Book Review: Marcela Grad’s Massoud

Marcela Grad unveils a timely and impassioned portrait of legendary mujahideen leader Ahmad Shah Massoud

Massoud combating civil strife while serving as defense minister in 1992 | Photo: Steve McCurry

For the Soul of the Afghans

He was known as the “Lion of Panjshir.” Tall, thin and bearded, wearing mismatched fatigues and a pakol hat, he was at once majestic and fierce – wielding his Kalashnikov and commanding ragtag bands of mujahideen against invading Soviet armies. His name: Ahmad Shah Massoud. For 10 years, Massoud led some of the most efficient and disciplined guerrillas against the massive might of the Red Army. After the end of what is now referred to as the “Soviets’ Vietnam,” Massoud became part of the post-war government, but after the Taliban coup of 1996 he retreated back into the Panjshir Valley to lead what would become the Northern Alliance. He heroically waged war with the Taliban for five years, before being assassinated on Sept. 9, 2001, two days before the 9/11 attacks.

All resistance movements have their heroes; for South Africans it is Mandela, for Palestinians its Arafat. For many Afghans, Massoud is the hero of heroes. Sometimes referred to as the “Afghan Che Guevara,” one does notice some superficial similarities: both were well-educated, artistic intellectuals; both have passionate disciples, both are martyrs. But upon closer inspection, the resemblance erodes – while Che was a rabid political extremist, vicious and cold-blooded to his enemies, Massoud was a moderate and compassionate warrior. Unlike the international revolutionary Guevara, with his virulent hatred of capitalism in general and America in particular, Massoud was a humble patriot, desiring nothing more than prosperity and freedom for the Afghan people.

Perhaps where the comparison is most faulty is that, unlike the atheist Che, Massoud was a deeply spiritual man and a devout Muslim. It is important to make these distinctions, for “Massoud the man” has perhaps more in common with Mahatma Gandhi than Che Guevara.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Marcela Grad’s new retrospective, Massoud: An Intimate Portrait of the Legendary Afghan Leader, a book that is as timely as it is engrossing. Despite his celebrated stature in Afghanistan, there has been a dearth of books and studies on the man. This is surprising considering the amount that has been published on Afghanistan in the nine years since the U.S. invasion. For one reason, Massoud remains somewhat a cult figure outside of Afghanistan; indeed, even the significance of his assassination was overshadowed by the Sept. 11 attacks two days later. But perhaps even more so, Massoud’s absence from the spotlight is due to the precarious nature of finding any solid information about him. Unlike many other famed resistance leaders, Massoud’s struggle ended in failure, the Taliban regime (and their Pakistani patrons) endeavoring to wipe Massoud from the history books. Moreover, the largely unexposed viaducts of Afghan cultural history are where memory of Massoud resides most prominently, leaving him to be discovered by only the most patient and persevering of biographers. One must journey deeper than simply traveling to Kabul and hearing the opinions of a few Afghans.

General public opinion of Massoud in Afghanistan is very stratified. He is the most revered man in recent Afghan history by many, including the government; in 2002 President Hamid Karzai named him “National Hero of Afghanistan,” and the day of his assassination, Sept. 9, is a national holiday known as “Massoud Day.” For many, this is the only Massoud.

However the Pashtuns – Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group – have a far less flattering opinion of him. An ethnic Tajik, Massoud bore the brunt of tribal conflict inherent in Afghan society. Although an Afghan nationalist himself, throughout his struggle against the Soviets, it was hard to reconcile his Tajik origin with many of the other mujahideen. This was exacerbated when he became an enemy of the brutal and Machiavellian Pashtun leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and later the Pashtun Taliban. The result has been Pash claims that Massoud oversaw the massacre of Hazaras, an ethnic minority group, as well as other atrocities, during the civil war. Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, Aimaks – they all possess a myriad of local, oral histories that are the principle source of knowledge about Afghan culture and society. It is problematic that these sometimes constructed stories conflict with each other, giving a distorted and disjointed history of most things, in particular a figure as prominent and emotive as Massoud.

Given the complexity involved with finding a consistent narrative, Marcela Grad’s Massoud is quite an achievement. Massoud is no ordinary biography; it is not a banal, meticulously referenced academic work of “high scholarship.” What Grad has done is journey deep into some of these aforementioned oral histories, emerging with an intensely personal account festooned in the vivid colors of Afghan culture. In this, it is singularly valuable. There are now countless books available on Afghanistan, but few cultural histories – and even many of these fall short of real insight.

Part of what also makes Grad’s work unique is its lack of narrative – the book is made up entirely of quotes. This stylistic element defines the book: the reader feels like they are being told a story, sitting with Afghans who are indulging you with their fond reminiscences of a great man. In the way the stories are told, one is inevitably exposed to the nuances of Afghan culture – their spirituality and tranquility, their sense of honor and their values – these are things better conveyed by these descriptive introspections than through the words of even the most linguistically gifted Western commentator. This insight into the day-to-day lives of Afghan tribal life – in addition to being a peek through the keyhole to the Afghan soul – is indispensable to understanding the reverence many have for Massoud.

So what sort of insight into ‘Massoud the man’ does Grad provide? By her own admission, Massoud is not an “objective” portrait; it is a celebration of the life and legacy of a great figure. You will find neither indictments of his actions nor any stories of Massoud being anything less than an inspiration. The cynic would naturally resist such an obviously biased work, had Grad not explicitly stated her intention. Given the motive, one dives into the text and, knowing its subjective nature, embraces it. In the world of “secret histories” and “definitive biographies,” this personal, colloquial approach is a refreshing change that is saturated with cultural advantages.

We are exposed to a man of grace, who reveled in the beauty of his country and his creed. Massoud was from childhood incredibly intelligent (by the time of his death he was fluent in Dari, Pashto Urdu, Hindi, French, Arabic and English). Responsible and far thinking, Grad illustrates that even as a child Massoud was brave and a natural leader, this being explained by several of his siblings. The personal stories from Massoud’s family members are fascinating, and illuminate his qualities in ways only brothers and sisters can. Massoud was gentle and strong like his mother, and was from an early age devoted to Islam, from which he drew ideas of justice, duty and harmony.

What is perhaps most evident in the work is Massoud’s spirit and captivating presence. It seems that all those, who knew him were entranced by him, finding his ways both compelling and righteous. This is due in large part to his own approach to people – by all accounts – as a leader, friend and fellow Muslim – Massoud was as generous, caring and modest as a person could get, whether it was his dedication to providing education for his fellow mujahideen, being a confidant to a friend in need, or giving away his blanket to a comrade on a cold mountain night.

Like all great men, Massoud was complex. He was a fearsome warrior in combat, but was also full of compassion. As recounted by his fellow fighters in the resistance, Massoud was kind to Soviet prisoners of war: treating them well, feeding them, never allowing them to be abused. In a brutal war where the Soviets were the most brutal of all, these were acts of grace; the conduct of a good Muslim. The irony is that Massoud was renowned by the mujahideen for being the most skilled and respected of all the commanders of the resistance. This assessment has also been made by people as varied as Taliban fighters and CIA operatives. The more ruthless and brutal of the commanders, such as Hekmatyar, were purported to hardly be commanders at all, simply shrewd and devious politicians. What also becomes apparent is that while other mujahideen leaders were busy plotting against each other as much as fighting the Soviets, Massoud was planning for the future: schools, roads, women’s rights – these were all things he endeavored to achieve for his people.

Most interestingly though is that, according to several of his closest confidants, Massoud believed in a secular state. An extremely devout Muslim, Massoud nonetheless embraced democracy as the optimal form of government for the post-war Afghan state. He believed that Islam and democracy could comfortably coexist. The significance of this is hard to understate – in a world where there seems to be so large a conceptual and ideological rift between Western democracies and Islamic regimes such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and the former Taliban government, the example of Massoud is astounding. When the communist regime fell in 1992, Massoud desired a peaceful transition to a coalition government; unfortunately tribal conflicts and power struggles dissolved wartime mujahideen cohesion and plunged the country into a bitter civil war. The government that took power did protect the liberal, 1964 Afghan Constitution, with Massoud as defense minister. Still leading troops in the field, Massoud’s only concern was “the well-being of the ordinary citizens of Kabul.”

It was in his capacity as Defense Minister that he received accusations of overseeing the massacre of Hazaras. However Grad provides firsthand accounts, particularly from AP journalist John Jennings, which credibly contradicts this, asserting that the chaos at that point during the civil war spun the fledging Afghan army out of control in retaliation to Iran-backed Hazara militia attacks. Massoud in fact worked hard to quell the atrocities. Although officially a Minister in the government, in reality, Massoud and the rest of the Afghan regime remained under siege until they were driven from Kabul in 1996. Massoud returned to the mountains of Panjshir to resume resistance against the Taliban, who he viewed as apostates for their violent, oppressive misinterpretation of Islam.

It becomes clear during passages regarding the Taliban that Massoud was a passionate enemy of terrorism. He strongly objected to any terrorist-style actions by mujahideen during the war with the Soviets, and identified the war against the Taliban as a war against terrorism. To quote Japanese journalist Hiromi Nagakura, “Massoud said to me, ‘we are fighting against terrorism. If we don’t fight here, the war will only expand.’ After September 11, I finally understood what he was talking about.”

He became greatly distressed at the increasing foreign presence among the Taliban, particularly the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), as well as foreign Wahhabi Arabs – Al-Qaeda et al. – who he feared were pushing the Taliban to even higher barbaric feats. Massoud’s fears regarding the terrorist elements materializing in Afghanistan led him to appeal to the world – he talked endlessly to Western diplomats and journalists, and addressed the European Parliament in 2000. But as his close friend Masood Khalili stated, “here is a man called Massoud who is fighting on behalf of the world, and the world does not know it.”

Grad stresses this point by including Massoud’s “Letter to the People of the United States of America” in the appendix. Given in 1998, Massoud prophetically stressed the dangers of the Taliban and their foreign allies not only to Afghanistan, but the America as well. Other interesting documents include the Declaration of the Essential Rights of Afghan Women, which Massoud issued from Dushanbe, Tajikistan in 2000. This declaration shows Massoud’s passionate embrace of women’s rights in Afghanistan – something that has been historically overlooked, but something Massoud valued greatly. The fundamental humanity of Massoud’s vision is what sets him apart. A man immersed in warfare for 20 years – fighting against a seemingly invincible, imperial army, and then against a group of his own people who perverted his sacred beliefs – he nonetheless maintained a clarity of vision and a peaceful tranquility that guided him in all endeavors. He never succumbed to tribal conflict, never acted on the basis of power politics. He was compassionate and caring almost to a fault – but this is what people remember most. He was a courageous warrior, and while others cut deals with the Taliban, Massoud defiantly resisted, holding out even when the Taliban controlled 90 percent of Afghan territory. This was the measure of his resolve to free his people from oppression, whether foreign or indigenous.

What Massoud ultimately achieves is a voyage of encounter into the heart and soul of the most compelling and significant leader in modern Afghan history. Through this journey, the reader is not only exposed to ‘Massoud the man’ but also to Afghanistan itself – not a political or military perspective, but a human one. The purpose is cyclical – in exposing both the soul of Massoud and the soul of Afghanistan, the reader understands why Massoud loved his people and his people loved him.

“Sartre said that Che Guevara was the perfect man, but… if Sartre were alive he would reconsider,” says former mujahid Haron Amin, encapsulating Grad’s thesis. A freedom fighter, a warrior, a man of God, an intellectual, a humanitarian, a liberal… the list goes on. Massoud was a renaissance man, though his modesty would never acknowledge it. This is perhaps his greatest quality – humility. Unlike radical leaders such as Che, his desires were modest: Freedom and prosperity for his people.

Given the current situation in Afghanistan, Massoud’s vision is more important than ever. Had Massoud survived to see the fall of the Taliban regime, it is likely that he would have remained at the forefront of reforming Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. But Afghans have not forgotten him; let us hope that the outside world can somehow join in realizing his dream. The long-suffering people of Afghanistan deserve nothing less.

 

Massoud: An Intimate Portrait of the Legendary Afghan Leader  
By Marcela Grad
Webster University Press, 2009

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