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This article was first published 1 year ago  » News » The Man Who Fought Al-Qaeda, Taliban

The Man Who Fought Al-Qaeda, Taliban

By T C A Raghavan
March 04, 2023 13:02 IST
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Ahmed Shah Massoud's assassination, 9/11 and the defeat and ejection of the Taliban suggested a break in Afghanistan's history, but the events of August 2021 and the Taliban's return shows how deeper continuities remained in place, points out T C A Raghavan, former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan.

IMAGE: Five months and four days before he was assassinated by al-Qaeda murrders, Ahmad Shah Massoud, the veteran commander leading the armed struggle against Afghanistan's Taliban, addresses a press conference at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, April 5, 2001. Photograph: Reuters

The publication of this book was slated for September 2021 to mark the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud just a few days before 9/11.

But before the book appeared, Afghanistan changed. The US withdrawal in disarray and the return of the Taliban, therefore, contextualise this book and provide the prism to assess Ahmad Shah Massoud and his legacy.

The author Sandy Gall has covered Afghanistan as a journalist since the early 1980s and came to this latest Cold War hotspot as someone with a proven track record in covering other conflicts.

He wrote this book when he was 93 and it is therefore a mature and considered reflection on a man he clearly admires and someone who could possibly be termed as the most arresting personality to emerge out of Afghanistan in the past half century.


IMAGE: Ahmad Shah Massoud at a press conference in Paris, April 4, 2001. Photograph: Xavier Lhospice/Reuters

Mr Gall first met Massoud, then barely 30, in 1982 already then attracting attention as a major Mujahideen leader and the tallest figure in his native Panjshir.

Joining the anti-Soviet resistance meant turning his back on a relatively privileged background -- his father had been a colonel in the Royal Afghan Army.

He attended one of Afghanistan's best schools where he also learnt his reasonably good French.

While studying architecture in the 1970s he gravitated to the Jamiat i Islami in large part in reaction to the growing dominance of the communists amongst his fellow students.

This resistance was soon to expand to President Doud whose coup had ended the reign of Afghanistan's King Zahir Shah.

Massoud was by now in Peshawar where the ISI was trying to organise anti-Doud resistance as a means to extend Pakistan's influence in Afghanistan. But there were deeper currents in motion.

Doud was to be overthrown -- but by the Communists.

The Soviet invasion to safeguard this 'revolution' from US ingress, made Afghanistan into a central front of the Cold War.

IMAGE: Ahmad Shah Massoud is welcomed by then European Union foreign and security policy chief Javier Solana, right, in Brussels April 6, 2001. Photograph: Yves Herman/Reuters

Foreign forces in Afghanistan galvanised popular resistance and the small group around Massoud grew and once back in Panjshir he quickly acquired the reputation of a front-line guerilla leader who had thwarted a number of Soviet military efforts.

This was the young man Mr Gall met in 1982 and continued to meet through the 1980s and 1990s, building up a rapport with him and his closest associates.

This access comes through in Mr Gall's account of Massoud in these years.

Coverage in the Western media was important to all the mujahideen leaders given their dependence on Western assistance in the anti-Soviet war.

This was perhaps especially important to Massoud as the Jamiat i Islami was not particularly favoured by the ISI and, by implication, the CIA which generally followed the ISI's tactical lead in Afghanistan.

The Hizb i Islami led by Gulbadan Hekmatyar was the favoured group of the ISI and the former remained a bitter adversary of Massoud till the assassination.

IMAGE: Then Belgian foreign minister Louis Michel greets Ahmad Shah Massoud in Brussels, April 7, 2001. Photograph: Francois Lenoir/Reuters

Mr Gall paints a vivid picture of Massoud as a guerilla leader -- someone who is precise and methodical in his approach and whose decision making is clinical and rarely driven by impulse or sentiment.

This account is enriched by his privileged access to at least some of Massoud's diaries and extracts from these show an unusually reflective and introspective man.

Clearly a devout Muslim whose faith sustains his struggle, he also appears as one free from bigotry and naturally disinclined to the scriptural and conservative advocacy of Hekmatyar and then the Taliban.

Mr Gall's account is therefore from a privileged perch: A war correspondent, a fly on the wall observer but also someone who is trusted by his subject, his associates and his family.

It takes us through the anti-Soviet struggle and then after the Soviet withdrawal, the inability of the different Mujahideen parties to get along.

In Mr Gall's account, Massoud emerges as a Tajik leader who had a vision of Afghanistan beyond its constituent ethnicities and one who saw the value of forging a strong front with Uzbeks and Hazaras -- later to emerge as the Northern Alliance.

IMAGE: Ahmad Shah Massoud speaks with then French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine at the French Foreign Ministry, April 4, 2001. Photograph: Xavier Lhospice/Reuters

The civil war that followed with Hekmatyar and Massoud as protagonists took a greater toll on Afghanistan than the Soviet occupation.

It paved the way for the Taliban and from being a victor against the Soviets and the government that followed, Massoud was back to being a guerilla leader.

Readers in India will, however, be disappointed to find little about his dealings with India, Russia and Iran as they bolstered the Northern Alliance against the Taliban.

The Indian role would perhaps have better explained the ISI's continued animosity to Massoud, leading finally to his assassination in which, as Mr Gall speculates, 'Pakistan's ISI was deeply involved'.

Massoud's assassination, 9/11 and the defeat and ejection of the Taliban suggested a break in Afghanistan's history, but the events of August 2021 and the Taliban's return shows how deeper continuities remained in place.

The value of this biography is that it not only takes us through the 1980s and 1990s with Massoud in the centre frame, but also helps to understand longer-term trends in Afghanistan and how its history repeats itself again and again and again.

Afghan Napoleon: The Life of Ahmad Shah Massoud

Author: Sandy Gall

Publisher: Speaking Tiger

Pages: 372

Price: Rs 699

Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/

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T C A Raghavan
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