Meeting Ahmad Massoud, the Sandhurst graduate taking on the Taliban

The Sandhurst graduate taking on the Taliban

28 August 2021

9:00 AM

28 August 2021

9:00 AM

The Taliban do not yet control all of Afghanistan. As most of the country fell to the Islamic militant group with terrifying speed, Panjshir valley, about 100 miles north of Kabul, leading deep into the Hindu Kush mountains, remained unconquered. It is now the last province beyond the Taliban’s control.

While many Afghan politicians have fled the country, Ahmad Massoud — leader of the National Resistance Front, the anti–Taliban resistance in Panjshir — has decided with (perhaps) a few thousand followers to try to turn the valley into a final redoubt. He has vowed that if war breaks out, his rebels will fight ‘to the very last breath’. His pledge may well be put to the test. This week hundreds of Taliban fighters entered the valley, preparing for a siege.

Massoud, just 32, is the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud — the ‘Lion of Panjshir’ — whose amazingly resourceful guerrilla campaigns and defence of the Panjshir valley against the Soviets led eventually to the total retreat of a demoralised Russian army, and was certainly one of the chief causes of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

What sort of a man is Ahmad Massoud? Unlike his father, who had years of combat experience by the time he was in his thirties, he has never fought before. He is, however, well educated in politics and military strategy. He trained as a foreign cadet at Sandhurst, read war studies at King’s College, and studied international politics for his masters at London’s City University. He wrote his undergraduate and postgraduate dissertations on the Taliban. It is remarkable to think that he returned to Afghanistan only in 2016 and entered politics just two years ago. Now he’s leading Afghanistan’s last resistance. He believes it is his destiny.

His father was killed before Ahmad Massoud was a teenager, assassinated by a bomb concealed in a camera at the instigation of Osama bin Laden, two days before 9/11. This undoubtedly determined the character and shaped the career of his son, who had to receive the shattered body when it was brought by helicopter back to the Panjshir.

You can find film of Ahmad Shah Massoud’s funeral on the internet. Tens of thousands of Tajik tribesmen accompany the cortège, thunderously chanting their grief for their lost leader, while on the armoured car carrying the coffin sits a desolate 12-year-old occasionally raising his arm to the throng. Every few days when Ahmad Massoud is in the valley he visits his father’s tomb for prayers.

I first met Ahmad Massoud in London through an Afghan friend. Then, two years ago, I spent a couple of weeks in Afghanistan, much of the time in his company. His adoration of his late father was immediately obvious. As well as a military strategist of genius, Massoud Sr was a devout Muslim, who prayed in the heat of battle. He was also a lover of poetry, especially Rumi, and even read poems to his soldiers. In that spirit, Ahmad insisted on a poetry-reading after dinner — mostly Rumi. He firmly believed that the English don’t have a real love of poetry, only of novels. So I felt honour-bound to recite some Wordsworth.

He told me that as a small boy he would wait at the door for his father’s return — perhaps from a day’s campaigning — when he would kneel, remove his father’s boots and wash his feet. He also told me about something much more recent. Extraordinary as it may sound to us, it took the form of a dream. Writing about Dante, T.S. Eliot said of cultures (unlike ours) where dreams are still seen as visions that should influence lives: ‘We take it for granted that our dreams spring from below: possibly the quality of our dreams suffers in consequence.’ Massoud’s dream certainly took the form of a vision. ‘I dreamt I was in bed with my wife, and my father came into the room. So I sent my wife out to make tea [an authentically Afghan detail]. My father spoke to me: “You have to finish what I began.” “But how? I can’t be a politician. I have never been able to speak in public — the words simply don’t come.” “You have to. I am no longer here to do it.” I awoke, and from that moment I found I could speak to crowds and all my hesitancy had completely left me.’

It was just at the time I was in Afghanistan that Massoud decided he had to go into politics. As was proper, he began by consulting the elders — men who had fought alongside his father — but he also talked to young men wanting to rally to the Lion of Panjshir’s heir. Obviously the dream had worked, for he spoke with complete fluency. His style, unlike that of many Afghan politicians, was conversational and explanatory. It respected the intelligence of his audience and assumed they wanted to hear in detail his ideas for the future. I was at several of these meetings as we went up the Panjshir and he prepared for his first public appearances.

Some 16,000 walked up the valley to hear him speak not far from his father’s mausoleum, which had already become a major place of pilgrimage. The front rows were occupied by veteran mujahedin commanders — men with lonely, expressive faces who had fought with Ahmad Shah Massoud against the Soviets in the 1980s and then the Taliban in the 1990s. The majority of the audience were there to see the heir apparent for the first time.

It would be easy to regard Ahmad Massoud’s attempt to continue the resistance as quixotic. The Panjshir valley is tiny, and he hasn’t got the sort of armed allies that his father had when he led the Northern Alliance. If the Taliban overrun the valley in the next few days or weeks the outlook will be grim. But if he can hold on longer he could emerge as a major figure: the leader of the Tajiks (the second most populous group in Afghanistan) and probably of all the other minorities as well. The divisions in Afghanistan are tribal, not religious, and in the long run the Taliban Pashtuns are most unlikely to be able to dominate the country on their own.

If against all the odds Massoud does survive in the Panjshir valley, this could conceivably lead to a compromise in which his father’s vision of a decentralised Afghanistan that has an enlightened version of Islam does not vanish from the Earth. We can only hope.

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John Casey is a fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

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