Ahmad Shah Massoud isn’t a name that comes tripping off the tongue. His sobriquet, the Lion of Panjshir, is much more palatable and in keeping with his story. A story of hero to villain to hero to villain to…
…I don’t want to give away the ending.
The charismatic Tajik commander was the original Dark Knight. The Hero Afghanistan deserved, not the one it needed. I think I’ve got that the wrong way round? Either way, so successful was he, that when his army fought (and defeated) the Soviets in the 1980’s, the Wall Street Journal called him “The Afghan who won the Cold War”.
In the aftermath of the 1992 Soviet collapse, it was his mujahedeen that captured Kabul. Sadly for him, the tribal fault lines, papered over by Soviet occupation, re-emerged. The country divided into Pashtun and Tajik fiefdoms (an oversimplification I know, but it’s a short post) and Massoud’s vision for a united country drifted away, like sand through his fingers. His desire to see a Democratic Government became mired in old grudges, coups and assassination attempts.
May you live in interesting times…?
In 1994, while Massoud was busy foiling one such coup in Kabul, a new force materialised in Southern Afghanistan, the Taliban. The new force absorbed many of the militias defeated by Massoud. Well financed and supported from “abroad”, they unified most of the Pashtuns (including the Pashtun Communist faction) and managed to capture most of the country. In some of the newly acquired lands they discovered training camps for another militant force, one which shared much of their ideology, al-Qaeda.
Stay tuned for more oversimplifications…
Today we have the never ending, constantly evolving and life sucking war on terror. The Taliban facilitated al-Qaeda, America invaded Afghanistan. This “success” emboldened George W. Bush to invade Iraq. In Iraq Muqtada Al-Sadr’s Mehdi army grew out of the occupations resistance. So too did al-Qaeda in Iraq. Dispossessed Ba’ath Party members radicalised. The violence intensified, surge followed insurgency and the proxy wars of super powers cast more human lives to the flames.
In an interesting Irish Republican Frongoch parallel, a hodgepodge of occupation resistance fighters were all imprisoned in Camp Bucca, outside Fallujah in Iraq. This internment allowed ex-military Ba’ath Party soldiers, hardened Jihadists and multiple other Mujahedeen forces to meet, organise and formulate a coherent insurgency. Much like how Frongoch is known as the Irish “University of Revolution”, ISIS prep school was held in Camp Bucca.
The barbaric and inhumane war continues and this week an estimated 400 people drowned off the coast of Italy. Every life lost, at sea, in the Middle East, Africa and in Europe is lost to this bloody war without end.
So what has this all got to do with Ahmad Shah Massoud?
For a start, the dead of the “war on terror” are all descendants of Massoud. This war started, at least this version of it, in Afghanistan. Think I’m mad? Well, let me explain. Osama Bin Laden did not like Ahmad Shah Massoud. They never got on.Not even during their time fighting the Soviets.
Massoud was often referred to as a fundamentalist, he never corrected this, only qualified it. But Bin Laden was too fundamental for Massoud. The Lion loved poetry, art and history. Bin Laden loved…
While Bin Laden merely disliked Massoud, the Taliban HATED him. They had identified him as the biggest threat to their vision of an Islamic State, governed as a medieval Necrocracy; a country ruled for and by the dead.
In 2001, Bin Laden’s plans for 9/11 were at an advanced stage. But before this horrendous crime against humanity could be perpetrated, the al-Qaeda leader needed to be sure of his safe haven. He needed the unquestioning support of the Taliban in the war to come. So it was that in early 2001, al-Qaeda commenced multiple plots to assassinate Massoud.
The Lion had already survived assassination attempts from al-Qaeda. He’d escaped or evaded others from the Taliban, Pakistani ISI and the Soviet KGB, among others. The CIA, in 2001, on the other hand, considered him the “best chance” for Afghanistan.
They called Massoud “a military genius, a religious man, and a leader of enormous courage”. They wanted to aid his battle with the Taliban and in mid-2001, sent entreaties to Washington for support. With plans of a nascent alliance, the CIA left Takhar Province. As they left another party arrived. Two foreign journalists, who wanted to interview the Lion of Panjshir.
The Belgian reporters went about the area,interviewing people about this modern day “Che Guevara figure”. They wanted to speak to the man who was famous for his military brilliance, his love of poetry and his ability to speak multiple languages. After several entreaties, Massoud agreed to an interview in his bungalow. He had an hour free before he was scheduled to fly to the front lines.
Sitting on a cushion designed to ease his back pain, Massoud listened as one of the journalist read out the list of questions. The other reporter set up his equipment and prepared to film. Unsurprisingly, many of the questions were about Bin Laden. Massoud gave his approval and indicated he was ready to begin.
The camera exploded, blowing the “cameraman’s” body apart. The blast smashed the windows and filled Massoud’s body with shrapnel. The “reporter” tried to flee, but was shot by Massoud’s shocked men.
Massoud, still alive, was picked up and rushed to a helicopter. There was a hospital only ten minutes flight away. On board, his bodyguard Omar, held his head, saying “He’s dying and I’m dying”. The Lion did die. He was 48.
It was September 9th 2001.
Tony Groves April 2016