Written by: Prof. Michael Barry
It has been two years now. And today Commander Massoud’s legacy should be plain for all to see. His memory is revered by all those who knew him personally and struggled, by his side, on behalf of Afghan national independence, because they believed in something more important than even national Afghan independence, crucial as this was : they believed in defending fundamental human rights and sheer human decency, period. The individual dignity of human beings as such, as human beings persecuted for belonging to the wrong ethnic group, to the wrong religious group, or even to the wrong gender, is what really lay under threat in Kabul. Thus to defend and restore freedom and elementary human rights in Kabul, in a very true sense, was to help strengthen basic recognition of the dignity of men and women all around the world.
Between that dark day of September 9th, 2001, when Commander Massoud was murdered in North Afghanistan, and that dark day of September 11th, 2001, when more than 3000 innocent office workers were murdered in North America, the terrible, violent 20th century finally came to an end : with its record of three totalitarian assaults on human dignity, three almost unprecedented perversions of the human mind. The Nazi : the perversion of right-wing politics. The Leninist or Soviet : the perversion of left-wing politics. And the Tâlibân and al-Qâ‘ida : the perversion of religion injected into politics. The Nazis proclaimed pure cruelty, and while their relentless search for military power and the stark evil of their acts made the struggle against them difficult, the fight at least was morally clear from the start. But the enigmatic hypocrisy, the moral or religious claims of the other two perversions, for a very long time made the struggle against their political and military power and influence perhaps even more difficult.
Yet the legacy of all three perversions, when all accounts are tallied, has been simply : mass murder, and a permanent besmirching of mankind’s perception of itself. Massoud was born just after the first of these perversions had at last disappeared from this earth, but he fought magnificently against the other two. Massoud contributed mightily to defeat the second perversion, the Soviet ; he helped rid humanity of its lingering enigmatic nightmare, and lived to see its end. Massoud also contributed just as mightily to defeat the third perversion, al-Qâ‘ida. Here he did not live to see its end. But Massoud’s sacrifice hastened al-Qâ‘ida’s end in Kabul itself. And Massoud’s message of religious decency, of profound faith in a creed of mercy, as opposed to a creed of hate, has helped check this third great perversion all around the world today.
For victoriously waging these two struggles, we, who are alive today, remain forever in Massoud’s debt. Today we acknowledge our debt. We are permanently grateful to Massoud.
To commemorate the first year of Commander Massoud’s death, a French publisher asked me to write a book. This essay was acclaimed by French readers and awarded one of France’s top literary prizes. It has also been published and warmly appreciated in Italy, on this second anniversary of his death. Massoud, of course, was a hero in the eyes of both French and Italian public opinion. And the fact that Massoud was trained in the French language may have contributed to this. The English-speaking world, however, has been markedly cooler towards Massoud. Indeed one major reason for Massoud’s death was the long reluctance, among the English-speaking powers, even to look at the Afghan situation except through Pakistani eyes - and biased Pakistani reports written in English.
Of the shortcomings of my French book I am keenly aware. Although I was active in clandestine humanitarian work inside Soviet-occupied Afghanistan throughout the 1980s, I only finally met Commander Massoud when he entered Kabul in 1992. But then I supported his struggle in every way I humanly could, with deliveries of humanitarian assistance in food and medicine to the beleaguered capital under rockets and bombs between 1992 and 1995, and then with endless articles and speeches abroad. This is because I became truly convinced, after several long conversations with him personally, and also from direct observations in the field, that Commander Massoud, as I said above, was protecting both Afghan independence, and elementary human rights for men and women everywhere - when he defended Kabul and the Afghan north-east against a major military assault carried out by an extreme-right wing political movement masquerading as religion, and directed from a neighbouring State. Many of us in France really felt this way, not as the representatives of official France, but as private people with a conscience, and we came from all walks of life – doctors, nurses, journalists, writers. I last met Commander Massoud over dinner in Paris, during his only visit to the West, in spring 2001, only months before his death. We spoke of politics and war. But we also talked of poetry. In Persian. And in French. His passion, and mine. And that was another link. A human link torn asunder, along with so many other human links between France and Afghanistan, by the explosion of that bomb on September 9th, 2001.
But still, throughout the years, although I learned to respect and to admire and to love this man, I only saw Massoud intermittently. If I was able to put the book together at all, it was only through the tremendous help of members of his family, and the testimony of his closest friends and collaborators. To them, my deepest thanks. While the book is readily available to French and Italian readers, its most important points will also be made, in English, in my forthcoming book later this year on modern Afghan history for Cambridge University Press.
While Massoud was alive, the truth about him was constantly warped and distorted in a fog of lies and hostile propaganda. The worst charge against him, usually levelled from a neighbouring State, was that he belonged to the wrong ethnic group, and thus supposedly fought to defend only his own particular ethnic group ! Now, there is something obscene about the political leadership in a neighbouring country, complaining about the ethnic identity of a political leader in another, supposedly independent country. Even as late as the historic evening of November 12th, 2001, when the Tâlibân régime at long last fell in Kabul, the Head of State of a very large neighbouring country (and everybody here knows exactly which country I mean), in the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York, objected that the new Afghan Government was now being led by people from the wrong ethnic group, that is, Massoud’s ethnic group ! One wonders how the UN General Assembly would have reacted if – to compare - the English-speaking Government in Washington DC suddenly objected to the independent Canadian Government being currently led by a French-speaking, ethnically Québécois Canadian ! That, the Canadians would have very justifiably replied, would be independent Canada’s own business.
As a non-Afghan foreigner rendering tribute today to Massoud, I wish here to stress that my sympathy goes to the entire Afghan nation, all ethnic, linguistic and sectarian groups included ; and that I absolutely and categorically reject any notion of endorsing this or that Afghan political leader on ethnic, linguistic, sectarian or gender-related grounds.
But a new mental fog now clouds our image of Massoud. When a great man dies, mythology usually takes over. The issues in popular memory become simplified and stylized, and the living, historical human being increasingly disappears, behind his own public picture on walls and monuments. It is high time to set the historical record straight and to keep it clear, while our memories are all still fresh and alive.
To gauge the measure of the man, Massoud’s record, both political and moral, is, I think, already tolerably clear. I will restrict myself here to a sheer outline of what appear to me to be the most important questions and issues :
1) Massoud put his own life in jeopardy to lead the last armed resistance on his own home soil against the Tâlibân, who were perhaps narrow-minded or unwitting tools, but who were powerfully supplied and manipulated from abroad to impose an obvious Pakistani protectorate over Afghanistan. Why did Massoud choose to risk his own life like this ?
2) Massoud further risked his life in public statements, made not only through interpreters to foreign journalists or diplomats, but in his own language to Afghan audiences, recommending a restoral of Afghan law and sovereignty broadly along the lines of the 1964 Constitution, which, among other clauses, explicitly provided for the right of Afghan women to health care, to education, to work in the professions, to the vote and to participation in national political life. Again, why did Massoud play with his own life like this?
3) Finally, Massoud not only risked his life, he sacrificed it, by becoming almost if not the only major Muslim political and military leader anywhere on earth, between Morocco and the Philippines, before September 11th, 2001, publicly and lucidly to denounce the ideological perversion of al-Qâ‘ida, of the Tâlibân, and of their Pakistani and Saudi protectors and allies. Massoud spoke, moreover, as a believing and practising Muslim, personally commited to the deepest ethical, philosophical and mystical implications of his own faith. Once again, why did Massoud do this ?
To avoid raising, and trying to answer, any one of these three vital questions pertaining to Massoud, is usually a sign either of deliberate political bad faith, or of the most sloppy and superficial sort of journalism.
I believe that the coherent guideline of Massoud’s entire public life was his patriotism and conception of public service.
From his very early manhood on, Ahmad Shâh perceived his life’s mission to be, and dedicated his life’s mission to, uncompromising defence of national Afghan sovereignty, in the service of his country’s population.
This national concern underlies Massoud’s entire political and military career. Indeed, such concern furnishes the logical key to all he publicly said, did, and thought. Throughout all his battles and truces, throughout all his acts of war and mercy, and even throughout his most disconcerting tactical shifts, reversals of alliance or political deals, Massoud never once swerved from what he regarded as the superior interest of his nation : the refusal to subordinate Afghanistan’s fate to a foreign power.
Such a patriotic commitment, however, led on Massoud’s part – I think - to seek the broadest possible political and social consensus in the interests of what he saw as national defence. This is why Massoud even resorted to some extremely ambiguous arrangements with some public figures of the most dubious reputation. Such tactical arrangements did have their tactical advantage, of course. And that is why Massoud tactically resorted to them. But tactical arrangements also have their negative effect. They clouded his national and international image and reputation, and made it very difficult for many outsiders to perceive his true ethical stand. Massoud was so personally reserved, so discreet, and so concerned with finding grounds for political compromise - where he believed that such compromise might serve the purposes of national independence, reconciliation, and peace -, that Massoud’s sheer political purpose sometimes became a riddle, even to his closest friends. Those close to him loved him, as a man. Those far away from him, became suspicious.
Nevertheless, what the facts do show, is that Massoud’s commitment to defend his nation’s independence, as his absolute political priority, overrode every other consideration. I believe that he subordinated all his other quite deep concerns, regarding political affiliation and ideology, form of national Government, relations between ethnic groups, or the status of women, to his own pledge – inside himself – to protect his country’s freedom.
But Massoud did not act out of self-interest. To the contrary - and his public career fully demonstrates as much. Massoud’s political choices were, more often than not, fraught with very considerable physical danger to his own person. The Tâlibân in Kabul offered Massoud high political office if he went over to them. This Massoud refused, suggesting nationwide elections instead. Yet Massoud never hesitated to risk his own life, to remain true to his convictions.
He proved it on September 9th, 2001.
Massoud did not seek military or political power in order to enjoy such power. Even his most stubborn foes conceded as much. Massoud regarded power only as a necessary means to put his own ideas and convictions into practical effect. In fact, he was socially shy and utterly devoid of personal vanity. Indeed, his modesty was almost obsessive. He always preferred to leave the apearances, symbols, titles and outward trappings of power to others, even when he felt that had necessarily to wield the true substance of power himself. He never shirked its crushing responsibility.
Massoud drew his reserves of courage, moral rigour, and acceptance of physical risk, in his living and deeply-held Islamic faith. In this sense he was an authentic Muslim intellectual, one of the very few to be found in this day and age. He daily meditated the Koran’s spiritual message, and sought to harmonize its tenets with the pressing political, economic, scientific and democratic demands of the world today. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to point out, once again, that Massoud was perhaps the only active political leader on this entire planet in the last decade of the 20th century who, as a practising and fervent Muslim believer himself, and not just as some « secular » intellectual or opportunistic politician, refused to be intimated, but openly opposed an appalling and murderous form of nihilistic political madness which dared to assume - and to disgrace - the name of one of the great religious traditions of mankind.
To be sure, Massoud in his early student days participated in the revolutionary fervour which shook the old Afghan régime at the outset of the 1970s. He sought answers in the sort of political activism then recommended by the Afghan and Pakistani branches of the fundamentalist party first known, when it was founded in Egypt back in 1928, as the « Muslim Brethren ». Young Massoud joined in the rising staged by these parties against President Daoud’s Government in 1975. When the rising failed for lack of popular support, Massoud fled to Pakistan, and there, for the next three years, began his real education. In his small room in Peshawar, he pondered the reasons for the conservative Afghan peasantry’s refusal to back the insurrection. He thought about Afghanistan’s place in world strategy and in the power politics of the neighbouring States. He read as many as three books a day on every conceivable subject and imbibed as much as he could of universal history, civilization, literature, politics, military science. And he meditated ever more deeply on Islam, the religion and tradition of his people – thus completely outgrowing the narrow party politics which invoked only the outward name of Islam.
Such meditation drew him to tap the profoundest wellsprings of Islamic mysticism. He discovered a spiritual guide in the writings of the 12th-century philosopher and mystic al-Ghazâlî. Later Massoud would carry one al-Ghazâlî’s books with him wherever he went, into battle, up into the mountains, under the rain of enemy rocket-fire, down into the thickets of Kabul politics. Al-Ghazâlî’s « Alchemy of Joy » - Kîmiyâ-yi Sa‘âdat - taught Massoud what Massoud was really spiritually looking for, and he used to read a little every evening to steel himself in selfless devotion and service to his fellow creatures, without any thought of personal reward. One sentence in al-Ghazâlî’s book seems to have struck him as particularly apt, for it actually dictated his whole line of moral conduct : « This is the whole science of self-discipline and holy war : to purify one’s heart of all hatred towards one’s fellow creatures, of all lust for the world, and of all preoccupation with sensual things ; such is the path of the Sûfis. În hama ta‘lîm-i riyâzat-ô mujâhidat ast, tâ dil sâfî shawad az ‘adâwat-i khalq-ô az shahwat-i dunyâ-ô az mashghala-yi mahsûsât, wa râh-i Sûfiyân în ast. »
Massoud’s personal mysticism led him to fight without hatred, bitterness, or spirit of revenge, regarding armed conflict only as an imposed and necessary evil in order to defend his people’s freedom, certainly not as an end in itself to be enjoyed as bloodlust or intoxication with power. He always provided protection for humanitarian relief in the most difficult and dangerous circumstances, looked for reconciliation with defeated enemies, and invariably treated his war prisoners with humanity and dignity. To this I was witness, and this is why I joined Massoud during those terrible days in the 1990s when two-thirds of Kabul were bombed out of existence. Massoud sought peace for his land, and Massoud’s tragedy is that he died before he saw it.
Such moral integrity in the midst of warfare ranks Massoud, I believe and have written, as one of the very few « philosopher kings » in history, that is, men who have been forced to wage war so as to protect their nation and people, but who detested war in itself and sought no personal political gain, only modestly to serve their people in a spirit of compassion - and who always preferred solitary philosophical meditation to imposing their views arrogantly on others. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius and US President Abraham Lincoln, in the Western tradition, number, I think, among the very, very rare historical examples of this kind of leader. But in Islam, perhaps the historical figure most closely comparable to Massoud, I believe, is Algeria’s national hero, the emir ‘Abd-ur-Rahmân al-Jazâ’irî. This outstanding 19th-century Algerian resistance fighter against French conquest was also a Sûfî mystic deeply versed in the writings of Ibn ‘Arabî, and a warrior so humane and compassionate towards his enemies that even the French, to this day, have come to recognize him almost as a saint, and to honour and even venerate him as their noblest opponent in all history. One may trace many parallels with the way the Russians, now, have learned to honour Massoud in turn. For in a very real sense, Massoud helped liberate the Russians too, by forcing their dictatorship to come to a military end, at long last, in the mountains and valleys of Panjshêr. As the years roll by, Massoud and what he stood for, not Bin Lâden and what he destroyed, will stand out as the name of honour in 20th-century Islam.
But there was also a sharp practical streak to Massoud’s thinking. His university training was in architecture and building. And he had a clear mathematical mind. He saw and cut through the most knotty strategic problems in clean, dispassionate, almost geometric lines, which is probably one of the reasons why he not only emerged as one of the most talented leaders in guerrilla warfare in all world history, but also so much enjoyed relaxing over a game of chess - and played it so very well.
To follow the trace of Massoud’s career between 1978 and 2001 is to examine not only Afghan history, but even world history, throughout the whole last fateful quarter of the 20th century which brought the downfall of the Soviet Empire and saw the terrible struggles of all the former subject peoples – including the Afghans also - to recover their national integrity.
To discuss that quarter-century is no theme for a speech, but for a book, and many books. Still, I believe one may summarize the main thrusts of Massoud’s thought and action, in this period, thus.
When the Soviets imposed a proxy Government on Afghanistan in 1978, then invaded the country in 1979, they provoked a national Afghan insurrection. It lay in the interest of the neighbouring States, China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and of course the Western powers, to help the Afghan insurgents bleed the Soviet forces on the ground, and block further Soviet expansion in South Asia.
However, Pakistan, with full Saudi backing and complete US permission, was determined to prevent Afghanistan from ever emerging again as an independent nation. To turn a post-Soviet Afghanistan into a Pakistani protectorate, the Pakistani Government tried to cap and replace Afghan nationalism with a brand of religious fundamentalism closely controlled by Pakistani religous militants. Throughout the period of Soviet occupation, Pakistan channeled the bulk of US military supplies to the most fundamentalist Afghan forces, to ensure that these forces would seize power in Kabul after Soviet withdrawal.
Massoud, however, was one of those outstanding Afghan resistance commanders who not only defeated the Soviet invasion from inside the country, but were also determined to prevent Afghanistan from merely slipping from the status of a Soviet colony, to that of a Pakistani colony. Massoud was far too sincere a Muslim to be fooled by Pakistan’s manipulation of religious language, and far too sincere a patriot to allow his country to turn into just another one of Pakistan’s « Tribal Territories ».
Throughout the period of Soviet occupation in the decade of the 1980s, Massoud had to manœuvre on two fronts. On the outside, he had to preserve good relations with the Pakistanis, and the parties that they controlled, in order to obtain supplies. And on the inside, he had to block, harass, and defeat the Soviets in his corner of the country.
Massoud’s home ground, the Valley of the Panjshêr, opened onto the main highway linking Kabul to the Soviet North. Massoud, as a master strategist, built up an efficient guerrilla force which constantly pinched and bled this vital artery. Soviet forces which invaded the Valley were defeated eight times. Of course the Soviets were harassed on all sides, throughout Afghanistan, from Herât with Resistance Commander Ismâ‘îl Khân, all the way to the eastern highlands with Resistance Commander ‘Abd-ul-Haqq. Stinger missiles finally supplied by the US in 1987 denied the Soviets their air cover, and forced them to withdraw in 1989. As we all know, the Soviet system did not survive its imperial collapse.
Massoud received some Stinger missiles too – but indirectly, through fellow guerrilla commanders, not directly through Pakistan. When Soviet withdrawal became a certainty, Pakistan became determined to impose a fundamentalist Government in Kabul, and also to destroy Massoud. During the three-year transition period between Soviet withdrawal in 1989, and the fall of the Soviet-installed Afghan Communist Government in 1992, the officials and generals of the Kabul régime were terrified of what would happen to them if the Pakistani-backed fundamentalists took over, and preferred to negotiate with Massoud. This is why Massoud entered Kabul in April 1992 without a dop of blood being shed – to the consternation of the Pakistani General Staff. The new Government in Kabul, with Massoud as Defence Minister, showed mercy to all, in the interests of national reconciliation, and basically upheld the liberal provisions of the National Constitution of 1964 – including the right of women to health care, education, and professional work. As of 1992, Massoud, in Kabul, as Defence Minister, found himself, in effect, responsible for protecting the national and territorial integrity of the newly independent Afghan State.
Pakistan as of August 1992 therefore launched a general assault against this national Afghan State through proxy forces claiming to be fighting on behalf of some kind of « pure » Islam. Pakistani propaganda used every ploy against Massoud – including racial smears – to overthrow the national Government in Kabul. Pakistani-supplied forces blockaded and starved the national capital, and Pakistani-supplied missiles and rockets destroyed three-quarters of Kabul by 1994, raining death on countless civilians. On 19 September 1996, Massoud withdrew from Kabul to protect his forces, and to spare the people of Kabul from further slaughter. The Afghans, one might have believed, had suffered enough under Soviet occupation. More was to come.
The Pakistani-imposed Tâlibân régime in Kabul became the laughing-stock of the world for its apparent intellectual idiocy. Yet this was another ploy. The issue at stake was Pakistan’s destruction of the Afghan State. To lobotomize Afghanistan, to provoke the collapse of its entire health, educational and administrative system, to turn its educated women into animals for reproduction and to make its entire people appear like mindless barbarians, served the purposes of reducing the whole country into a permanent Pakistani protectorate. Islamabad’s implication, in 1992-2001, was that only Pakistan was a responsible, civilized State fit to administrate its small savage neighbour, filter all international aid to it, and turn Afghanistan into a corridor for oil pipelines and a haven for opium fields, guarded by Pakistan’s proxy tribal forces.
But Pakistan was not able to crack the hard nut of resistance by people like Massoud, and therefore had to rely on fighters more professional than mere tribal levies. These had to be seasoned killers like Bin Lâden and his organization. Unfortunately for Pakistani national interests, Bin Lâden had his own agenda in mind – although, indeed, we know that some of the very highest-ranking officers in the Pakistani armed forces themselves fully agreed with Bin Lâden’s goals.
Basically, Bin Lâden’s mad plan was to provoke a US ground invasion of Afghanistan, thereby rally a fresh spurt of Afghan national resistance around Bin Lâden himself as its new leader, and so bleed US forces in the Afghan mountains the way Soviet forces had once bled there a decade before.
Only one man stood in Bin Lâden’s way – as he had stood in the way of the Soviets, and in the way of Pakistan. No organized opposition, in Bin Lâden’s view, could be allowed to subsist on Afghan soil when the hour came to blow up the Twin Towers in New York and so provoke inevitable US intervention. And in a deeper sense, Bin Lâden could not pretend to stand for the Afghan National Resistance, and for the honour of Islam, because one other man truly represented both.
So Bin Lâden had him murdered.
But Massoud truly represented the Afghan National Resistance, and the honour of Islam. And they could not be killed. They live both after his death. And he lives in them and through them to this day.
When I learned of Massoud’s death, I found that only poetry – the poetry he so deeply loved – could express what we all felt. Massoud used to quote from all the Persian-language poets, from Hâfez in the past to Master Khalîlî in our own day. So, when I was asked in France to write an obituary, and then a book, I simply came to conclude with words from the greatest poet in our own Western tradition. All English speakers will recognize them instantly. Actually, the verses sprang to mind spontaneously. For had this shy, secret, selfless and dedicated man yet lived for his own country, he still, in his own people’s service, would certainly have « prov’d most royal. »
So, this year like every year to come, on this dark day, I think : good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
1. اين مقاله از سوي نويسنده در مجلس دومين سالگرد شهادت احمد شاه مسعود در لندن كه از سوي سفارت كبراي افغانستان به تاريخ 9 سبتامبر 2003 در تالار برنت برگزار شده بود، قرائت گرديد و مورد استقبال گرم حاضرين قرار گرفت.