As the war in Afghanistan enters its ninth year, in the minds of most Americans the attacks of September 11, 2001 remain the signal event that shaped everything that has followed. Yet had we been paying more attention, we would have known that September 9, 2001, the day that Ahmed Shah Massoud was assassinated, was no less significant.
On that day, Afghanistan lost a leader of global stature — a man who truly was irreplaceable. Now, as much as ever, as the Taliban is resurgent and American and its allies attempt to prop up a deeply corrupt government in Kabul, the memory of Massoud is a symbol of the Afghan people’s so many shattered hopes.
A year after Massoud’s death, John Burns wrote in the New York Times:
As Americans prepare to mark the Sept. 11 anniversary, with many still struggling to come to terms with the cataclysm of that day, Afghans are passing through their own harrowing remembrance, of an attack that was overshadowed for the rest of the world by what happened two days later in the United States. Only four men died on Sept. 9 — the 49-year-old Mr. Massoud, an aide and the assassins — but there has been little healing of the wounds the killers inflicted on the hearts and the hopes of millions of his countrymen.
Ask Afghans who knew Mr. Massoud what it was about him that inspires such grief, and they struggle. Like [Fahim] Dashti [who was with Massoud at the time of his assassination], they talk of his skills as the guerrilla commander who astonished Soviet generals he outfought during the occupation of the 1980’s, or of his years holding out against the Taliban, when almost all other guerrilla leaders had joined the Taliban or fled abroad.
They speak of Mr. Massoud’s directness, his lack of pretense or false piety, his modesty, the look of somber intensity that rarely left his face. But usually, they give up, as people do when they try to define charisma. Mr. Dashti, the editor, resorted, in the end, to the simplest words. “We loved him,” he said. “We loved him more than we loved our own mothers and fathers. He embodied everything we loved about Afghanistan.”
In 1998, in a letter to the American people, Massoud wrote:
Let me correct a few fallacies that are propagated by Taliban backers and their lobbies around the world. This situation over the short and long-run, even in case of total control by the Taliban, will not be to anyone’s interest. It will not result in stability, peace and prosperity in the region. The people of Afghanistan will not accept such a repressive regime. Regional countries will never feel secure and safe. Resistance will not end in Afghanistan, but will take on a new national dimension, encompassing all Afghan ethnic and social strata.
The goal is clear. Afghans want to regain their right to self-determination through a democratic or traditional mechanism acceptable to our people. No one group, faction or individual has the right to dictate or impose its will by force or proxy on others. But first, the obstacles have to be overcome, the war has to end, just peace established and a transitional administration set up to move us toward a representative government.
We are willing to move toward this noble goal. 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.
Pepe Escobar recounts:
During the 1990s, and especially during the time of the Taliban rule, which began in 1996, Washington never knew exactly how to deal with Massoud. But after the attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agents sought a meeting with Massoud in Dushanbe. The CIA wanted information on how to get to bin Laden. Massoud carefully considered all the angles, but ultimately he could not but criticize American shortsightedness. For the Bill Clinton administration, the ultimate aim was to get bin Laden and destroy al-Qaeda. For Massoud, the main point was to destroy the Taliban. He repeatedly stressed at the time that “without the Taliban, Osama can’t do anything”.
Massoud, indeed, had agents and intelligence in the heart of Taliban country. The best example is how his Panjshiris planted a powerful truck bomb just outside Mullah Omar’s compound in central Kandahar, in 1999. The explosion left a huge crater and killed 10 people, including three of Mullah Omar’s bodyguards. Omar escaped, almost by a miracle, but if the Northern Alliance could get close to the Taliban, they could not penetrate al-Qaeda’s ultra-hardcore security to try to find and menace bin Laden. And as much as the Northern Alliance could penetrate the Taliban, security chief Arif – now head of intelligence of Hamid Karzai’s government – says that “Osama was actively trying to recruit spies inside the Panjshir Valley”. But once again, no one investigated the “Moroccans”.
In his interview with Asia Times Online, the second-to-last in his lifetime, Massoud repeatedly portrayed al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Pakistan as a sort of “triangle of evil”. He criticized the US for basically following a Pakistani plan: try to “reform” the Taliban and concentrate on seducing Taliban “moderates” (a contradiction in terms). There were never any moderates within the Taliban. Mullah Omar was totally under the spell of bin Laden. American diplomats with knowledge of Central Asia were warning about the “Arabization” of Afghanistan. But no one in Washington was listening. The US only got the message after September 11 – and after Massoud’s death.
In the first months of 2001, Massoud calculated that he had to involve himself in a complex gamble: change his image from warrior to statesman. He addressed the European parliament in Strasbourg, France, in April 2001. This was his first official trip to the West. He tried hard to attract Western support for the resistance against the Taliban. But still no one was listening. In Strasbourg, Massoud delivered a stunning message that nobody took seriously at the time: “If President Bush doesn’t help us, then these terrorists will damage the United States and Europe very soon – and it will be too late.”
Afghanistan Revealed a documentary broadcast by National Geographic in October 2001, presents a portrait of Massoud and his struggle to save Afghanistan.