It’s 1992. The 40th Army is long gone and the Soviet Union has collapsed, but war still rages across Afghanistan. As the Afghan communist regime crumbles, Ahmed Shah Massoud and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s forces clash in Kabul. While America turns its back and the Mujahideen turn on each other, new threats arise and threaten to sweep the old generation of freedom fighters away – The Taliban and Osama bin Laden. (Part 4 of Ghosts in the Mountains)
It’s 1992. The 40th Army is long gone and the Soviet Union has collapsed, but war still rages across Afghanistan. As the Afghan communist regime crumbles, Ahmed Shah Massoud and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s forces clash in Kabul. While America turns its back and the Mujahideen turn on each other, new threats arise and threaten to sweep the old generation of freedom fighters away – The Taliban and Osama bin Laden. (Part 4 of Ghosts in the Mountains)
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Ansari, Mir Tamim. Games Without Rules: The Often-Interrupted History of Afghanistan. 2012.
Barfield, Thomas. Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History. 2010.
Borovik, Artyom. The Hidden War. 1990.
Braithewaite, Rodric. Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan, 1979-1989. 2011.
Coll, Steve. Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden from the Soviet Invasion to 2001. 2004.
Dobbs, Michael. Down with Big Brother: The Fall of the Soviet Empire. 1997.
Feifer, Gregory. The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan. 2009.
Fremont-Barnes, Gregory. The Soviet-Afghan War, 1979-89. 2012.
Galeotti, Mark. Storm-333: KGB and Spetsnaz Seize Kabul. 2021.
Gall, Sandy. Afghan Napoleon: The Life of Ahmed Shah Massoud. 2021.
Grad, Marcela. Massoud: An Intimate Portrait of the Legendary Afghan Leader. 2009.
Goodwin, Jan. Caught in the Crossfire. 1987.
Grau, Lester W. The Bear Went Over the Mountain: Soviet Combat Tactics In Afghanistan. 1996.
Hosdon, Peregrine. Under a Sickle Moon: A Journey Through Afghanistan. 1986.
Kalinovsky, Artemy. A Long Goodbye: The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan. 2011.
Kaplan, Robert D. Soldiers of God: With Islamic Warriors in Afghanistan and Pakistan. 2001.
Rosen, Ethan. The Bear, The Dragon, & the AK-47. 2017.
Tanner, Stephen. Afghanistan: A Military History of Afghanistan from Alexander the Great to the War Against the Taliban. 2009.
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---- WELCOME -----
Hello and welcome to Conflicted, the history podcast where we talk about the struggles that shaped us, the tough questions that they pose, and why we should care about any of it.
Conflicted is a member of the Evergreen Podcast Network, and as always, I’m your host Zach Cornwell.
You are listening to the fourth and final episode of a limited series on the Soviet-Afghan War, and the fallout that it triggered. Today’s episode is about the fallout. You might have noticed, upon clicking or tapping on this episode, that the naming structure is slightly different this time around. The series name is still Ghosts in the Mountains, but rather than subtitle it The Soviet-Afghan War Part 4, I decided to subtitle it The Mujahideen Civil War. Because at this point in the story, the Soviet-Afghan War is over – the Russians are gone - and it didn’t feel quite right to extend that title to this installment.
It goes without saying, if you haven’t listened to Parts 1, 2, & 3 of this series, definitely go ahead and do that. A lot of important characters and events from Part 3 are going to be carrying over to this episode, so without that context, you might be scratching your head a little bit. But for everyone who’s all caught up, let’s remind ourselves of where we’ve been, so we can jump into this next phase of our story clear-eyed and confident.
When we left off last time, the Soviet 40th Army was finally leaving Afghanistan after ten long, miserable years. On February 15th, 1989, the last Soviet soldiers crossed the Friendship Bridge and said “do svidanya” to the ghosts in the mountains, the Mujahideen. But the Soviets were leaving some ghosts of their own behind in those valleys and ravines. Ghost of friends. Ghosts of allies. Ghosts of the men that they had once been – or might have been.
Afghanistan in 1989 was very, very different from Afghanistan in 1979. After a decade of atrocity and upheaval, the Soviets were leaving behind a country that was haunted. Everywhere you looked, you saw reminders of the war. The empty huts and crumbling buildings. The rusted carcasses of Soviet gunships. The deadly constellations of anti-personnel mines, all but invisible beneath a thin layer of dust and sand.
The Soviets had lost the war – and lost hard.
And the self-described architects of that humiliating defeat were gloating from thousands of miles away in Langley, Virginia.
Last episode, we spent a good chunk of time talking about the American role in the war, specifically the efforts of the Central Intelligence Agency. We talked about how the CIA used every dollar and dime at their disposal to arm, train, fund, and organize the Mujahideen guerillas, in the hope of giving Mother Russia it’s every own Vietnam. In the eyes of the American intelligence community, that objective had been achieved. As the 40thArmy lumbered back across the Friendship Bridge, bottles were popping from Pakistan to the Pentagon.
The CIA’s costly, covert war seemed fully vindicated two years later in 1991, when the Soviet Union itself dissolved completely. Mikhail Gorbachev’s efforts to adapt his country to the future, valiant and well-intentioned as they might have been, had ultimately failed. The USSR was done-ski. In an outpouring of relief and emotion, the international community exhaled the breath it had been anxiously holding since the two superpowers emerged from the rubble of World War 2 in 1945. The Cold War was finally over. And the West had won.
That same year, in 1991, when former CIA Station Chief in Islamabad Milton Bearden mentioned Afghanistan in passing to US President, George H.W. Bush, Bush asked: “Is that thing still going on?”
But in Afghanistan, the war was not over.
Last time, in Part 3, we spent a lot of time getting to know two very important people in Afghanistan. Ahmed Shah Massoud and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
Massoud and Hekmatyar were two of the most talented, influential, and famous Mujahideen commanders to emerge from the jihad against the Soviets. They had each poured every ounce of energy, body & soul, into pushing the 40th Army out of Afghanistan. But although their basic goals were similar, they could not have been more different. And as the Soviets left Afghanistan, Massoud and Hekmatyar found themselves on a collision course that would decide the future of their country.
So let’s remind ourselves. Who are these guys, again? And who are they at this time, circa the early 90s?
In one corner, you have Ahmed Shah Massoud. The Lion of the Panjshir. Loved by his men. Adored by the Western media. Devout, honorable and kind, but riddled with personal doubts and prone to self-criticism. Still, he is hailed as a military genius, having protected his home turf in the Panjshir Valley against nine massive Soviet offensives. Some people have started calling him the “Afghan Napoleon”. Many people believe and hope that Ahmed Shah Massoud will be the man to step in and fill the power vacuum in Afghanistan. He is a moderate, inclusive Afghan nationalist who wants to build a nation free of foreign influence, whether it be America, Russia, Pakistan, or anyone else.
In the other corner, you have Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The Dark Prince, as some CIA elders melodramatically call him. Hekmatyar believes that he and he alone is the future of Afghanistan. His pragmatic, pitiless intellect is matched only by his fiery fundamentalism. He hates Soviets and Americans in equal measure, but has accepted hundreds of millions from the CIA to strengthen his position. In truth, his cynical partnership with the CIA is just a means to end. On his pre-ordained path to power, there is no one he will not torture or betray or have killed. To Hekmatyar, human life is like any other resource. Like bullets or bombs. It has to be expended, and used, to reach the ultimate goal, and nothing will stand his way. Especially not Ahmed Shah Massoud.
Last episode, we traced the relationship between these two men across the decades, beginning in the early 1970s. They’d first met as young twentysomething college students at Kabul University, student activists and members of the controversial Muslim Youth organization. And although they both shared a distrust of Communism and Soviet imperialism, their visions sharply diverged almost immediately. Massoud thought Hekmatyar was way too extreme; an uncompromising fanatic, a lunatic who allegedly threw acid in the faces of young women who wore revealing Western clothes. Hekmatyar thought Massoud wasn’t nearly extreme enough, a coward who didn’t have the stomach to help ignite a transnational Islamist revolution and literally save the world. Each felt the other was a bad Muslim, and their animosity evolved into a bitter, lifelong rivalry.
Throughout the course of the Soviet-Afghan War, Massoud and Hekmatyar’s rival mujahideen forces had bickered and brawled, nibbling and skirmishing at the peripheries of each other’s territory. Smacking at each other with one hand, while fending off the 40th Army with the other.
But now that the Soviets were gone, Hekmatyar and Massoud were free to turn their attention towards the unprotected prize of Kabul. The Afghan Communist government was teetering like a wobbly Jenga tower, all that was left to do, was deliver the final push. And if they were able to settle old scores along the way, so be it. The stage was a set for a Shakespearean showdown in the very place the two men had first met all those years ago.
In today’s episode, speaking broadly, we’re going to look at what happened to Afghanistan when the Soviets pulled out and the world lost interest. For many people at the time, Afghanistan was only important for as long as the Soviet Union was in it. Without the presence of a superpower, Afghanistan was just another backward little country destined to sit on the sidelines of history.
But we, with our 20/20 hindsight goggles, know that that is not the case.
Massoud and Hekmatyar’s looming civil war, combined with ongoing, constant meddling from Pakistan and the CIA, destroyed Afghanistan once and for all. After ten years of Soviet occupation, any hope of a free and prosperous Afghanistan was already on life support. The Mujahideen civil war succeeded in pulled the plug. And once the nation flatlined, something new was born in its place. The corpse of Afghanistan became an incubator for an ideology and worldview even more extreme than Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s. The world was about to be introduced to the Taliban for the very first time.
Now - it’s been a long road to get to the end of our story, and I’m very excited to (hopefully, inshallah) stick the landing and reward your patience with a finale worthy of your attention. As always, I know how valuable your time is, and I appreciate you spending some of it with me.
So – with all that said, let’s get started. Welcome to Ghosts in the Mountains, Part 4: The Mujahideen Civil War.
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It’s April 16th, 1992.
We’re in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.
It’s the middle of the night - about 1:45 AM - and a car is racing towards the airport. Sitting in the backseat, is a very nervous 45-year-old man named Dr. Najibullah. That’s N-A-J-I-B-U-L-L-A-H. Dr. Najibullah is the last Communist leader of Afghanistan, and on April 16th, 1992, he is running for his life. He’s trying to get to the airport, so he can get on a plane, and get the hell out of Kabul.
Because the Mujahideen are on their way.
Dr Najibullah is a brand-new addition to our cast of characters. We have not met him before. But his story is a fascinating one nonetheless. Najibullah was a massive, bruiser of a man. He was built like a weightlifter. People called him ‘The Ox”. His muscles would visibly strain against the sleeves of his pinstripe suit, like sausages trying to bust out of their casing. He was a huge, intimidating guy, which came in handy in his line of work.
Najibullah got his first big break in the Afghan Communist Government as the Chief of its Secret Police Force. Essentially, Afghanistan’s KGB.
It was a nasty job, in which nasty people did nasty work. The Afghan Secret Police spent the majority of the early 1980s implementing their own miniature reign of terror on the urban population of Afghanistan. They arrested anyone and everyone who was a suspected enemy of the deeply unpopular, Soviet-sponsored regime. Anyone who might be giving aid or support or information to the mujahideen guerillas. And it was not hard to wind up on one of their lists.
If you were unfortunate enough to be hauled away to one of those detention centers, you may have found yourself cowering in the shadow of the hulking Dr. Najibullah. As a dedicated, hardcore Communist, Najibullah genuinely believed in what the Soviets were doing in Afghanistan, and consequently he despised the Mujahideen with an unnerving intensity.
On one occasion, the secret police captured a high-profile mujahideen guerilla and brought him to Najibullah. The Ox raised his massive fist and knocked the man’s two front teeth out with a single punch. In a final twist of the knife, he leaned down and mocked the man’s faith in God: ‘I was looking for you in the sky but found you on the earth.”
Getting a little improvised dentistry from The Ox was the least of your worries in one of Najibullah’s detention centers. Torture was like a higher calling for the good Doctor; He had an uncommon aptitude for it. As Chris Sands and Fazelminallah Qazizai write, there were: “two traits central to his character: acumen and cruelty.” Under his direction, inmates had their fingernails torn out, drill bits inserted into their thigh bones, and their beards set on fire. Electrocution and creative placement of bottles and red-hot kebab skewers were also some of the secret police’s go-to methods.
In his tenure as Afghanistan’s torturer-in-chief, Najibullah did everything he could to smoke the Mujahideen out of their holes. He turned kids against their parents, husbands against wives, brothers against brothers. He bribed and blackmailed, murdered and maimed. He skipped meals and slept just 4 hours a night in his single-minded pursuit of crushing the mujahideen insurgency.
Well eventually, through those robust efforts, Najibullah caught the eye of the KGB. They were always on the lookout for promising up-and-comers, and they were very impressed with his brutal methodology. So, when the Kremlin decided it needed a fresh new face to lead the Afghan Communist puppet regime in 1986, Dr. Najibullah got the call. He became the Moscow’s new favorite Afghan. Dr. Najibullah became President Najibullah.
But statecraft posed a novel challenge for Najibullah. Bones could be bent and broken with ease, but shaping a complex political situation to your preferences, well, that was another matter entirely. Shortly after Dr. Najibullah was given the top job in the Afghan government and was allowed into the Soviet circle of trust, he learned something very, very distressing: The Soviets were seriously considering pulling the 40th Army out of Afghanistan.
All of a sudden, Dr Najibullah began to feel like the guy who’d bought the very the last ticket on the Titanic. His upward career mobility had curdled into a curse. The Soviet 40th Army was the only thing holding back the Mujahideen, like a paper-thin dam guarding against a churning, implacable river; And if the Soviets pulled out for good, Kabul would fall. When that happened, Najibullah would be left holding the bag; and “The Ox” might be carved up like a sacrificial bull by the vengeful guerillas.
But Moscow had a plan.
There were sophisticated and sympathetic Soviet politicians in Najibullah’s corner; people who did not want to leave the puppet government high & dry at the mercy of the mujahideen. To ensure the survival of the Afghan Communist regime, Najibullah was encouraged to extend an olive branch to the mujahideen. The Soviets said, listen man, if you want to survive after we’re gone, you’ve gotta make inroads with these people. Maybe if you throw them a bone, make a few changes here and there, a compromise can be made, and you can stay in power.
The cognitive dissonance for Najibullah, must have been unimaginable. He had spent the better part of his 30s detaining, torturing, and murdering these people – and now Moscow was telling him to, somehow, mend those fences. To make a deal with, as he saw it, fanatics. But the noose was tightening, and Najibullah’s self-preservation instincts were as well-developed as his muscular physique. So, to his credit, he threw himself into the task. But as it turns out, building bridges is a lot harder than breaking fingers. As Mir Tamim Ansary writes:
“Najibullah tried, he really did. He tried everything he could. He changed the name of KhAD [that’s the secret police] to WAD, but everyone knew it was the same old dreaded secret police. He renamed the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan the “Fatherland Party,” but no one started singing patriotic anthems. He had a new constitution written declaring Afghanistan an Islamic republic and guaranteeing the freedom of all citizens, but no one believed him. He started building mosques and religious schools. He called for national reconciliation. He offered cabinet positions to selected Mujahideen leaders. He even offered to step down if certain conditions were met.
The plan might have worked—ten years earlier. But in the late eighties, too much blood had flowed under the bridge.
By 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev had made it crystal-clear to the entire world that the Soviets were getting the hell out of Afghanistan. But he assured Najibullah that financial aid would continue to flow into Kabul even if Soviet gunships and tanks and soldiers could not. The Americans were still funding the guerillas, so the Soviet Union would continue funding Najibullah - something to the tune of $3 billion a year, even after the 40th Army was long gone. The Ox would, in theory, have a fighting chance against the Mujahideen.
As long as the Soviet Union was around, Najibullah was assured, he could count on their ongoing support. Everything was going to be just fine. Well, those hopes came crashing down in 1991, when the Soviet Union finally, officially collapsed. As one historian poetically put it: “Freed from the shackles of the Afghan war, the Soviet Union careened towards oblivion.” With sobering clarity, The Ox realized what that meant for Afghanistan in general, and for him in particular.
No more money. No more weapons. No more advice, or support, or help. He was truly on his own. Stranded and surrounded. As the Mujahideen forces tightened like a fist around the throat of Kabul, Dr. Najibullah dug in for an ugly, last-ditch defense. Even his wife was defiant, saying: “We would prefer to be killed on the doorsteps of this house rather than die in the eyes of our people by choosing the path of flight from their bitter misfortune. We will all stay with them here to the end, whether it be happy or bitter.”
But Najibullah and his army were not facing the disorganized country bumpkins that had taken poorly-aimed potshots at Soviet tanks more than a decade earlier in 1979. By 1991, the seven Mujahideen factions, Massoud and Hekmatyar’s included, were fielding extremely well-trained, well-armed, well-coordinated armies and militias.
These were not the same rough-and-tumble guerillas that Jan Goodwin from Ladies Home Journal had traveled with back in 1985. They were not fighting with rusty grenades and breech-loading rifles anymore. Ten years of heavy, sustained financial aid from shadow contributors like the CIA and Saudi Arabia had transformed the Mujahideen into a terrifying and modern military foe.
They had helicopters, fighter jets, and rockets. They had sophisticated communications equipment. They could conduct targeted and precise airstrikes. The CIA had even refurbished Iraqi tanks captured in the Gulf War and smuggled them in to Pakistan for the ISI to transfer to the guerillas. The most effective weapon in the Mujahideen’s arsenal had always been their faith, the inexhaustible motivation to keep fighting, to keep conducting their jihad against the Soviets and the puppet government, but now they had all the weapons they could ever need to make their goals a reality.
As Steve Coll writes: “By 1992, there were more personal weapons in Afghanistan that in India and Pakistan combined.”. To put that in perspective, India’s population was 900 million people in 1992. Pakistan’s was 113 million. Afghanistan’s was just shy of 15 million.
Against such highly-motivated, weapons-rich, and cash-flush adversaries like the Mujahideen, Najibullah and his loyal goons never stood a chance. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Najibullah’s Afghan government managed to resist the Mujahideen for about a year, but it wasn’t enough. As Mir Tamim Ansary writes: “Najibullah fought like a dog, but couldn’t keep the wolves at bay.”
The fate of the Afghan Communist regime was sealed when a key ally of Najibullah’s government defected to the Mujahideen, and took all of his men with him. By spring of 1992, there was no one left willing to raise a hand in defense of the regime. As Kabul’s defenses crumbled like wet tissue paper, and Mujahideen forces started creeping into the outskirts of city, Najibullah realized his time was up. It was time to get the hell out of Dodge.
As his chauffeured car sped towards the Kabul airport in the middle of the night on April 16th, 1992, Najibullah tried not to panic. The Ox knew all about fear. He had seen it, savored it, in the faces of more men than he could count in the torture chambers and black sites during in his secret police days. If Najibullah found any irony in the fact that he was now the one being hunted, running scared through the streets of Kabul, he kept it to himself.
But there was still a flicker of light at the end of the tunnel. The United Nations had agreed to evacuate Najibullah and his family out of Afghanistan and relocate them to India. All he had to do, was make it to the runway, step on the plane, and his new life could begin.
A little after 2 o’clock in the morning, Najibullah’s car pulled up to the checkpoint which granted entry into the airport; it was surrounded by armed men with machine guns. The officer in charge demanded a password from Najibullah’s driver. The driver answered with the password he had been given…but the officer shook his head. Sorry buddy, wrong password.
Initially, Najibullah assumed it was a simple mistake. Some idiot on guard duty who didn’t realize he was dealing with the most important man in the city. Najibullah poked his head out of the backseat and yelled at the guards: “Let us through you asshole! Everything has been arranged.”
But the airport guards wouldn’t budge. They didn’t answer to Najibullah or his crumbling government. These soldiers belonged to an Uzbek militia that had been bought and paid for by the Mujahideen. Their orders were to turn anyone and everyone – including the President of Afghanistan, away from the airport. Kabul was locked down, and Najibullah watched his escape hatch slam shut right in front of his face. In a panic, he told the driver to hang a U-turn and head to the only safe place left in the entire city. The United Nations compound.
Najibullah leapt out of the car and practically sprinted inside the United Nations building. The President of Afghanistan was essentially a kid putting his hand on a tree in a game of tag and claiming “safe!”. All he could do now was sit tight and hope that when the Mujahideen leadership finally entered the city, they respected his legal asylum.
And with that, my friends, the last vestige of Afghanistan’s short-lived Communist government, the regime that had provoked an insurgency, plunged the country into a civil war, and invited a foreign army onto its soil to murder and displace millions of its own people – was gone.
As the sun rose over Kabul on April 17th, 1992 – the inhabitants of the city might have looked out their windows with the slimmest feeling of hope. Najibullah was gone. The Soviets were gone. Maybe, now, finally, there might be a chance for some semblance of peace. But what they did not know, was that their nightmare was only just beginning.
----- MUSIC BREAK-------
When Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was a young man, his mid 20s or so, he had a dream. It was a very vivid dream, and the memory of it stuck with him for years and years afterwards.
In the dream, Hekmatyar was floating, adrift in a cloudless night sky. Above him, he could see a dazzling canopy of stars, but they weren’t the small little pinpricks we look up at and see in real life. They were bright, blazing celestial objects. As he looked at them, the stars began moving from East to West, moving faster and faster, streaking like tracer fire against the blackness.
As they traveled across the sky, the stars began to transform and change shape. Initially, they looked like hats, or turbans. But the more they changed, they started to resemble crowns. As one of these crowns made of pure starlight streaked across the sky, Hekmatyar reached out with his hand and plucked it out of the air. Then he put the crown on his head.
After that, he woke up.
Dreams held a lot of significance for Hekmatyar. In his time, the Prophet Muhammed was said to have experienced dreams and visions that told the future, or gave insight into present. Hekmatyar took these Quranic anecdotes literally, and so when he had a particularly crazy dream, he dissected ever detail of it, tried to divine what it really meant. But this new dream was particularly impactful.
Floating in the sky. The stars moving from East to West. The crown of pure light that settled on his head.
At first, Hekmatyar thought this meant that he would be the patriarch of a large family, the crown symbolizing his status as a father, and the other crowns symbolizing the many sons he would have. But as he thought about it more and more, he began to believe that God had sent him this prophetic dream, to show him that great things lay in his future. Hekmatyar was a deeply ambitious person, and he understood his own unquenchable aspirations through the lens of destiny and prophecy.
The starlight crown was a literal crown. Someday, Hekmatyar would rule over Afghanistan as its undisputed ruler. And the other stars moving from East to West, those symbolized the Mujahideen fighters and the trajectory that their jihad must eventually take. Looking West from Peshawar, across the Afghan border, beyond to Europe, and beyond that - America.
On April 17th, 1992, while President Najibullah cowered in the UN compound in downtown Kabul, Hekmatyar’s mujahideen forces massed a few miles south of the capital.
It had been almost twenty years since Hekmatyar had laid eyes on Kabul. Last time he’d been there, he had been a fiery young radical, barely 25 years old, with a thick black beard and a target on his back. His activities in the Muslim Youth had branded him an enemy of the government, and he’d had to flee to Pakistan. But a lot had changed since those early days. Fast forward to 1992, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was 43 years old. And he was not a two-bit student activist anymore.
By the early 1990s, Hekmatyar’s mujahideen faction had developed into an extremely powerful military and political force inside Afghanistan. As Chris Sands and Fazelminallah Qazizai put it, Hekmatyar’s operation was a cross between: “an army, a government, a religious movement and a lucrative criminal enterprise.”
Mountains of cash from CIA spooks, Saudi sheiks and Pakistani generals were supplemented by money made from engaging in the international heroin trade. Afghanistan is home to some of the largest crops of opium poppies in the world, and Hekmatyar’s faction was able to take control of many of these labs and get a slice of those sweet, sweet profits. The drug trade was big business, and if there was extra money to be made to finance his bid for ultimate power, Hekmatyar wasn’t going to pass that opportunity up. As Steve Coll writes: “By the early 1990s, Afghanistan rivaled Colombia and Burma as a fountainhead of global heroin supply.”
As his army closed in on Kabul from the south, Hekmatyar was one of the most influential and admired Islamist revolutionaries in the world. He had mentored up and coming radicals all across the Middle East, from Cairo to Riyadh. He spent his time writing poetry, denouncing rivals, and formulating battle plans. He taught himself to read Arabic. He eventually learned computer programming. Hekmatyar never stopped being a student, even when he was the undisputed master of his mujahideen faction.
Hekmatyar was a preacher, a kingpin, and a warlord - all wrapped up in one. If he saw any ethical contradictions in that unique cocktail of roles, they didn’t trouble him in the slightest.
As his CIA-supplied tanks from Iraq rumbled to the outskirts of Kabul, Hekmatyar was so close to his goal, he could taste it. He must have been thinking about what would come next, and believe me, he was dreaming very big. Once his Mujahideen infiltrated the capital, Hekmatyar’s army would seize key installations and take over the city. He would use that as a launchpad of legitimacy to form a new government of his own, an Islamist government predicated on a strict interpretation of Quranic law. Once his grip on the country was solidified, he would, as Sands and Qazizai write:
“…encourage Muslim states throughout the world to form a pan-Islamic political, economic and military bloc capable of challenging US hegemony. The bloc would recognize Arabic as the official language of Islam, manufacture its own weapons, establish an international Islamic court and allow Muslim citizens to travel to and from the different nations within its territory without being subject to the usual border controls. If Muslims found themselves under attack or being oppressed in another part of the world, the bloc would come to their aid.”
Like, I said, Hekmatyar was dreaming very, very big. He wanted to create a sort of Islamist EU. An international coalition of Muslim countries that could fill the vacuum left by the Soviet Union and rise up to oppose the influence of the American Empire.
By this time, The US State Department was on to Hekmatyar. They realized that the CIA had made a mistake in stuffing fistfuls of cash in this guy’s pockets. I mean, the man wouldn’t even shake Ronald Reagan’s hand. US diplomat Peter Tomsen outlined the danger Hekmatyar posed in a secret cable to Washington in September 1991.
“An extremist seizure of Kabul would plunge Afghanistan into a fresh round of warfare, which could affect areas adjoining Afghanistan. Should Hekmatyar or Sayyaf (that’s just another fundamentalist Mujahideen leader) get to Kabul, extremists in the Arab world would support them in stoking Islamic radicalism in the region, including the Soviet Central Asian republics, but also in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Arab world.”
In Hekmatyar’s view, American imperialism was a disease, a plague that pulled the people of the world farther and farther from God. And Hekmatyar believed that he was the one man who could lead this struggle. That idealistic sense of purpose was wrapped up and tangled with what was probably a narcissistic personality disorder. Hekmatyar could not accept the idea of an Afghanistan in which he was not calling the shots. Anything less was an insult to his talent and a huge mistake for the country. It had to be him, or no one else. For most clear-eyed observers of geopolitics, Hekmatyar’s master plan sounded like an insane pipe dream. But to him, it was very, very real. It was his life’s work.
But there was one man who stood in his way. One person who threatened to derail all Hekmatyar had fought and bled and dreamed and worked for: The Lion of Panjshir, Ahmed Shah Massoud.
In 1992, Ahmed Shah Massoud was 39 years old. But the famously handsome guerilla leader looked and felt much older. As an Islamist scholar who met with Massoud around the same time wrote:
“From the five heavy folds on his forehead, which were the sign of a difficult life, I could read his tale of pain and misery and the heavy responsibility of a jihad placed on him since he was very young; the heavy scars in his soul and body have taken away his youth.”
When the Soviets finally pulled out of Afghanistan, Massoud realized what a dangerous, and as he put it “crucial” time this was. Najibullah’s government was not long for this world, that was clear to anyone with a functioning brain cell, but the big question on everyone’s mind was: Who would rule over Afghanistan once Najibullah was gone? And by extension, what would the new Afghanistan even look like after they were finished tearing down the old one?
We’ve heard what Hekmatyar wanted to do. But what did Massoud want to do? What kind of Afghanistan was he trying to build?
I spent a large chunk of Part 3 and the opening salvo of this episode, drawing sharp distinctions between Massoud and Hekmatyar. And there are plenty. Hekmatyar is generally not a very nice man, and Massoud is generally, a pretty decent one. But it would be disingenuous and simplistic to frame Massoud as the perfect white knight galloping forth to save us from the evil, mustache-twirling Hekmatyar. That’s a much easier story to understand, but it’s not a truthful one. The reality was, there a considerable amount of overlap in Massoud and Hekmatyar’s ideas about what Afghanistan should look like. As Steve Coll writes:
“Hekmatyar and Massoud both agreed that communist and capitalist systems were both corrupt because they were rooted in jahiliyya (ja-heel-ee-ya), the state of primitive barbarism that prevailed before Islam lit the world with truth. […]
Hekmatyar and Massoud also accepted that Islam was not only a personal faith but a body of laws and systems—the proper basis for politics and government. The goal of jihad was to establish an Islamic government in Afghanistan in order to implement these laws and ideals.”
Both Hekmatyar and Massoud wanted to remake Afghanistan in the image of Islam, but the difference was in how they wanted to do it, how far they wanted to go, and what would come afterwards. Massoud was a moderate, he believed in working with people, sharing power, making life better for the people in Afghanistan. He didn’t want to topple the world order or cultivate violent extremist cells around the globe. He just wanted to take his country, a place that had been torn apart by war and political upheaval for as long as anyone could remember, and make it into a place where people could actually live their lives in peace.
Last episode, we told a story about how when Massoud was a kid, he’d punched out three bullies who were ganging up on a weaker kid at school. That I think, encapsulates Massoud’s personality. He wasn’t a saint or an angel, but he preferred to use his talent for violence to protect people, and he was willing to take up arms against bullies and aggressors wherever they popped up – whether they were foreigners like the Soviets, Marxists like Hafizullah Amin and Dr. Najibullah, or fanatical religious extremists like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
But the tragedy of Ahmed Shah Massoud, at least to me, lies in the fact that once you punch out a bully, you have to remember to pull the weaker kid back up onto their feet. And that second part proved elusive for the Lion of Panjshir. Waging a guerilla war is one thing, but building a nation is an entirely different challenge. But! we’re getting ahead of ourselves a bit.
When the Soviets pulled out in 1989, the feuding between Hekmatyar and Massoud intensified. This had been going on for years, but in the absence of a unifying adversary like the 40th Army, the two most powerful mujahideen leaders really turned up the heat on each other in a bloody carousel of tit-for-tat violence.
At one point, Hekmatyar organized a kind of mock trial for Massoud, at which Massoud was obviously not present; and the prosecution accused the Lion of Panjshir of all sorts of religious crimes, of being an infidel and a false Muslim, of screwing French aid workers and selling out to MI6. It was all bullshit of course, but Hekmatyar seemed hellbent on tarnishing his rivals position in the Mujahideen community.
Hekmatyar followed that rhetorical exercise by engineering a, frankly brilliant, ambush and massacre of 30 of Massoud’s most important commanders. Massoud responded by hanging captured leaders from Hekmatyar’s camp. These kinds of things happen more and more; that carousel keeps turning faster and faster and faster. And
While all of this is going on, Pakistan’s military brass and Inter-Service Intelligence, the ISI, is pulling their hair out trying to get the Mujahideen leaders to play nice and work together. And you get the sense that it was like herding cats. The ongoing project of forming a cohesive Mujahideen government that could step in and replace Najibullah’s regime once it was gone…is honestly one of the most byzantine and complicated things I have ever read about in my life.
It is a latticework of shifting allegiances, competing goals, personal grudges, and bureaucratic minutia. You could write 15 seasons of a TV political drama dedicated just to the Mujahideen squabbles from 1989-1991 alone. It’s insane. My favorite description of it comes from Chris Sands, who said that the Afghan political scene was: an unfathomable tangle of short-term coalitions and routine backstabbing.” So, suffice to say, it was very, very difficult to get these guys to work together.
They tried all kinds of configurations and cabinets and combinations, but the one thing that most sources seem to agree on, is that the sticking point in forming any new government, was always Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. He was intractable. Not only did he need to be the focal point of any government that emerged, but he absolutely refused to be a part of any government that Massoud was a part of. Massoud was willing to clench his teeth and work alongside Hekmatyar in a hypothetical government, but Hekmatyar was unwilling to return the favor.
There’s an anecdote from Night Letters, by Chris Sands and Fazelminallah Qazizai, where an Islamic scholar is trying to convince Hekmatyar to work with Massoud. And he tries using a pointed metaphor to coax Hekmatyar into a compromise:
“He settled on comparing Massoud to pork, a food that is prohibited in Islam unless essential to survival. ‘Please eat this pork—it’s necessary,’ he said. ‘We need to bring these two men together; without Hekmatyar and Massoud there will be no victory over the Najib government.”
But no amount of folksy analogies could throw cold water on Hekmatyar’s enduring hatred of the Lion of Panjshir.
So in the context of this political stalemate, escalating civil war, and white-hot personal vendetta, Najibullah’s government finally collapses in April 1992 as the Mujahideen forces close in on Kabul. Hekmatyar is approaching the city from the South, and Massoud’s forces are approaching it from the North.
On April 23rd, 1992, Hekmatyar’s command center just south of Kabul was a bustling hive of activity. Pakistani helicopters whirled overhead, ferrying ISI operatives from Peshawar to advise Hekmatyar on strategy. His mujahideen guerillas strapped on ballistic vests, polished their machine guns and tied green flags to tanks, jeeps, and APCs – the green of course meant to symbolize the imminent and triumphant return of Islamic rule to Kabul. Big things were about to happen. Hekmatyar’s final push into Kabul was about to begin.
Well that evening, an advisor came to Hekmatyar. He told him there was someone calling on the radio. Someone who wanted to talk to Hekmatyar directly.
It was Ahmed Shah Massoud.
Hekmatyar grabbed the receiver and began speaking with one the people who he hated most in the world. The main thrust of the conversation was, As Steve Coll writes: “whether the two commanders would control Kabul peacefully as allies or fight it out.” There is, allegedly, a tape of this conversation. I have scoured the internet for it, and came up empty-handed. But thankfully, many journalists and historians have heard it, and they have related almost word-for-word, what was said between these two men on the eve of their climactic showdown in the capital.
According to Mir Tamim Ansary, Massoud said to Hekmatyar:
We should talk. I’m concerned about this Sunday. (Sunday was the day that the Mujahideen were set to enter Kabul and the Communist government would officially surrender).
There might be trouble; because when one side enters, all the other armies and forces will enter too. The chaos that will result, the wreckage that will result—hits and blows among the Mujahideen—I want to lift these concerns by sitting down with you and your followers, let’s work out something, establish an acceptable government, and then we’ll proceed toward elections. It would be better to take these steps now, instead of getting to the stage where we’re settling things by force. It would be better if you would promise me that on this coming Sunday—”
Hekmatyar interrupts him: There won’t be any trouble. So long as the situation that develops does not require our men, our followers, our Mujahideen to take action, we probably won’t resort to aggression at this time.”
This evasiveness really chaps Massoud’s ass, and he responds: “You say no trouble will erupt, but I assure you, severe trouble will erupt if we don’t take some steps. We are not afraid. Everything depends on you and your followers—”
Hekmatyar snaps at him: “I’ve heard your words. And I have told you my intentions.”
Massoud responds: “Are you telling me you will certainly attack on Sunday? Should I prepare?”
“Prepare for what?” Hekmatyar asks, already knowing the answer.
At this point, Massoud appears to lose his cool a bit, and his voice gets louder and angrier: “Prepare to defend the people of Kabul, the women of Kabul, the men of Kabul, the young and old of Kabul. Prepare to defend this cruelly wounded nation, these people who by God every day call for refuge and plead to know what their future holds. I tell you, I take it as my duty to defend these people against every form of attack to the limits of my ability.”
Hekmatyar had already made up his mind about what he was going to do. As he told Massoud: “I must enter Kabul and let the green flags fly over the capital. [ he went on…] We will march into Kabul with our naked swords. No one can stop us. Kabul is under our threat. It must surrender, and we will enter as victors.”
The conversation ended shortly after.
At around the same time, in Peshawar, Pakistan, six out of seven of the Mujahideen factions agreed to an interim government that would include Ahmed Shah Massoud as Defense Minister, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar as Prime Minister, and a series of Presidents that would transfer power in short succession to one another until elections could be held. Everyone accepted this arrangement, except for the lone dissenting party: Hekmatyar’s faction. As his rep in Peshawar made it clear: “Hekmatyar can’t agree to anything that includes Ahmed Shah Massoud.”
Civil war between Massoud and Hekmatyar seemed like a forgone conclusion. Hekmatyar was intent on entering Kabul as a conquering hero, and if any of his fellow Mujahideen tried to stop him, or got in his way, well that was their misfortune. Steve Coll describes the mood in Hekmatyar’s camp on the eve of the assault:
“Hekmatyar went to bed believing that he would roll into the capital in triumph in the morning. He led prayers with the Arabs who had come to Charasyab (that’s the name of the little village his command center was located at). He recited verses from the Koran that had been recited by the Prophet after the conquering of Mecca. “So we went to sleep that night, victorious,” recalled one Arab journalist. “It was great. Hekmatyar was happy. Everybody at the camp was happy. And I was dreaming that next morning, after prayer, my camera is ready, I will march with the victorious team into Kabul. But Afghans are weird. They turn off the wireless when they go to sleep—as if war will stop. So they switched the wireless off, we all went to sleep, and we woke up early in the morning. Prayed the dawn prayer. Spirits were high. Hekmatyar also made a very long prayer. The sun comes up again, they turn on the wireless—and the bad news starts pouring in.”
Convinced that Hekmatyar had no intention of compromising, Massoud had preempted him.”
On April 26th, the vanguard of Hekmatyar’s army that had filtered into Kabul was steamrolled by the full force of Massoud’s Northern Alliance. Massoud had assembled a fearsome coalition that spanned the ethnic and ideological spectrum. Atheist Uzbeks, Shia Pashtuns, former Communists from Najibullah’s regime, they all fought under Massoud. It was a force that Hekmatyar’s army, well-armed and well-funded as it was, could not withstand. As Sands and Qazizai write: “It took Massoud’s patchwork army just a few hours to obliterate Hekmatyar’s vaunted soldiers of God”.
They go on to say that Massoud forces: “moved through Kabul’s diplomatic quarter street by street, taking cover behind the walls of once grand villas as they unleashed bursts from their Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades.
Hekmatyar was a masterful politician and a brilliant sermonizer, but he was not much of a field commander. And in Kabul, he was up against the field commanders of all field commanders.
His blind hatred of Ahmed Shah Massoud had convinced him that he could defeat the man people called the Afghan Napoleon. The Lion of Panjshir. The student of Che Guevara’s theories and the humbler of the Soviet 40th Army. In matters of war and tactics, Ahmed Shah Massoud was like a bird in the sky. And Hekmatyar, was just a man without a parachute.
In a handful of days, the battle of Kabul was over. Hekmatyar’s men were running for their lives, trying to disguise themselves as Massoud’s men just to slip out of the city with their lives intact. Hekmatyar listened to the reports that came over the radio with a mix of rage, shock, and disbelief. He would never set foot back inside Kabul, he would never fly the green flag of Islam over the capital and take his rightful place as leader of Afghanistan. His army was, as Sands and Qazizai write: “not simply defeated, it was utterly humiliated.”
On April 28th, 1992, Ahmed Shah Massoud entered Kabul riding on top of a tank, covered in flowers. The spitting image of the conquering hero Gulbuddin Hekmatyar had envisioned himself as. The Dark Prince’s humiliation was matched only by the jubilant mood of Massoud’s arrival in the city. As Steve Coll writes: That night hundreds of his mujahedin fired their assault rifles into the air in celebration, their tracer bullets lighting the sky like electric rain.”
Journalist Sandy Gall describes the city’s mood when Massoud’s mujahideen took control of Kabul: Within a day or two, Kabul was en fête. In Chicken Street, the famous shopping district, the markets were crammed with food. Flower stalls were ablaze with roses. People thronged the streets, and restaurants and tea-houses were full. Thousands of refugees were pouring back into Afghanistan from Pakistan and Iran, where they had been surviving in camps for over a decade. It was the biggest population movement in the world at that time, a United Nations official told me when I visited Kabul in July 1992: ‘10,000 a day; 300,000 a month – which is the size of the entire Cambodian refugee problem.’ By the end of the year, 1.5 million Afghans had returned home.
It was an outcome few could have predicted when Massoud set up shop in the Panjshir Valley some 14 years earlier – with thirty men, a handful of rifles and $130. Gall goes on: “Massoud’s capture of the capital was the final victory of the Afghan resistance, and of the decade-long campaign backed by the United States against its rival superpower. It was an irony that Massoud – who had long been marginalized by the ISI (with its own agenda for Afghanistan), the CIA, and the US Department of State – was the one who delivered that victory.
But not everyone was psyched about the Mujahideen arrival in Kabul. As one historian explains:
Some of those in Kabul who had lived under communism for fourteen years, with everything that it had brought – Soviet-style education and culture, women in the workplace, vodka in the shops – were horrified at the arrival of the mujahideen. Many who had been tied to the Russian and communist governments left the country, and a considerable diaspora settled in Moscow. Indeed, some of the mujahideen were rough and illiterate, and some were hard line fundamentalist Muslims who viewed the communists as treacherous and city ways as debauched. Massoud, however, was a moderating influence among them, preventing an attempt by Rabbani (the interim President) to ban women from reading the news on television and from the workplace in general.
But Ahmed Shah Massoud knew the fragile, hopeful peace would not last. The interim Mujahideen government was built on the thinnest foundation of cooperation. Already elbows were starting to bump as the various guerilla groups arrived at the capital. And while Hekmatyar’s fighters had been driven from the city, they were hardly a spent force. Hekmatyar was down, but most definitely not out. As Sands and Qazizai write:
“Massoud knew Hekmatyar better than anyone and understood that he would never accept defeat; embarrassed in front of the entire Muslim world, Hekmatyar would find a way to hit back.”
Massoud was right. A handful of miles outside Kabul, Hekmatyar stewed and boiled and seethed. His great prize had been taken from him. Not by the Soviets. Not by the Americans. But by Ahmed Shah Massoud. The bookish Kabul University wallflower who had somehow convinced the world that he was a decent Muslim. A man who cut deals with the Soviets, who hid in his little valley and shunned help from their Islamist brothers in Pakistan. A coward and a traitor to Islam. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar could not live in a world where Ahmed Shah Massoud had power in Kabul.
If he couldn’t have Kabul, no one could. On the outskirts of the city, Hekmatyar gave the order to his artillery engineers to bring up their rocket batteries. He told them to rain destruction on the capital, day after day, night after night, month after month.
As long as Massoud was in Kabul, Hekmatyar would make the city would suffer.
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KABUL IN CHAOS
On May 3rd, 1992, just five days after Ahmed Shah Massoud triumphantly entered Kabul on a tank strewn with flowers, the following passage was printed in that day’s edition of the Washington Post:
“Kabul today is anything but a city basking in triumph. . . . [R]ockets and shells continue to crash into residential neighborhoods, fired by the forces of fundamentalist guerrilla leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. . . . Hundreds of civilians lie in hospitals lacking electricity, water, and basic sterilization equipment. More arrive each day. . . . Heavily armed, ethnically divided guerrillas and militiamen prowl the city streets, defending patchwork blocks from their rivals, speaking in heated tones about their various enemies and sometimes looting homes and shops.”
Throughout the course of the Soviet-Afghan War, from 1979-1989, Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul had remained mostly untouched by the war. The vast majority of the fighting between the Soviet 40th Army and the Mujahideen took place out in the wilderness - the mountains, the valleys, the rural areas.
If you were to walk down the streets of Kabul during the Soviet occupation, you would have seen a fairly intact and prosperous city. There was food in the shops, robust electrical grids, apartment complexes and bustling markets. It was a city under Soviet occupation of course, but it was a city, more or less, at peace.
Well in 1992, the war finally came home to Kabul.
When Ahmed Shah Massoud’s forces swept into the capital and sent Hekmatyar’s green flag waving mujahideen scurrying back toward the outskirts of the city, there was the briefest flicker of optimism. A thin sliver of hope that the six other Mujahideen factions could get their shit together, stop bickering amongst themselves, and form a cohesive, moderate, democratic Afghan government, guided by Islamic principles. As Ahmed Shah Massoud described it:
“Our main aim is to establish a framework based on principles which give every nationality, every tribe in Afghanistan its own rights, so there would be no further tribal conflicts… a framework which could be made to lead to democracy, a parliamentary system. Since we had our role in defeating the old regime, we want to play a major role in establishing such a system. We feel it as a moral and Islamic responsibility, like a burden on our shoulders… The question of whether the people will elect us will not worry us. What is more important for us is to establish such a principle or such a base for the future.”
Massoud would be defense minister. The role of Prime Minister was open to Hekmatyar, if he wanted it. But Hekmatyar, always the uncompromising radical, refused to play ball. Any government that included Massoud was a non-starter. It didn’t matter that Massoud was one of the best military leaders and most effective coalition builders the nation had to offer. Hekmatyar refused to take any part in the government where he would be forced to share power with his old enemy.
Instead, he opted to shell and bombard the city with indiscriminate rocket fire, day after day, night after night, week after week, month after month.
Kabul, which had remained largely unscathed by the Soviet presence and the Afghan Communist government, was slowly, painfully, systematically demolished by some of the very people who had come to liberate it. For residents of Kabul, it was a rude awakening and a painful initiation into the realities of civil war.
Hekmatyar’s rocket attacks became a fact of daily life. They screeched and roared off their platforms like oversized bottle rockets outside of the city, landing residential areas, government buildings, marketplaces. One observer remembered that the rockets “fell like rain”. Thousands of people were often killed in the space of a single day. One woman described what she had seen during one of these attacks to a journalist in the immediate aftermath:
It was about 4 p.m., and I was baking some bread outside, over a fire. Suddenly, there was a big explosion. I took cover, on the ground. Then, there was another explosion. I got up and I could see this woman here [pointing to a neighbor who is crying], and she was just running about. [The women asked her neighbor to tell her story for her, and nodded throughout.] Her son had been sitting near this wall outside, where the artillery landed, and he was completely blown up. This woman here was running about, collecting pieces of [his] flesh in her apron, and crying. Her son’s name was Sakhi. He was completely blown up, disappeared. Her grandson, Mukhtar, was also killed in the same explosion
A medical official at a local hospital told Human Rights Watch:
“At any moment a missile could fall. . . . When you were outside, you never knew if a missile would fall on your head. They were shooting them blindly, anywhere: into roads, markets, houses. . . . The most awful thing was that any bomb could fall on any place at any time. There was a clear political will to shell the city, as a city—to shell the city as a civilian place. The shelling was ubiquitous, everywhere.
Kabul’s hospitals were soon overflowing, as one journalist working in the city recalled:
“I remember pretty terrible scenes from those days, from the hospital. I saw children, kids, women wounded. Kids with their legs blown off. I once saw some kids arriving at the hospital in a car; their legs had been blown off by a bomb and they were just lying in the boot of the car. “
That summer, half a million people fled Kabul into the countryside. The capital was supposed to be a beacon of new possibilities and renewed promise for a nation finally free of foreign influence; instead, it succumbed to a self-eating disease. As Mir Tamim Ansary put it: “The Soviets had destroyed the Afghan countryside; now Afghans themselves destroyed the cities.”
When journalists and diplomats demanded an explanation from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar on why he was indiscriminately murdering people he had professed to want to govern, he simply demurred and deflected. As Sandy Gall remembers:
Hekmatyar was more than economical with the truth – it hardly seemed to enter into his calculations at all. I asked him how he justified his repeated rocket attacks on Kabul and the deaths of so many civilians. He dismissed this as ‘baseless propaganda’, and said, ‘We were attacked first.’ He spoke softly, but he reminded me of a spider waiting at the center of a web.”
As Hekmatyar shelled Kabul, the six other Mujahideen factions began to carve and divvy up parts of the city like slices of a pie. Any grand ideas of cooperation and compromise withered on the vine. Each Mujahideen party had vastly different ideas about what Afghanistan should look like; there were Sunnis, Shias, Sufis and Wahabis. Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Pashtuns. Hekmatyar’s brazen disregard for law and order just gave the individual warlords the excuse they needed to create their own mini-fiefdoms within Kabul. Like warring Mafia families, each defending their turf.
The city became fractured into no-go zones. Chris Sands called it: “a grotesque tapestry of warring ethnic enclaves.”. Steve Coll called it a “dense barricaded checkerboard of ethnic and ideological factions.”. Sandy Gall said the city was on “the edge of anarchy.” But however you described it, the effect was the same.
Life became unlivable in Kabul. There were reports of mass rape, torture, and looting. Sunnis beheaded Shias. Packs of rabid dogs roamed the streets. Even the city’s infrastructure collapsed. As Steve Coll writes:
“The electricity in Kabul failed. The few remaining diplomats husbanded petrol for generators and held conferences by candlelight. Roads closed, food supplies shrank, and disease spread. About ten thousand Afghan civilians died violently by the year’s end.”
As the months dragged on, 1992 became 1993 became 1994. The violence and chaos continued, punctuated by brief moments of brittle reconciliation among the Mujahideen factions, all against the backdrop of Hekmatyar’s incessant and vindictive rocket attacks. Sands and Qazizai sum the whole situation in Kabul up in this heartbreaking passage:
“After twenty years of oppression, insurrection, invasion and occupation, Afghanistan seemed locked in a downward spiral of collective madness, with Kabul as the epicenter of this psychosis. The city’s avenues had become borders between feuding communities, the river a slurry of excrement and trash. The mountains that once held the capital in a warm embrace now squeezed it of life. Children spoke of jinn—evil Islamic spirits—haunting certain streets, while snakes and scorpions crawled through the ruined cityscape. No longer able to afford traditional building materials, people used ammunition crates to reinforce the walls of their homes.”
It’s hard to even described how this failure of governance affected Ahmed Shah Massoud.
Ten long years they had struggled against the Soviets. Then another three years to bring down the Afghan Communists. And now, when they had finally won, when they finally had the ability to make life better for the Afghan people and show the world that they were more than bickering tribes….and they’d blown it. He’d blown it. As Chris Sands writes in Night Letters: “The nation’s capital was falling apart on his watch. For a man proud of his own military discipline and prowess, there was no greater shame.”
But for Massoud, the worst part wasn’t Hekmatyar’s rocket attacks, or the fracturing of the coalition, it was the conduct of the mujahideen. What had begun as a noble, honest, well-meaning jihad against the Soviets had mutated into something deeply ugly and very far from the Prophet’s teachings. As Sands and Qazizai write:
“Ever since Massoud’s forces first established control over Kabul in 1992 they had torn around the city in old Russian jeeps, music blaring from boom boxes, gesturing obscenely at passers by. From the vantage points of their mountain outposts, gunmen shot civilians for sport in the streets below, betting cigarettes on who could score the most kills. Uzbek troops were notorious for the Afghan practice of bacha bazi, a form of pederasty in which effeminate young boys are made to dress as women and sexually abused. The fighters of Wahdat hammered nails into the skulls of their prisoners and stole ancient artefacts from Kabul’s museum. None of the factions were winning. All they had succeeding in doing was tarnishing the legacy of the mujahideen’s historic victory over the Soviets.”
It was nauseating, and Massoud could not deny, as the most powerful military leader in the country, he had blood on his hands. As a close friend of Massoud’s remembered: “Those were the worst years for all of us, and I think certainly the worst years for Commander Massoud.”
Ahmed Shah Massoud strikes me as a particularly tragic figure. He wanted, more than anything, to do right by his country. To kick out the Communists, kick out the Soviets, marginalize extremists like Hekmatyar, and just make it work. But the reach of his ideals exceeded the grasp of his political abilities. He was a brilliant strategist, a military genius, a kind and decent man…and he still failed miserably. Massoud had prevailed against the one of the most powerful superpowers in world history, but now he couldn’t even keep the lights on in his nation’s capital.
But what did the rest of the world think? Was the international community really going to just sit back and watch Afghanistan burn itself to the ground? Basically…yeah.
A prominent Mujahideen commander named Abdul Haq warned US Ambassador Peter Tomsen in the winter of 1992: “Afghanistan runs the risk of becoming 50 or more separate kingdoms. Foreign extremists may want to move in, buying houses and weapons. Afghanistan may become unique in becoming both a training ground and munitions dump for foreign terrorists and at the same time, the world’s largest poppy field.”
This, understandably, deeply alarmed Tomsen. After the Soviet Union had fallen, the United States had cut its funding for the Mujahideen. In their eyes, the enemy was defeated, and jihadist pawns like Hekmatyar had played their role well enough. Washington quickly adopted a “hands off” approach. But people in the US State Department could see the writing on the wall, and they worried about the consequences of abandoning Afghanistan to its fate. As Ambassador Tomsen wrote:
“Why was America walking away from Afghanistan so quickly, with so little consideration given to the consequences? U.S. perseverance in maintaining our already established position in Afghanistan—at little cost—could significantly contribute to the favorable moderate outcome, which would: sideline the extremists, maintain a friendship with a strategically located friendly country, help us accomplish our other objectives in Afghanistan and the broader Central Asian region, e.g., narcotics, Stinger recovery, anti-terrorism. . . .
We are in danger of throwing away the assets we have built up in Afghanistan over the last 10 years, at great expense. . . .Our stakes there are important, if limited, in today’s geostrategic context. The danger is that we will lose interest and abandon our investment assets in Afghanistan, which straddles a region where we have precious few levers.”
In his book Ghost Wars, Steve Coll describes another guy from the State Department named Edmund McWilliams who also expressed his concern about Afghanistan in a confidential cable in 1993:
“The hands-off policy of the United States serves neither Afghan interests nor our own. . . . The absence of an effective Kabul government also has allowed Afghanistan to become a spawning ground for insurgency against legally constituted governments. Afghan-trained Islamic fundamentalist guerrillas directly threaten Tajikistan and are being dispatched to stir trouble in Middle Eastern, southwest Asian, and African states.” The McWilliams cable landed in a void.
By this point, the Clinton Administration was in power and distancing itself from the Cold War struggles of yesteryear. There were bigger fish to fry at home and in other parts of the world. Afghanistan was someone else’s problem. As a member of President Clinton’s team put it.
“Nobody wanted to return to the hot spots of the Reagan-Bush years. They just wanted them to go away. Afghanistan was just one of those black holes out there.”
For the everyday people of Afghanistan, it seemed like there was no one to turn to for help. The Mujahideen were tearing the country apart, unable to put their personal drama and ideological dogma aside to actually build a new nation out of the rubble the Soviets had left behind. The international community was powerless to help at best and smugly indifferent at worst. The people of Afghanistan were desperately looking for a savior, a miracle, and end to the violence and chaos and lawlessness.
Well, in 1994, a new faction emerged that intended to give the people of Afghanistan exactly that. To give them the law and order they so desperately craved.
Ladies and gentlemen, let’s meet the Taliban.
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Back in Part 2 of this series, we met a woman named Jan Goodwin. If you’ll recall, Jan was an Executive Editor at Ladies Home Journal in New York, and in 1985, she snuck into Afghanistan to travel for three months with a small band of mujahideen, to cover their guerilla war against the Soviets.
But Jan had not just decided to take that very risky assignment out of the blue. There was an experience she had the year before that convinced her she needed to see the warzone for herself. Do you remember what it was? Bonus points if you do. She visited an Afghan refugee camp inside Pakistan. And she was horrified by what she saw there.
Around ‘84-85, the Soviet 40th Army was at the height of what was called their ‘depopulation campaign’; literally emptying the Afghan countryside of its people so they could not provide aid and shelter to the Mujahideen. The Soviets carpet bombed villages, destroyed farms, pulverized infrastructure, you name it. Well, all those people had to go somewhere, and many of them surged over the borders in every conceivable direction. But the largest proportion of refugees - around 4 million people, all told – fled to the southeast and settled in Pakistan.
As Jan walked through the sprawling refugee camp, she would’ve noticed all kinds of upsetting details. The poverty, the disease, the missing limbs and the choking stench. But the most unsettling thing she would’ve noticed was that the vast majority of these refugees were…kids. One Pakistani camp official claimed that “three-quarters of the population was under fifteen years of age.”
The refugee camps were full of more than a million adolescents and teenagers who had lost everything. Their homes. Their friends. Their siblings. Their parents. The very building blocks of a normal, healthy childhood were suddenly and irreversibly gone.
Imagine for a second, that you are an orphan in a Pakistani refugee camp. You’re, say, 11 or 12 years old. Your parents are gone - either dead, missing, or off fighting somewhere with the mujahideen. You have 4 or 5 younger siblings to look after, no source of food, or income, except sporadic handouts of oil, flour, tea and salt from the United Nations. If you’re lucky, you have a drafty tent that you can cram into at night. And everyone around you – millions of people for a dozen miles in any direction are in the exact same situation. Your suffering is not unique, or special, you just have to survive any way you can. You’re angry and scared and alone and…here’s the kicker – bored out of your mind. There’s nothing to do in these camps except scrape by day-to-day and reflect on the terrible hand life has dealt you.
But there was one constructive way for these Afghan orphans to channel all that sorrow, restlessness, and rage. As Mir Tamim Ansary writes: “Hundreds of thousands of teenage boys were cooped up in these camps with no outlet for their restless teenage energy and nothing but horror to build memories around. The boys did, however, have one escape hatch from the boredom. They could go to a madrassa.”
A madrassa is a fundamentalist Islamic religious school. And there were well over 2,000 of them clustered along the Pakistani-Afghan border in the mid-1980s. About a quarter of a million young Afghan boys ended up cycling through these schools.
The madrassas provided room and board, completely free of charge. They offered safety, mentorship, basic education, and most important of all, structure. An antidote for the hopeless chaos of the camps. For a penniless and parent-less teenage refugee, that sounded like a pretty sweet deal. But the madrassas had another motive. The teachers in these schools looked at these scared and homeless Afghan orphans and saw balls of fresh clay to mold into whatever they saw fit. As Mir Tamim Ansary writes:
“What the religious teachers gave their captive audiences was a narrative. They told the wide-eyed refugee boys about a perfection that had existed just once in history, during the lifetime of the Prophet Mohammed, at Medina. For one generation, they explained, a whole community had lived in absolute obedience to the laws of God Almighty and that obedience had made them mighty, because God accompanied the original Muslims into every battle, and against God, no force could stand. This was not wild-eyed raving; it’s pretty much the standard core of the Muslim narrative. The context was what made it volatile.
in recent years, the Muslim world had been awash with expectations of an apocalyptic battle coming up between God’s people and the devil’s, and this narrative came to permeate the camps and madrassas. Religious teachers preached that the rebirth of the perfect community would mark the beginning of the battle. Yes, if only some group of Muslims would live as the people of Prophet-guided Medina had lived—by those exact rules, by that code—the world would be saved.
Boys who were suffering through the worst childhood on earth were allowed to imagine that it might be their destiny to establish the community that would save the world.”
As a journalist named Ahmed Rashid wrote:
"These boys were what the war had thrown up, like the sea's surrender on the beach of history. They had no memories of the past, no plans for the future, while the present was everything. They were literally the orphans of the war, the rootless and the restless, the jobless and the economically deprived, with little self-knowledge."
To these boys, the idea of reclaiming a war-torn Afghanistan and shaping it into the perfect Islamic community gave them purpose and direction. It let them feel in control of their own lives at a time when they couldn’t even control where their next meal would come from. As the scholar Thomas Barfield writes:
The hope of recovering a lost homeland is a particularly powerful ideal, but as time passes the view of this homeland becomes more and more mythical because refugee children know of it only by hearsay. The past is idealized because the present is so miserable and the future is so uncertain.”
These students in the madrassas, spoon fed a one-dimensional and regressive interpretation of Islam, cut off from any other intellectual influences, and riled up to believe it was their God-given mission to implement a mystical utopia, grew up to become the movement we now call the Taliban. Now initially, “Taliban” was not the name of an organization or a political movement. “Talib” is just the Pashto word for “student”. Taliban is the plural form of that word. So, all Taliban means is “students”; sometimes it’s translated as “seekers of knowledge.”
Well long story short, against the backdrop of the Soviet-Afghan War, the madrassas on the Pakistani frontier became a hatchery for a splinter religious ideology that was poised to dominate the country.
TALIBAN ON THE MOVE
By now, it’s 1994.
Two years have passed since Ahmed Shah Massoud captured Kabul and dashed Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s dreams of ruling Afghanistan. But Massoud and the new government he was a part of had failed to create order out of chaos. 24 months of vicious civil war among the seven Mujahideen factions had reduced the capital to a glorified pile of rocks. No electricity, no running water, no economy, nothing. Just bullets, bombs and unmitigated misery. As Thomas Barfield writes:
“Historically, Afghanistan got rid of foreign occupiers by making the country so ungovernable that they wanted to leave. This strategy, perfected during the decade-long struggle to expel the Soviets, now came to haunt the Afghans themselves. Having achieved the sobriquet “graveyard of empires” for their nineteenth- and twentieth-century successes against the superpowers of the age, the Afghans now began digging a grave for themselves. No faction was able to establish either political legitimacy or military hegemony, but none was willing to compromise with its rivals either. It was as if the country had developed an autoimmune disorder: powerful antibodies fatal to foreigners were now directed at the Afghan body politic itself.”
At this point, the everyday people of Afghanistan felt profoundly betrayed by the Mujahideen. During the war against the Soviets, they had idolized the guerillas as heroes and holy warriors. But now, the holy warriors didn’t seem so holy. They weren’t making life better for the people of Afghanistan; In fact, they were making it actively worse. The country had degraded into one giant battlefield, dominated by a feuding patchwork of robbers, smugglers, warlords and heroin cartels. Even well-intentioned leaders like Massoud seemed powerless to break the cycle of violence.
And then, like a bolt of lightning, the Taliban appeared.
The foundational, and possibly mythical, origin story of the Taliban begins in 1994, with a humble, one-eyed mullah (or religious teacher) named Muhammed Omar. I’ll let Mir Tamim Ansary tell the story as only he can:
“Legend has it that sometime in the spring of 1994, the Prophet Mohammed appeared to Mullah Omar in a dream, offered him his cloak, and asked him to save the Muslim people. A few days later, the story goes, Omar heard about a particularly horrible crime in his neighborhood: some brutal Mujahid gangster had kidnapped two girls for himself and his men to rape. Mullah Omar told his followers to do something about it, and they did. Not only did they rescue the girls, they hanged the rapist from the gun barrel of his own tank as a warning to evildoers: there was a new sheriff in town. I say “legend has it” because this story might be apocryphal. I know of no evidence that it was told at the time. This and many similar stories were told later, and often, when the Taliban were developing an image of themselves as incorruptible knights of Islamic piety and disseminating this image to the public—an image that, it must be said, they undoubtedly believed to be true.”
The Taliban started as a tiny band of vigilantes, lynching Mujahideen warlords who preyed on young girls, but within a matter of months, they had snowballed into a national movement that could stand toe-to-toe with the most well-armed mujahideen factions.
The orphans of the Soviet-Afghan War were all grown up, and they flocked to Mullah Omar’s new army of God by the tens of thousands, unified by a grand purpose. With Qurans in one hand and Kalashnikovs in the other, they wiped out local bandit gangs, made the roads safe for trade and travelers, and imposed the kind of stability the people of Afghanistan had been so desperately craving. But the Taliban were much more intense from an ideological standpoint than the Mujahideen, according to Stephen Tanner:
“The Taliban espoused the same doctrine as the Mujahideen, only more so. On every point, they were more literal, more simplistic, more extreme. In their own view, what they were was more pure. They had no interest in discussing what was best for Afghanistan because they already knew what was best: the Shari’a. They were here to enforce the law (as they understood it) without compromise or deviation. This is what the bulk of the cadre undoubtedly believed.
And Tanner goes on later in his book: “They admired war because it was the only occupation they could possibly adapt to. Their simple belief in a messianic, puritan Islam which had been drummed into them by simple village mullahs was the only prop they could hold on to and which gave their lives some meaning.”
But the Taliban movement would likely have never been more than a footnote in the history had it not been for the assistance of one very powerful benefactor. Pakistan.
By 1994, Pakistan’s ISI was looking at the situation in Afghanistan the way you might look at burning building across the street. This had gotten way out of control, way out of hand. The Soviets were gone, sure, but the victorious Mujahideen had somehow managed to break what was already broken, plunging the country into more violence, more chaos, more despair. And at the center of the problem, in Pakistan’s view, was their once-promising protégé, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
For going on 15 years, the ISI had gone out of its way to funnel disproportionate amounts of weapons and money to Hekmatyar. They’d given him every tool and resource he could possibly need to take over Afghanistan. Sophisticated weaponry, monetary support, and invaluable political patronage. Not to mention a safe harbor in Peshawar to rest his weary little head. And what had he achieved? Nothing except the undying hatred of every man, woman, and child in Kabul. The enmity of the other six Mujahideen parties. And the agitation of the international community. Like a gambler at the end of a bad night, Pakistan realized Hekmatyar was a losing horse; a money pit that needed to be put out to pasture.
So, rather than continue putting their chips on a volatile personality like Hekmatyar, the ISI opted to engineer a fundamentalist insurgency from scratch. One they could control. One that did not have international aspirations or decades of baggage. A fresh slate. The one-eyed Mullah Omar and his puritanical vigilantes fit that bill perfectly. And for their part, Omar and the boys were all too happy to accept death-dealing toys from Pakistan to achieve their Islamic utopia. As Mir Tamim Ansary writes:
Within two months, the Taliban had airplanes, automobiles, artillery, tanks, helicopters, sophisticated radio communications, guns, bullets, and money. Pakistan professed amazement at how quickly these plucky youngsters were progressing—and on their own, too—for Pakistan denied having anything to do with creating or arming the Taliban. According to Pakistani spokesmen, the Taliban captured all their materiel from the Mujahideen or acquired it from commanders who joined them. At the same time, Pakistani officials flung open the gates of those Afghan refugee camps and let thousands of recruits pour across the border to join the new force.”
Many people in Afghanistan welcomed the Taliban movement like a breath of fresh air, because it was such a sharp contrast to what the Mujahideen had become. As one Afghan businessmen recalled: “the sell was very practical, and it made sense. They were saying, ‘Look, all these commanders have looted the country. They’re selling it piece by piece. They’ve got checkpoints. They’re raping women.’
Chris Sands expands on that idea: “Compared to the mujahideen that ruled the country before them, however, these pious young men from the Pashtun heartlands behaved like saints. They did not rape, pillage or plunder, nor did they act with the arrogance of feudal kings. For many Afghans, their eccentric brand of authoritarian, theocratic rule was a logical antidote to the anarchy of the last four years.”
Town after town, village after village, province after province fell to the Taliban fighters. One historian compared their shock-and-awe tactics to the mobility of Mongol cavalry. The Taliban would zip down the roads in these brand-new Toyota pickup trucks purchased for them by Pakistan, with heavy machine guns bolted to the beds. And as they took over more and more territory, the Taliban acquired an almost supernatural reputation. As one Mujahideen remembered: “It was said they carried Qur’ans in their hands and if you killed them you would go to hell; if they killed you, you would still go to hell.”
Just as the Soviets had come to fear the “ghosts”, the Mujahideen. The Mujahideen came to fear the Taliban. All the Mujahideen leaders looked at Taliban with a twinge of terror in their hearts, but no one was more alarmed by the phenomenon than our old friend Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
For years, Hekmatyar had been Pakistan’s favorite mujahideen. But the so-called Dark Prince had grown complacent and arrogant in the warmth of that embrace. And now, the ISI bosses in Peshawar were saying, you’re washed up, man. Like an over-the-hill actor who’s been dropped by their agent for a younger, fresh-faced talent, Hekmatyar realized that he was being left behind. He had been one of the most prominent voices in worldwide militant Islamism, but now he was standing on the precipice of irrelevance.
Still, Hekmatyar was nothing if not determined. And he was defiant in the face of the Taliban onslaught. As Ansary writes: “Hekmatyar warned them not to approach his stronghold, or else he’d show them what grown-ups did with guns.”
But as per usual, Hekmatyar’s bark proved much worse than his bite; and in 1995, the Taliban began systematically routing his forces from every nook and cranny in Afghanistan. Some of Hekmatyar’s guys even took cash bribes and defected to the Taliban without firing a shot. Before long, those shiny new Toyota pickups were closing in fast on Hekmatyar’s position outside the capital of Kabul itself. As Chris Sands writes:
Hekmatyar tried to organize a new line of defense, but before he could he found himself surrounded in the picturesque Tangi valley, scurrying through wheat fields and apple orchards to avoid being killed or captured. He narrowly escaped and returned to Chahar Asyab (that’s the name of the town that served as his base of operations outside Kabul). As he trudged into base, he was exhausted, his feet swollen, his trousers pulled halfway up his legs; his clothes were filthy and his beard was covered in dust.
By 1995, it was clear: Even Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the firebrand preacher, criminal kingpin and ruthless warlord, could not stop the Taliban. He was a spent force.
It’s unlikely Hekmatyar was willing to admit it to anyone but himself, but there was one last person he could turn to for help. One person who might be capable of stopping the Taliban. The only Mujahideen commander with the military talent, the operational experience, and the sheer numbers to stop Mullah Omar and his orphan soldiers.
Like bile rising in his throat, Hekmatyar acknowledged a very uncomfortable reality. To get out of this mess, he needed an Afghan Napoleon. He needed the Lion of Panjshir. Ahmed Shah Massoud.
---- MUSIC BREAK ----
It’s February 1995.
We’re in Afghanistan, about an hour-and-a-half southwest of Kabul.
The roads are covered with snow and ice as a two-car convoy drives towards a small village called Maidan Shar. Sitting in the back seat of the lead vehicle is our old friend Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Lion of Panjshir and Defense Minister of the embattled Mujahideen government.
Massoud was a famously calm, cool and collected kinda guy even in the most stressful of circumstances. But today, he might’ve felt the slightest pang of anxiety as his car got closer and closer to this small village outside of Kabul. In his belt, he had a small pistol with 8 bullets in the magazine. He’d brought it with him just in case anything went wrong.
Because today, Massoud was meeting the Taliban face to face.
Six months ago, no one had even heard of the Taliban. But by February 1995, they controlled huge chunks of southern Afghanistan, and they were very close to knocking on the gates of Kabul itself.
Initially, Massoud and the other Mujahideen leaders in Kabul had watched with distant interest as these fanatical students rose up against local gang leaders and warlords. That interest became mild approval as the Taliban dealt blow after blow to Hekmatyar’s weakened faction. Massoud himself had even thrown a little money the Taliban’s way to help them draw more blood against his own rival. Enemy of my enemy, and all that. But now, the Taliban were much more than just a countryside curiosity.
The shiny new Toyota pickups, the well-oiled machine guns, and the expensive radio equipment pointed to larger forces at work, and Massoud came to suspect that the Taliban were, as he put it, “not their own masters”.
In other words, Pakistan was making a play. The ISI was behind the Taliban’s meteoric rise, and these heavily-armed and heavily-indoctrinated students were the instrument of Pakistan’s long-term designs on Afghanistan. Foreign powers, it seemed to Massoud, just couldn’t stop meddling in Afghanistan’s domestic affairs.
So in early 1995, Massoud decides he needs to meet these guys face to face. To size them up. Figure out what they really want. Maybe even cut a deal that would benefit everyone involved.
Almost all of Massoud’s advisors beg him not to go. They tell him there’s a 99% chance this is a trap. After all, the Lion of Panjshir is the only military commander remotely capable of stopping a complete Taliban takeover of the country. Surely this “meeting” was just a ruse to lure Massoud into hostile territory, capture him, then kill him. As one of his bodyguards recalled: I completely believed that this was a suicidal mission and we would not leave alive.”
Massoud pushed these concerns aside. But he still shoved that pistol into his belt, just in case.
As his car approached the village, Massoud looked out the window to see hundreds of Taliban fighters lining the roads. These were not just brainwashed kids. They looked just as fearsome and deadly as any battle-hardened Mujahideen, cradling machine guns, RPGs, and following Massoud’s car with cold eyes rimmed in black mascara. His advisors were right; If this meeting went bad, there was no way Massoud was getting out of here alive.
Eventually, the car pulls up to the meeting point, and Ahmed Shah Massoud steps out of the car. He is met by several high-ranking Taliban mullahs, who invite him to a rooftop where they sit down and begin negotiations.
To Massoud’s surprise, the Taliban treated him with a great deal of respect. In their eyes, he was a hero of the war against the Soviets. A true holy warrior who fought for God’s glory. But then the conversation started to turn. The mullahs criticized Massoud on a litany of points. He had failed to establish safety and security for the Afghan people. His government did not apply Islamic law to the letter; It employed former communists, and did not require women to wear the veil.
The more the Taliban talked, the more Massoud realized that there was very little possibility of any kind of agreement between them. He sensed the same rigidity, the same extremism in these men that he had seen for years in his old rival Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. But whereas Hekmatyar could be occasionally pragmatic, the Taliban were absolutely unyielding in their fundamentalist principles. Massoud later called them “intolerant people, far from God.”
According to Sandy Gall: “The meeting ended cordially, but a current of hostility was swirling.”
As Massoud drove back to Kabul, he had no idea how close he had been to death. As it turned out, the Taliban had been planning to capture and execute him, intent on removing a key obstacle to their takeover of the country. But the lead mullah, after speaking with Massoud face-to-face, had experienced a change of heart, and opted to let him return to Kabul. When his colleagues criticized him for missing the chance to take Massoud out, the mullah responded: ‘We are not hypocrites, we are Muslims. It is not the work of a Muslim when you invite a Muslim and a mujahid brother and you deceive him. No way, I cannot do this!’
That principled Mullah paid the price for his decision. Within a month he’d been stripped of power and kicked out of the Taliban command structure entirely. Massoud’s son later told journalist Sandy Gall that his Dad was “lucky to escape with his life”. After that meeting in February 1995, the Taliban’s official policy toward Ahmed Shah Massoud hardened. The Lion of Panjshir was an apostate, an enemy of true Muslims, marked for death. The government he defended was “the root cause of all evils in Afghanistan.”
Any hope of a deal with a Taliban had melted with those February snows, and the following month, they threw everything they had at Massoud’s forces in Kabul. Rockets, airstrikes, artillery, all the toys they’d been given by Pakistan.
No sooner had the Taliban guns cooled, than Massoud responded in kind. The Taliban had never gone up against a commander like Massoud, and it showed. His well-orchestrated counter-attack put the Taliban into one big meat grinder, and they were forced to run for the hills with their tails tucked between their legs. As it turned out, there was still some fight left in the 42-year-old Lion of Panjshir, and he’d managed to chase the jackals off…for now.
War can make strange bedfellows, and not too long after the Taliban’s failed siege of Kabul, Massoud received word that his old enemy and lifelong rival, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, was interested in joining the Mujahideen government in Kabul as Prime Minister. After four years, hundreds of rockets, and thousands of dead civilians, Hekmatyar was finally ready to work with Massoud for the good of the country.
Many people saw Hekmatyar’s sudden desire for reconciliation for what it was: desperation. The Taliban had pummeled Hekmatyar’s forces to the brink of dissolution. Pakistan had completely abandoned him. He was a broken man, grasping for relevancy. At this point, what could Hekmatyar even bring to the table? Well, to the surprise of almost everyone, Ahmed Shah Massoud says “yes, Hekmatyar can and should join the government.” As one of his close associates remembered:
When Hekmatyar said he would come to Kabul, Massoud was one of the first to agree, “Why should he not come to Kabul and be prime minister?” I remember I said to him, “After he fired all these rockets and caused all that killing and tried to destroy Kabul, why should he be allowed to come back?” He said, “Well, fresh is fresh. Maybe he has done wrong, and now he will do good. You never know the future of people. Look, the man says he will come back and be good. Why should I have bad intentions toward him because of his past?”
I never found any kind of revenge in Massoud’s heart toward anyone. He was sad and angry sometimes, but he never told me he couldn’t forgive someone, or that he would take revenge. His attitude was, if an enemy comes and says I can treat you well now, you don’t look for revenge; you have forgiveness. You are happy, and you get on with it. I saw it happen many times. Many times, he said, “Well, people can change, even the Russians.” You know his bodyguard was a former Russian soldier.”
There was more to Massoud’s position that pure altruism, however. Hekmatyar may have been a shadow of his former self, but he still had plenty of political clout. Maybe the sight of two mortal enemies working together would galvanize the mujahideen to face the existential threat that a Pakistan-backed Taliban posed? Or maybe Massoud just felt that Hekmatyar was less dangerous close by in Kabul where he could keep an eye on him.
So - for better or worse, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Ahmed Shah Massoud, agreed to work together to fight against the Taliban in the summer of 1996. As it turned out, the Taliban were more than ready to answer that challenge.
By mid-1996, the Taliban had replenished all of the losses they’d sustained in their first scrap with Massoud in spring of 1995. The mullahs had put out a call for volunteers in the madrassas at the Pakistani border, and the ISI had made sure the willing and able youngsters made it to the front lines.
In a cold sweat, Massoud and Hekmatyar began to understand that the Taliban were like a hydra. You could keep cutting off heads, but it just kept growing back. The Mujahideen, meanwhile, had dwindled down to a few thousand tired men in a bombed-out city. Their glory days fighting a war of liberation against the Soviet 40tharmy were long gone. The cruel irony was that now the Mujahideen were the occupiers, powerless to stamp out an indomitable insurgency.
On September 24th, 1996, the Taliban wound up their forces like a clenched fist, and then swung at Massoud and Hekmatyar with every ounce of firepower they had. One mujahideen remembered that night: ‘It was very coordinated. A combined, coordinated attack, with artillery, tanks – infantry with tanks. Very heavy fighting, and they lost a lot, and we lost a lot. We lost our ammunition, we had no air power, no communications; it was really chaotic.’
Two days later, as the Taliban closed in from the South, East and West, Ahmed Shah Massoud gathered his generals and advisors, and sent word to Hekmatyar and other members of the government: It was time to retreat from Kabul. Better to live and fight another day, than be decisively crushed by the Taliban. Massoud’s thinking was further summarized by one advisor:
He had two options: to completely exhaust himself in the street fight in Kabul, further damage his credibility and damage his reputation, further embolden the question as to what are you fighting for [or to pursue a calculated military strategy]. When you cannot defend a big area, instead of completely losing your men, you’d better retreat and recuperate, which is what he did, and also re-engender a grand new vision, which he did. So, he retreated.
On September 26th, 1996, Ahmed Shah Massoud, Hekmatyar, and the other mujahideen pulled every soldier, tank, fuel truck and APC they could mobilize out of Kabul and retreated to the one place that they knew the Taliban could never penetrate. A place that not even the Soviet 40th Army could penetrate. Where it had all began, the Panjshir Valley. From Massoud’s point of view, the mujahideen would live to fight another day. To almost everyone else, it was the end of an era. Fundamentalist Islam had prevailed in Afghanistan.
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar jumped in a helicopter and fled to Iran to brood in exile. Massoud hunkered down for another long guerilla war in the Panjshir. Their brief partnership had yielded the exact same results as their decades-long feud – blood, distrust, and defeat.
The people of Kabul, meanwhile, were left alone and undefended, and the very next morning on September 27th, 1996, the first Taliban troops entered the city. After the chaos and destruction of the Mujahideen civil war, many people in Kabul were relieved to have peace on any terms. But as Mir Tamim Ansary writes:
“Only then did Afghans discover what Taliban-imposed security would cost them. Women were henceforth forbidden to show themselves in public. Women could not work outside their homes or go to school. Women could not leave their compounds unless they were wearing that oppressive head-to-toe covering known as the chad’ri (or burqa). Women could not be on the streets without a male escort. That male escort had to be a husband or a relative close enough to meet the mandate of the Shari’a. Taxis were forbidden to pick up unveiled or unaccompanied women. Shopkeepers could not sell goods to such women. Outside the home, women were to be treated as nonpersons—unless they were showing some skin, any skin, in which case they were to be beaten on the spot.
The criminal penalties listed in the Shari’a were to be enforced exactly as prescribed. Thieves were to have their hands cut off. In specified cases, they must lose their feet as well. Doctors were called away from legitimate patients to carry out these surgeries. Relatives of murder victims were given guns and invited to shoot the murderers, if they were caught. Women charged with adultery were stoned in public. At least once, this was carried out in the city’s main stadium, where crowds had gathered in former times to watch entertainments such as soccer. Long trials were declared a thing of the past. Judgments were to be delivered swiftly, and sentences carried out on the spot.
Music was banned. Movies were banned. Photography was banned. All representational art was banned. Theaters were turned into mosques. Video stores were burned down. Television sets still provided some entertainment—not the shows, the sets themselves: those were set up in the streets, and the cadre shot them to pieces with their machine guns. Anything that smacked of gambling was outlawed. Kite flying was therefore prohibited. Soccer and chess were heavily discouraged, because people might place wagers on those games. Afghans enjoyed keeping pigeons and other birds, but those days were over. Pets were banned.
The celebration of any non-Islamic event (such as New Year’s or Afghan Independence Day) was criminalized. Everybody, both men and women, had to wear clothing that conformed to the mandates of the Shari’a. The national tribal dress—long shirt, baggy pants, turbans for men, headscarves for women—fit this description. Western clothes did not, so Western clothes were banned. Long hair was banned for men. Beards, by contrast, became mandatory. Anyone caught violating the dress code could be punished. Prayer was mandatory too. Anyone caught not praying at the prescribed times would be punished.”
But the Taliban had one last symbolic act in their repertoire.
At the beginning of this episode, we opened from the viewpoint of a very scared, very desperate man named Dr. Najibullah. Remember him? Najibullah was the last Communist leader of Afghanistan, abandoned by the Soviets, hounded by the Mujahideen, and speeding towards the airport to try and flee the country. Najibullah missed that flight, of course; His car was stopped at a checkpoint by a Massoud-affiliated militia and told to turn back. With nowhere else to go, the “Ox” holed up in a United Nations compound in Kabul.
And for the next four years, in that compound Dr. Najibullah stayed. The United Nations building served as a kind of de-facto jail cell for Najibullah, a diplomatic limbo that kept him safe from the vengeance of the people he had tortured and tormented during his Soviet-backed regime. Well, when the Taliban took over Kabul in the fall of ‘96– Najibullah’s luck finally ran out. The Taliban did not care about things like diplomatic immunity or United Nations safe zones. As Steve Coll describes:
Najibullah spent his years of incarceration watching satellite television, lifting free weights, and translating a history of British-era Afghanistan called The Great Game from English into Pashto. “Afghans keep making the same mistake,” he told one visitor, reflecting on his translation. The Taliban burst into Najibullah’s house on September 27 while his brother was visiting. Judging by the conditions of their bodies when they were strung up above a traffic circle hours later, the brothers died slowly and painfully under blows from fists, stones, and sticks. The former president of Afghanistan—whose career began in the torture chambers of the secret police and ended at roundtables with international diplomats—probably expired before the wire tied around his neck pulled him up the ten-foot gallows pole selected by the Taliban for its visible location in central Kabul. “We killed him because he was the murderer of our people,” Mullah Omar declared.
With Najibullah gone and the Mujahideen driven from Kabul, all the traces of the old guard seemed to have been swept away. The leader of the Taliban, the enigmatic Mullah Omar, had once been asked what his movement’s long-term goals were. He answered: “The Taliban will fight until there is no blood in Afghanistan left to be shed and Islam becomes a way of life for our people.”
As 1996 came to a close, it seemed that objective had been achieved. But the Taliban still had one last piece of unfinished business. One last name to cross off their list.
Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Lion of the Panjshir, was stubbornly holding out in his impregnable valley. Even Gulbuddin Hekmatyar had the good sense to leave the country, but Massoud was incorruptible, intractable. He refused to leave the people of Afghanistan, even after he had failed them so spectacularly. To the Taliban, the lush Panjshir Valley became a long green thorn in their side. Afghanistan would never be fully under their control until Massoud was dead. One Pakistani source referred to Massoud as “the last wall”, the last obstacle. Somehow, some way, the Taliban needed to kill him.
Luckily for them, there was a very rich, very powerful, very well-connected man who was more than willing to orchestrate Massoud’s death. And you already know his name: Osama bin Laden.
---- MUSIC BREAK ----
On September 9th, 2001 - two days before the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon – Ahmed Shah Massoud agreed to sit down for an interview with two Belgian journalists at his home in Northern Afghanistan.
Interviews with the press were a routine occurrence for Massoud. Since his rise to prominence during the Soviet-Afghan War, he had given countless interviews to journalists from every corner of the world. He liked reporters; and they liked him.
Massoud was told that the two journalists waiting his office on September 9th, 2001 were from a London-based television outlet, and they had been waiting patiently for weeks in hopes of scoring an interview with the world-famous Lion of Panjshir. Ever the gracious host, Massoud told his staff to apologize to these two men for the delay and to thank them for their patience. He said he’d be downstairs in just a few minutes to answer their questions. In the meantime, the they could begin setting up their camera equipment in his office.
The two journalists were Belgian nationals of Moroccan descent. Or at least that’s what their falsified passports said.
In reality, they were Tunisian operatives from the al Qaeda terrorist organization, under orders from Osama bin Laden. They weren’t there to amplify Massoud’s voice; They were there to silence it once and for all. A bomb had been hidden in their camera, which would be detonated via a transmitter hidden in the camera man’s belt. The camera was wired with enough explosives to kill every living thing in the room at the flick of a switch.
The journalists-slash-suicide bombers were told that Massoud would be down momentarily. All they had to do now, was wait. And when the time came, push a button.
Let’s rewind the clock.
HEKMATYAR and BIN LADEN
Five years earlier, in 1996, just before the Taliban took over Kabul, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was thinking a lot about his legacy.
In early 1996, Hekmatyar was an old man by Mujahideen standards - about 46 years old. And when he looked back on the decades, on all the violence, killing, and political gamesmanship, he realized he had very few tangible results to show for it.
His old rival Ahmed Shah Massoud had thwarted his ambitions at every turn. Pakistan had abandoned him. And now the Taliban had reduced his once powerful faction to a shadow of its former glory. But Hekmatyar was always a charitable spin-doctor when it came to analyzing his own accomplishments, or lack thereof, and he came to the conclusion that his destiny was much too large to be contained within a tiny patch of dirt like Afghanistan. His legacy, he told himself, would be felt in the wider world for years to come.
Even a narcissist like Hekmatyar could occasionally feel the clock of his mortality tick-tick-ticking away as his jet-black beard began to show flecks of grey, and he had always taken a pointed interest in cultivating the next generation of militant Islamism. He thought of himself as a wise, all-knowing godfather to young jihadists around the world.
One of these up-and-comers that Hekmatyar connected with was a quiet, slightly younger man from Saudi Arabia. The seventeenth son of a billionaire construction tycoon. His name of – perhaps you’ve heard of him – was Osama bin Laden.
Now, I’ve been debating with myself throughout this entire series about when and how and if to bring Osama bin Laden into our story. Part of me felt that his role in the overall narrative was as a crucial part of the legacy of the Soviet-Afghan War. But another part of me felt that his shadow would loom too large, that his presence in the narrative would sort of suck up all the oxygen in the room and overshadow other key players. So, in the closing act of our story, Bin Laden makes a brief, but impactful appearance.
The truth is, Osama bin Laden has been present in the story of the Soviet-Afghan War since the very beginning. He’s been lurking in the background, always on the periphery, but never quite in the spotlight compared to people like Hekmatyar or Massoud.
When Massoud and Hekmatyar were rabble-rousing students at Kabul University, Bin Laden was a pampered teenage aristocrat looking forward to a higher education of his own.
When Hafizullah Amin and the homegrown communists took over Afghanistan in 1978, Bin Laden was being radicalized and indoctrinated into extremist Islamist ideologies.
When the Soviets invaded in 1979, the 21-year-old Bin Laden felt compelled to join the struggle against the Russians, travel to Peshawar, and wield his wallet for the jihad.
While Ahmed Shah Massoud was thrashing the 40th Army in the Panjshir Valley during the early 80s, Bin Laden was funneling millions of dollars to Mujahideen groups, training volunteers, financing Islamist networks and getting cozy with other extremists like Hekmatyar.
Bin Laden had been a judge at the show-trial Hekmatyar had cooked up against Massoud in 1989. Bin Laden had helped facilitate the radio conversation between the two rivals on the outskirts of Kabul in 1992. Bin Laden had coordinated with Saudi intelligence and the Pakistani ISI to fund the madrassas that gave rise to the Taliban in 1994. Everywhere you look in this story, you can see Bin Laden’s fingerprints in some way or another. Like a Where’s Waldo of fundamentalist Islam.
For most of the 1980, during the Soviet-Afghan War, Bin Laden had been a money man. A financier. Hekmatyar to a liking to him especially, not only for his deep pockets, but his deep hatred of the American empire. Hekmatyar and Bin Laden had always been dancing to the same tune ideologically, and they played diplomatic footsy throughout the Soviet-Afghan War and well after the 40th Army withdrew. Hekmatyar saw in Bin Laden a talented protégé and a kindred spirit. Bin Laden saw in Hekmatyar a stalwart friend and well-established mentor.
But it was in the spring of 1996, that their paths converged in the most significant way.
In 1996, the CIA was already calling Bin Laden: “one of the most significant financial sponsors of Islamic extremist activities in the world.’
And the truth was, Bin Laden was running out of places to hang his hat. He’d been stripped of his Saudi Arabian citizenship thanks to his outspoken criticism of the Saudi monarchy and his very bad international reputation. Most countries in the Middle East didn’t want to take him either, since that would result in the CIA sniffing around in their backyards.
So by 1996, Bin Laden was holed up one of the few places that would allow him to plot, plan, and operate in peace: Sudan. Keep in mind, this is 5 years before 9/11, and the CIA was already jonesing *bad* to isolate, mitigate, or capture Bin Laden. The Saudi sheik was, after all, a notorious sponsor of international, anti-western terrorism. But now the Americans were turning up the heat on the Sudanese to expel Bin Laden and kick him out into the cold.
Facing the diplomatic equivalent of “No Vacancy” signs everywhere he looked, Bin Laden turned to an old friend for a little advice: Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
Bin Laden says, look man, I’m running out of options. What do you think I should do? I could go to Yemen? I could go back to Saudi Arabia and take my slap on the wrist….what should I do. Hekmatyar had it all worked out. As Chris Sands and Fazelminallah Qazizai write:
Hekmatyar told bin Laden that there was only one solution: to return to Afghanistan. His motivations for inviting him back were twofold: firstly, he liked and admired the Saudi, and wanted to keep him from falling into the clutches of his enemies; secondly, Hekmatyar needed bin Laden if he was to further his own long-term agenda.
Bin Laden agrees to this plan. And on May 18th, 1996, Hekmatyar smuggled Osama Bin Laden into Afghanistan via a very luxurious private jet. No box crates with air holes for Osama Bin Laden. When you smuggle a Saudi sheik, you do it in style. Hekmatyar then negotiated a deal with his fellow Mujahideen leaders to allow Bin Laden to stay in Afghanistan and set up shop there. In the warm embrace of the Afghan frontier, Bin Laden’s terrorist network al-Qaeda was able to set down deep roots, to expand and network unmolested by the CIA.
As Bin Laden’s luck thrived, Hekmatyar’s ran out. As we’ve previously discussed, 1996 was an apocalyptic year for the mujahideen government in Kabul. But in the twilight of his relevancy, Hekmatyar orchestrated this last, incredibly pivotal scheme. In a way, Hekmatyar was passing the torch to a younger, richer, more extreme Bin Laden. as Sands and Qazizai wrote, his “extremist army was compromised and depleted, yet through bin Laden, Hekmatyar’s dream of an international jihad remained alive.”
A few months later, the Taliban had taken over 2/3 of Afghanistan and driven Ahmed Shah Massoud back to his fortress valley in the Panjshir. From there, the Lion of Panjshir fought a desperate and cash-strapped guerilla war against the Taliban, just as he had fought against the Soviets so many years before.
Hekmatyar had chosen not to stay and fight. He was hiding out safely in neighboring Iran, while his protégé Osama bin Laden grew in power, influence, and ambition. From his viewpoint in the Panjshir Valley, Massoud looked at Bin Laden’s rising prominence with disdain. The two had never met personally, but Massoud made his views on Bin Laden clear in a conversation with veteran CIA Officer Gary Schroen, detailed here by Steve Coll:
Massoud described the Saudi’s puritanical, intolerant outlook on Islam as abhorrent to Afghans. Bin Laden’s group was just one dangerous part of a wider movement of armed Islamic radicalism then gathering in Afghanistan around the Taliban, Massoud said. He described this movement as a poisonous coalition: Pakistani and Arab intelligence agencies; impoverished young students bused to their deaths as volunteer fighters from Pakistani religious schools; exiled Central Asian Islamic radicals trying to establish bases in Afghanistan for their revolutionary movements; and wealthy sheikhs and preachers who jetted in from the Persian Gulf with money, supplies, and inspiration. Osama bin Laden was only the most ambitious and media-conscious of these outside sheikhs.
As the nineties came to a close, and the new millennium arrived, the Taliban were no closer to decisively killing Ahmed Shah Massoud than they had been when he’d retreated from Kabul in 1996. On paper, Massoud appeared tenacious, strong, every inch the resourceful guerilla that had dealt such pain on the Soviet 40thArmy in the 1980s. But in private, the years of stress, war, anxiety, and guilt had taken a terrible toll. As one historian wrote:
“Massoud’s good looks had faded; dark bags sagged under his eyes and deep worry lines were etched into his forehead. His hair was grey and even his most trivial words seemed weighed down with exhaustion.”
Another writer put it more succinctly: “he was an aging lion, regal but stiffening.”
As tired and weakened as he might have been, Ahmed Shah Massoud was still the last defiant flame of old-school Mujahideen resistance in a country dominated by, as he put it, “fanatics, extremists, terrorists, mercenaries, drug mafias and professional murderers.” Steve Coll describes the lopsided odds Massoud was facing:
“On the ground in Afghanistan during that summer of 1999 there was only one leader waging war and collecting intelligence day in and day out against the Taliban, Osama bin Laden, and their international Islamist allies. His disputed government possessed no real capital, no international airport, and little credibility. His budget was cobbled together week to week, partly from heroin smuggling deals. He did not have much of an office and, for lack of electricity, could not rely much on slide projectors. He had acquired a few tanks, a good supply of mortars, many small arms, and a few tattered helicopters pasted together from incompatible spare parts and with rotors that continually threatened to detach and fly away. Ahmed Shah Massoud remained a charismatic force among his own Tajik people, especially in the northeastern Panjshir Valley. He was by far the most formidable military commander in Afghanistan yet to be defeated by the Taliban.”
To the Taliban, Massoud seemed impossible to defeat, crush, or kill. But in 2001, a plan came together to finish the job once and for all. And it came from none other than the one, the only, Osama Bin Laden.
No one knew it yet, but 2001 was going to be a pretty big year for Bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda network. The planning for the September 11th attacks was well under way, and Bin Laden knew he would need uncompromising support and shelter from the Taliban in Afghanistan once those towers fell. Mullah Omar and his ilk had always been wary of inviting unwanted attention onto their regime, so to ensure their cooperation, Bin Laden needed to give the Taliban a very special gift. Something they desired above all else.
That gift was the death of Ahmed Shah Massoud.
As the journalist Peter Bergen summarized: “Massoud was the principal antagonist of the Taliban; by engineering his death, bin Laden gave the Taliban something they desperately wanted, and ensured that the Taliban would protect al-Qaeda in Afghanistan after 9/11.”
On September 9th, 2001, two days before the attacks on New York and the Pentagon, Bin Laden’s designs on Massoud’s life came to fruition.
At around 11:30 AM, Ahmed Shah Massoud came down to meet the two Al-Qaeda operatives who were posing as Belgian journalists. They took a long time to position their camera correctly, and Massoud whispered to his translator: “This is not very professional.” Massoud did not know that the camera was filled with explosives, and they were positioning it in the ideal position to detonate.
Once they were finished, the assassins sat down across from Massoud and began their “interview”. They communicated through Massoud’s translator, who immediately realized something was up. There was an oddness to their language, a lack of familiar with standard interview decorum. At one point, the translator whispered to Massoud, “They are not journalists”. Massoud nudged him and said “Let them finish”.
The translator was the only person in that room to survive what happened next. As he remembered:
The first question was, ‘What is the situation in Afghanistan?’ I had translated ‘What’ when the blast happened. I did not hear the blast but I totally remember seeing a dark blue fire rushing towards me. It was from in between the cameraman and the interviewer. I was very conscious at that moment and said to myself, ‘This is the last moment’. I remember thinking I was going to die. The smell, sound and smoke were over me and in my mouth all mixed up. I was saying ‘God is Holy, God is One’. I then felt a hand on my chest; it was very weak. I’m sure this must have been the hand of [Massoud]. I then became unconscious.
The next thing the translator remembers was waking up in a helicopter next to a mortally injured Massoud:
I was then aware that I was in a helicopter. I opened my eyes for about 10–15 seconds. I saw [Massoud] with blood on his face and in his hair. I said, ‘We are both going to die.’ I then became unconscious again. I did not become fully conscious until 8 days later in Germany … I was told [that] in the room after the bomb [Massoud was] saying, ‘Help Khalili first.’ My wife told me in Germany that [Massoud] had died”
The impact of Massoud’s assassination was summarized by Sandy Gall:
“One of the shining lights of Afghanistan – and of the world – was thus extinguished in a cruel and senseless murder that impoverished not only his large and loving family, and Afghanistan itself, but the whole of the civilized world.”
Two days later, the towers fell in New York. Less than a month later, yet another army of a global superpower invaded Afghanistan. In 1979 it had been the Soviets. In 2001, it was the Americans, sucked into the same ruinous geopolitical quicksand that had undone their Cold War adversaries. And here we are, back at the beginning. Round and round and round we go.
If the Soviets had known that the Americans would end up fighting and dying in Afghanistan for twice the amount of time the 40th Army had, it probably would’ve lessened the sting of the USSR’s collapse every so slightly.
As for Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, unlike his rival Ahmed Shah Massoud, he is still alive and well, and to this day – at the ripe old age of 72 or so - he continues to make headlines in his quest to steer the political destiny of Afghanistan.
A few days after Ahmed Shah Massoud was killed, an Afghan diplomat reacted with a single sentence, four words that summed up everything that had happened since 1979 – The Soviet invasion, the occupation, the Mujahideen civil war, the destruction of Kabul, the rise of the Taliban, the sheltering of Osama Bin Laden - everything.
“What an unlucky country.”
This has been Conflicted. Thanks for listening.
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