September 11, 2010


Massoud’s Last Conquest: Afghanistan’s master guerrilla commander, Ahmed Shah Massoud, was assassinated by suspected al-Qaeda suicide bombers just two days before September 11. But his Northern Alliance coalition became the U.S.’s most important weapon against the Taliban in a war that combined 19th-century slaughter and 21st-century technology. As alliance soldiers marched on Kabul—with a massed-infantry assault amid the deadly shadows of B-52 bombers—the author saw Massoud’s legacy revealed, in the Afghans’ hatred of foreigners fighting for the Taliban, in their readiness to die for freedom, and even, poignantly, in one man’s act of mercy. (Sebastian Junger, February 2002, Vanity Fair)

Last April, a delegation of Afghans arrived in Paris to plead their case with the French government and the European Parliament. At their head was Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Tajik guerrilla fighter who almost single-handedly was holding together the fractious Northern Alliance against the Taliban. With him were commanders—some would call them warlords—from the Uzbek, Hazara, and Pashtun populations. Massoud had often been accused of seeking a regime dominated by Tajiks; his decision to bring along other commanders seemed to be a message to the world that the time was right for a multi-ethnic Afghan government.

These men had grown up in villages where rice was still winnowed by hand and houses were made of wattle and mud. They had fought the Russians for 10 years, and the Taliban for another 5. With the exception of quick trips to Pakistan or Tajikistan, none of them had ever been out of their beautiful, war-ruined country. They landed at Le Bourget, the military airport outside Paris, were greeted on the tarmac by a woman in a short skirt, and then were taken by full diplomatic escort to the Hotel Plaza Athénée.

Massoud wore his customary safari jacket and pakul cap and was addressed as “commandant” by the awestruck hotel staff. The rich French food didn’t agree with him, and he asked the embassy to hire a cook from a local Afghan restaurant. He was lodged in a beautiful suite with 18th-century furniture and a television. Word quickly rippled through the Afghan delegation not to turn the television on, because there were “dangerous”—i.e., pornographic—channels they might stumble onto. In some interpretations of Islam, even thinking about a woman other than your wife qualifies as a sin, and one bearded commander was observed gripping his armchair and praying, eyes closed, as a young French woman walked by.

While his commanders struggled and prayed, Massoud worked. He worked 18 hours a day, five days straight, meeting with journalists, with top-level ministers, with Bernard Kouchner, the founder of Médecins sans Frontières and former head of the U.N. mission in Kosovo, and with the entire European Parliament. His message was simple: Force Pakistan to stop supporting the Taliban regime and the war will end within the year. In addition, he asked for humanitarian help with the refugees and military help for the Northern Alliance, but that was secondary. Mainly, he warned that if Pakistan was not ostracized for its support of the Taliban, Afghanistan would continue to be a haven for terrorism and extremism. Ultimately, he said, the West would pay a terrible price.

“If I could say one thing to President Bush,” Massoud said at a press conference, “it would be that if he doesn’t take care of what is happening in Afghanistan the problem will not only hurt the Afghan people but the American people as well.”

[originally posted: 2/27/02]

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Posted by Orrin Judd at September 11, 2010 12:51 AM
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