case would get messy, it could ignite fighting. The boy’s father had lots of armed men. Massoud replied that the honor of the professor and his daughter was everything to him. She should be returned at any cost.

Dr. Mehdi, one of Massoud’s advisers and current politician, remembers this anecdote:

I joined Massoud at a gathering in Takhar. My entry into the room had interrupted his conversation  with one of his commanders. After greeting me, he turned to the commander and asked him to please continue.

“Yes sir,” the commander continued, “so I left with eight of my men. They have Kalashnikovs and I have a kalakov.  We arrived there at dawn. Our guide showed us to a place where deer grazed. There were two ways that the deer could escape and my men blocked both ends. When it turned light, the deer that had been grazing got scared of us and started running. Since both escape routs were blocked, they had no option but to come towards me. And I started in the name of God. I fired three rounds. When I finished, my men came and gathered the deer. I had shot 28 of them. The rest that were injured ran away. They might have fallen later, but we did not follow after them. 28 was more than enough for us. I brought ten home and give away the rest, to my men and the villagers.”

The gathering remained silent. Massoud took a long look at the commander. Then, he brought his hand to his forehead and lowered his head in silence. All eyes were fixed on him as to how he would react. He turned to the commander and said:

“What a pity. You are mujahid, a haji who has gone to pilgrimage, and a sufi. You killed God’s creatures, you ended a generation of them. Don’t you think in Islam, hunting has its limits? And that excess is a sin?”

Later, Massoud refused to have a bite of the deer meat they had brought him as a delicacy.

And a final anecdote from Mir Dad, one of his commanders:

I served as the commander for the Commando Battalion.  Once, Chief of Staff of the Pakistani Army invited Massoud for a meeting, which he accepted. With a few commando soldiers and couple horses, we left for the headquarters in Badakhshan. The  journey was long, so Massoud repeatedly offered his horse to one of the soldiers. “You are tired, come ride my horse,” he said. The soldier refused. Massoud got off the horse and started walking. He left the horse behind for the soldier. He asked me to have the rest soldiers take turns on the other horses…

Massoud, on many times, reminisced about his student days. The man had gone through a lot, but he still remembered his days at the lyce Istiqlal as the best days of his life, where he played soccer and prepared to join the engineering faculty at Kabul Polytechnic. His first two years of university, too, he recalled with nostalgia. He had been very focused on his studies, very excited about becoming an architect. But the communist revolution in Afghanistan changed everything for him, turning him into a life-long warrior.

One only wonders how good an architect Massoud would have become had there been no war.

This is the second and final part of a two-part serines on Massoud and his legacy.

Ahmad Shah Massoud

Part One:

Khwaja Bahauddin, Takhar–Nine years ago today, two arab terrorists disguised as television journalists were finally granted permission to interview the leader of the Anti Taliban resistance after nine days of waiting.  The arabs had first gone to Panjsher, Massoud’s headquarters, but they had not managed to secure an appointment. So they followed the commander to Takhar, where he had gathered his troops for a meeting

The arabs arrived at his office and the door to the adobe room closed behind them.

Ahmad Shah Massoud,  a man who had not put down his gun since the jihad against the Soviets, suggested he sit across from the large windows for better lighting.The arabs nodded their heads in approval, without preoccupying themselves too much with the commander’s position or the angle of light.

The cool breeze coming in through the open windows disheveled Massoud’s hair, which had begun to gray. He was no longer a young anti-soviet guerrilla fighter. He was as much a seasoned statesman now as an experienced commander.

Massoud fixed his collar, tilted his pakool in his trademark fashion, leaned back against the cream wall. His prayer beads: he kept thumbing with his determined fingers. An assistant placed a cup of tea in front of him as his long time-friend and advisor Khalili took a seat by the window.

This is another chance to warn the world, Massoud thought perhaps. Another opportunity to shed light on the Taliban’s brutality, on their fanatic ideology.

Three years earlier, Massoud had sent a letter to the American people and government, warning them of the same concerns. He had written:

I send this message to you today on behalf of the freedom and peace-loving people of Afghanistan, the Mujahedeen freedom fighters who resisted and defeated Soviet communism, the men and women who are still resisting oppression and foreign hegemony and, in the name of more than one and a half million Afghan martyrs who sacrificed their lives to uphold some of the same values and ideals shared by most Americans and Afghans alike…

The country[Afghanistan] has gradually been occupied by fanatics, extremists, terrorists, mercenaries, drug Mafias and professional murderers. One faction, the Taliban, which by no means rightly represents Islam, Afghanistan or our centuries-old cultural heritage, has with direct foreign assistance exacerbated this explosive situation. They are unyielding and unwilling to talk or reach a compromise with any other Afghan side


We consider this as part of our duty to defend humanity against the scourge of intolerance, violence and fanaticism. But the international community and the democracies of the world should not waste any valuable time, and instead play their critical role to assist in any way possible the valiant people of Afghanistan overcome the obstacles that exist on the path to freedom, peace, stability and prosperity.

And just few months earlier, during a rare tour of the West, Massoud had sent a more direct message to President Bush from Paris. In April 2001 he warned that if the Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies were not dealt with, they would grow into a cancer for America and the rest of the world. Then, it would not be just Afghanistan’s problem.

But Massoud was an increasingly isolated leader. His words seemed to carry no weight with the international community because his men only controlled less than ten percent of the Afghan territory. Their resistance to the Taliban did not seem anything more than a final hurdle that would fall sooner or later.

So on September 9, 2001, as Massoud prepared for the interview, perhaps he saw another opportunity: to try to reach out to the Arab world.

During the years of jihad against the Soviets, numerous Arab intelligence agencies had been close supporters of the cause Massoud had fought. Perhaps, he could extract some sympathy if he chose his words with care?

Out of habit, Massoud asked for the questions to be recited to him before the arabs roll the camera.  Khalili, his friend and interpreter for this interview, had a curiosity of his own that he wanted to fulfill before he could express Massoud’s request. Khalili looked to the arabs and asked: what television do you report for?

One of the arabs replied that they were not journalists. They worked for an Islamic organization that had centers in Paris and London. Khalili looked at Massoud, a bit confused and skeptical. Massoud motioned with his head that it was ok, let them move on with the questions.

Nothing about the questions seemed unfair to Massoud. What condition was his resistance in? Why had the Taliban managed to control so much, and his forces so little? one that raised Khalili’s eyebrows was: why did Massoud declare Osama bin Laden a killer on his recent trip to europe? But that question,too, did not bother Massoud.

Ahmad Shah Massoud, once the legendary anti-soviet warrior and now an isolated commander who struggled to maintain a resistance, fixed his pakool hat one last time. Slowly, he raised his head high, and let an expression of confidence take over.  The creases on his forehead, the gray of his hair were those of a statesmen. But the weary eyes were those of an exhausted warrior. He cleared his throat and then motioned to the cameraman with his eyes: he was ready.

A flash. A bang. And the room collapsed. The large windows flew into the street. Darkness took over.

His follower tried to play down the news of his death until September 16, but Massoud had not even made it to the hospital.

Part two of this entry will focus on Massoud’s legacy.

Pakistan: A Sorry State

Shiite Muslims attacked in Pakistan. (Mohsin Raza / Reuters-- Through Time.com)

Pakistan has been in serious trouble. Ever since President Zardari replaced Parvez Musharaf in September 2008, the situation has only deteriorated. This summer, especially, the young nation has gone through tremendous pain. And if the two recent bloody attacks are any indication, there is more bad news to come out of there.

In the past three days, two bloody suicide attacks targeted Shiite Muslims in two different cities. The first attack, in the city of Lahore, killed 25 people and wounded at least 200. The second, only two days later, killed 53 and wounded over 150 in the southern city of Quetta.

Quetta remained under police lock down today as the families proceeded with the funerals.

The increase in violence comes at a time when Pakistan is already suffering from the worst flooding its history. The country’s leading newspaper, Dawn, summarized the devastation caused by the floods:

The massive floods that began to hit Pakistan in late July have afflicted the country extremely. Seventy-nine of the country’s124 districts (24 in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa, 19 in Sindh, 12 in Punjab, 10 in Balochistan and seven each in Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan) have been affected. Official estimates say 1,600 people have been killed and more than 17 million are affected by the catastrophe. The disaster has not only led to losses in terms of human casualties and large scale displacement but has also damaged the agricultural country’s major crops over an estimated area of more than 1.38 million acres which constitutes 30 per cent of Pakistan’s agricultural land.

The response to the natural disaster and the recent violence has only further highlighted the incompetence of the Pakistani government that faces progressively difficult challenges. Waqar Gillani wrote in New York Times:

The unrest and anger set off by the attacks seemed to underline Pakistan’s flagging support for local and national governments, which are struggling to cope with rising militant violence and the aftermath of the worst flooding in the country’s history.

As the news of floods started hitting headlines, President Zardari was nowhere to be seen. He, with his children on his side, had decided to continue on with a trip to Europe despite the gravity of the situation at home. This angered Pakistanis who were losing patience with Zardari already. Ikram Sehgal, a defense and political analyst, told the New York Times:

“I think he [President Zardari] is in serious trouble. It was extremely insensitive of him to leave the country. It has gone down very badly and has left the country shaken.”

Can Zardari Face Up to the Challenges?

Ever since President Zardari took office after a tremendously confusing and bizarre turn of events, the troubles of Pakistan have escalated. The militancy, especially, has spiraled out of control. Pakistanis have suffered in the past year through the cowardly act of suicide bombs almost on daily basis.

In the face of all this, President Zardari has flashed his smile of helplessness.

General Musharraf, it is well known by now, was impeding the progress in war on terror. It has been argued that as long as Musharaf was in power, the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan would not deter because he was doing business with both sides, the US and the Taliban. But as the situation in Pakistan exasperates dramatically, a sense of nostalgia for Musharaf days is growing there. While Musharaf was not a help in the war against terror, at least he had a tight grip over the Pakistani Army and by extension over the country. Mr. Zardari, it becomes more obvious every day, is struggling to control the country. And his civilian government has not been able to impose its agenda on Ashfaq Kayani’s army. Pakistan, increasingly, is turning into a dangerous state vulnerable in the face of a growing militancy.

In the wake of the two recent attacks, Mr. Zardari’s government faces its most difficult challenge so far: the scare of full-fledged sectarian violence.  The Sunnis and Shiites have had a troubled history in Pakistan, often falling for skirmishes with each other. But as the Shiites find the Pakistani Taliban also siding with Sunnis and carrying out bloody attacks against them, one cannot rule out the dramatic increase in sectarian violence. Even Zardari’s own Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, seems fearful of it, as Dawn reports :

“Sectarianism that has been there for 62 years (since the creation of Pakistan), they [militants who carried out the recent attacks] stoked it again,” he told reporters in Islamabad. Malik said the TTP, al-Qaeda and the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LJ), one of the most violent anti-Shia groups with roots in the central Punjab province, were all part of the same organisation.

“Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, al-Qaeda, TTP; they are one,” he said.

“And the TTP are there whenever there is suicide bombing.”

If sectarian violence breaks out across the country, I doubt that Mr. Zardari and his government can be any help in tackling it.