Today is the other tenth anniversay, the one too few Americans are aware of. Today is the tenth anniversary of the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Lion of the Panjshir, the leader of the Afghan Northern Alliance, the man who should have been president of Afghanistan these past nine years.
Charismatic, highly intelligent, well educated, a gifted linguist who spoke seven languages, Massoud was something of an enigma to many Westerners. He could have taken his education and his engineering degree and lived a comfortable life, instead he became a guerilla warrior. He so loved his Panjshir Valley, he blew up the entrance and cut it off from Afghanistan. He fought the Soviet invasion and their puppet government, but offered sanctuary to the last communist leader, Mohammad Najibullah. A devout Sunni Muslim who carried a book by Sufi mystic Ghazali with him, he fought the Saudi, Taliban and al Qaida interpretations of Islam. He was also, as seen in film from Canadian freelance journalist Arthur Kent, a man with a wickedly dry sense of humor who could joke about a Soviet rocket attack on his camp being an inconvenient break in his lunch.
Massoud’s story has been told by many. His biography in Wikipedia is impressive and lists dozens of sources. The important parts are these – he was the opposite of a stereotypical Afghan warlord, a man who never sought personal power, but simply had the talent to lead people and used that power for the good of his nation and all the Afghan people. He worked well with the Clinton administration, but was not trusted by the Bush/Cheney administration. Massoud was branded a “drug dealer” by them because he tolerated the poppy growers and opium manufacturers. The fact was, Massoud tolerated them because he taxed the hell out of them to keep his army supplied. The CIA respected him even if the Bush/Cheney administration didn’t understand or appreciate him. European leaders, however, not only appreciated him, they courted his involvement. He traveled to Europe in April, 2001, and addressed the European Union Parliament. In addition to his request for humanitarian assistance for the people of Afghanistan, which was not recovering from the ravages of the Soviet invasion and the seemingly endless civil wars, he warned that his intelligence men had uncovered evidence of an imminent “huge scale” attack on the West. Massoud was by that time holding almost a quarter of Afghanistan against the Taliban, working in conjunction with another “warlord” named Abdul Rashid Dostrum.
By all accounts, life in Massoud’s territory was radically different from the rest of Afghanistan. He helped establish democratic governance in the region, encouraged rights for women, kept the territory peaceful, did not not permit any abuses of power or position by his men. He did not have enough reach to keep Kabul as serene as the Panjshir, however. Massoud told the world that the Taliban could be defeated if their support from Pakistan and al Qaida was cut off. They probably could have been.
When the Bush/Cheney administration captured and interrogated Zachariah Moussaoui, the so-called twentieth highjacker, he insisted he had not been trained for the 9-11 attack on America, but for an attack in Europe that had failed to mature. After Massoud’s warning, there were subtle increases in airport security in Europe, increased surveillance of known al Qaida groups, small things done to intimidate al Qaida in Europe without scaring the population. The planned attack on the EU Parliament building in Salzberg was scraped. The United States only asked Massoud to report any information he received about Osama bin Laden.
In August, Massoud conveyed the message that bin Laden was in residence at a farm in Afghanistan.
In mid-August, Massoud received a request for an interview from a pair of Belgian-Moroccan journalists. Massoud met with them ten years ago today. Their camera was packed with explosives. Two men died in the explosion, one of them a bomber. Three were injured, including Massoud. One bomber was captured and later shot “while trying to escape.” Massoud died in a helicopter flying to a military hospital in Tajikistan with his closest aide, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah at his side.
Dr. Abdullah immediately called the CIA and begged them to keep the news of Massoud’s death a secret. On September 10, the world knew that the Lion of the Panjshir was dead. On September 11, over 3,000 Americans died.
Many in the intelligence community believe that Massoud’s death served two purposes. It was bin Laden’s gift to the Taliban for their support – removing their greatest threat, and it may have been the signal to go through with the plans for 9-11. Dr. Abdullah feared that his friend’s death was meant as a signal for some action on the part of the Taliban or al Qaida, he just wasn’t sure what that action might have been. That is why he begged for secrecy.
Ahmad Shah Massoud was just 48 years and 7 days old when he died. He left a wife, Sediqa, a twelve-year-old son, Ahmad, and five daughters, Fatima, Mariam, Ayesha, Zohra and Nasrine, who was just three. His family is living in Iran, where Sediqa wrote a book about her life with the man named by President Hamid Karzai as the greatest hero in Afghan history. Massoud’s brothers continue to be involved in the rebuilding and governance of Afghanistan.
He is buried in his beloved Panjshir, a place he protected because it nurtured his soul. It is the most peaceful region of Afghanistan. There is one small American unit there, but the people have rebuilt the valley, not American contractors, just as they rebuilt it after each war and invasion. Dr. Abdullah ran against Hamid Karzai for the presidency, and has correctly accused the election of being rigged. He worked with Karzai for a while, until their basic incompatibility on the issues of honesty and integrity made Dr. Abdullah leave the government.
Princeton University Professor Michael Barry wrote in Thoughts on Commander Massoud: “Massoud’s personal mysticism led him to fight without hatred, bitterness, or spirit of revenge, regarding armed conflict only as an imposed and necessary evil in order to defend his people’s freedom, certainly not as an end in itself to be enjoyed as bloodlust or intoxication with power. He always provided protection for humanitarian relief in the most difficult and dangerous circumstances, looked for reconciliation with defeated enemies, and invariably treated his war prisoners with humanity and dignity. To this I was witness … Such moral integrity in the midst of warfare ranks Massoud as one of the very few “philosopher kings” in history, that is, men who have been forced to wage war so as to protect their nation and people, but who detested war in itself and sought no personal political gain.”
A video camera packed with explosives robbed the Afghan people of a great leader. The men who set off that bomb also robbed America of nearly 10,000 lives lost on 9-11 and in combat in two wars, cost us tens of thousands of wounded and almost a trillion dollars, and cost Afghanistan and Iraq hundreds of thousands of civilian dead. So very much could have been so very different if Massoud had lived. It is rare in history for one man and one event to have so much impact, but this was the one man and the one event. It is not enough that Afghanistan honors his memory. We should as well. If Ahmad Shah Massoud had been the face of Islam for Americans instead of Osama bin Laden, how much better a nation we would be.