Bolton’s Book Review: The man who could have brought peace to Afghanistan


When President Joe Biden announced earlier this year that all American troops stationed in Afghanistan would withdraw before September 11, it was the first domino in a chain that ultimately resulted in the nation’s collapse. Seeing American diplomatic personnel flee our embassy in Kabul and thousands of Afghans swarm the neighboring airfield attempting to flee the country summoned to mind images of Saigon in 1975. Many Americans were left asking how, after trillions of dollars and thousands of lives lost, could we lose what was almost universally regarded in 2001 as a justified war? To me, the obvious answer is a failure of leadership. The one native leader who could have guided Afghanistan in a different direction, Ahmad Shah Massoud, was assassinated just before the war began. Sandy Gall, a longtime British broadcaster, knew Massoud personally and has published the first detailed English-language biography of him. This volume, Afghan Napoleon: The Life of Ahmad Shah Massoud, proves the current tragedy in Afghanistan is the culmination of decades of missed opportunities and hubris.

Massoud’s childhood was spent in the Panjsher, a bucolic valley situated to the north of Kabul. As the son of a colonel in the Royal Afghan Army, Massoud spent his teenage years educated in French-language lycées offering a cosmopolitan outlook unavailable to the vast majority of his countrymen. As a Tajik, an ethnic minority in a country long dominated by Pashtuns, Massoud understood the necessity of being ecumenical in temperament. In Massoud’s early years, though, Afghanistan was a relatively stable country ruled by a progressive monarch. Afghanistan’s modern woes did not begin until Massoud was studying architecture at the Kabul Polytechnic Institute. In 1973, King Zahir Shah was overthrown and Mohammed Daoud Khan, the first in a series of communist-aligned autocrats, seized power. After Massoud earned the attention of the secret police and had a physical altercation with a Russian instructor, he fled the country for Pakistan. Eventually sneaking back into Afghanistan, Massoud organized a coup and, for the first of many times, sought sanctuary in the mountains of Panjsher after it failed. A more serious threat to Afghanistan’s regime was its neighbors. Daoud Khan was overthrown in the Saur Revolution of 1978, and the next year saw his successor also executed. Alarmed at the escalating chaos on its border, the U.S.S.R. invaded Afghanistan on Christmas Day, 1979. Massoud finally had his opportunity to step onto the world stage.

When Gall first met Massoud three years later in 1982, he had already survived six Soviet offensives. Each year brought aerial bombardments and infantry during the spring and fall fighting seasons. Surreptitiously moving under the cover of night and sharing tea in safe houses, Gall was consistently amazed at Massoud’s friendly, relaxed manner even during those perilous times. Although Gall does not explicitly state so, it soon becomes obvious why this young man was already commanding hundreds of mujahideen. Massoud’s diaries repeatedly describe the difficulty of placating tribal rivalries. Few others had the patience or charisma needed to massage hurt egos in an honor-defined society. Despite his best efforts, two challenges were intractable throughout the war – protecting the civilian population and maintaining a steady stream of supplies for his fighters. The Soviets recognized that their Afghan government counterparts were deeply unpopular, and the only way to deprive Massoud of the public’s support was to force villagers out of their homes. Even today, Afghanistan has one of the world’s largest refugee crises, which has its origins in the Soviets’ brutal tactics.

The other challenge, that of logistics, is the test of all great commanders. With many regions depleted of their civilian populace, food and money were scarce, but military equipment was a more pressing concern. Massoud embraced guerilla raids when attacking supply convoys on their way to Bagram Air Base and other citadels for the strategic reason of straining the Soviets’ supply lines. It was also a tactical decision because Massoud, especially during the early years, lacked the antiaircraft guns, radios, and artillery necessary for sustained sieges. Only light arms, such as the ubiquitous Kalashnikov AK-47, were readily available. One telling example Gall observed firsthand involved night sentries. During a changing of the guard, the man being relieved would hand off his pair of boots (usually pilfered from a dead Russian) to the soldier going on duty.

As early as 1982, however, Massoud discerned he was winning. Soviet casualties were mounting and, once Leonid Brezhnev died, his successor Yuri Andropov offered regional ceasefires. It was not until Mikhail Gorbachev assumed power, though, that the Red Army committed to a withdrawal from the country. In early 1989, the last Soviet soldier left Afghanistan. Massoud had defeated one of the world’s two superpowers, but his struggle was far from over. The Soviet-backed Afghan government proved hardier than anyone expected, and Massoud also had to fend off various other warlords. The worst offender was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose Hezb-e-Islami militia for the last decade seemed more concerned with attacking Massoud than foreign invaders. By 1992, the U.S.S.R.’s disintegration meant the Afghan government was on its last legs. Massoud’s army marched into Kabul, and he became minister of defense in a coalition government.

Petty squabbles among the various factions continued, however, and the new government soon collapsed. The United States and other Western powers had offered Massoud paltry support throughout the 1980s. With the end of the Cold War, they were content to ignore Afghanistan entirely. The influx of returning refugees, dilapidated infrastructure, massive inflation, and lack of international aid were a humanitarian disaster waiting to happen. The greatest risk, however, was a radical new group from Kandahar calling itself the Taliban. Promising order through a harsh interpretation of sharia law, it banned women from public spaces, prohibited music, and minor offenses, such as petty theft, were punished with execution. By 1996, the Taliban had pushed Massoud and the other militias out of Kabul. Massoud tried to warn the United States of the close links the Taliban was developing with al-Qaeda, but his pleading was again disregarded.

By 2001, Massoud had been pushed back into the Panjsher and controlled no more than five percent of the country. He made a European publicity tour that earned him some favorable press, but no material support. On September 9, two supporters of al-Qaeda, acting on orders from Osama bin Laden, posed as Belgian journalists and requested an interview with Massoud. After granting their request, they detonated concealed explosives in a suicide attack. Massoud was mortally wounded and two days later, the rest of the world found out exactly why Massoud was assassinated.

This book was published just as Afghanistan’s government was collapsing, and the entire volume carries an undertone of missed opportunity. As Rory Stewart notes in his introduction, “Massoud was not simply ‘another warlord.’ He displayed, for twenty-five years, a better model of leadership, a greater ability to govern well, and a more impressive moral character than the other commanders.” Massoud was the one Afghan leader who might have been able to unify the country on an effective model oriented toward the West. His diary excerpts presented in the book show him to be a liberal-minded, introspective man who wanted the best for his people. Our lack of foresight and failure to support him was perhaps the most disastrous foreign-policy mistake of the United States in the 1990s. I fully expect us to return to Afghanistan with a significant military presence within five years, but next time, there will be no Ahmad Shah Massoud to help rebuild.

Robert Bolton can be reached with comments or suggestions at [email protected]

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