Before 9/11: The tale of an Afghan 'lion'

Journalist Ed Giradet met the remarkable Ahmed Shah Massoud during the Afghan insurgency against the Red Army. Twenty years later, on the eve of 9/11, he tried to see him one last time.

Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor/file
An Afghan man rode through the Panjshir Valley, home to legendary fighter Ahmed Shah Massoud, in 2007.

The closest thing to a good guy that modern Afghanistan has given birth to was Ahmed Shah Massoud, a resourceful guerrilla leader who was both a pious Muslim and an enlightened modernist. Mr. Massoud supported schools for girls, for instance. And though he and his troops committed their share of wartime excesses, he took care to protect civilians from getting caught up in the vicious war he was fighting against Soviet military occupation in the 1980s.

Massoud was hospitable, well read, and had a good sense of humor. Although he was a Tajik in a predominantly Pashtun nation, he was a quintessential Afghan in his unwillingness to be mastered. Known as the “Lion of Panjshir,” Massoud spent more than a quarter century fighting one war after another – against the Red Army, rival warlords, and finally the Taliban.

Edward Girardet first met Massoud in the summer of 1981 after trekking deep into Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. In the evenings, when he and Ed would sit in a cave and chat as Soviet MIGs pounded the area with bombs, Massoud would talk about everything from Persian poetry to the leadership qualities of George Washington, Ho Chi Minh, and Charles de Gaulle. Often, he would ask searching questions about the meaning of life. His troops admired him; the Soviet military was bedeviled by him.

Ed, who reported for the Monitor for much of his journalistic career, tells the story of Massoud at the beginning of a fascinating new book, “Killing the Cranes: A Reporter’s Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan.” As a young man in the 1970s, Ed fell in love with the stark beauty of Afghanistan and its proud people. With local guides and guerrilla units, Ed walked hundreds of miles through the mountains in the 1980s and ’90s, searching for news. He was greeted even in the poorest villages with tea and pistachios.

“Every trip to Afghanistan was a step into another world, another time that was real adventure,” Ed recalls. “It was a place of constant challenge from which one would emerge, one hoped, with an inspiring story of simple humanity.”

In the summer of 2001, he decided to track down the Lion again, making his way to a forlorn settlement called Khoja Bahauddin in northern Afghanistan. In a guesthouse, he waited for Massoud with an assortment of aid workers and journalists, including two taciturn Arab TV reporters. A dust storm had blown up, keeping Massoud from arriving. After a week of waiting, Ed ran out of time and had to leave. He would have to see Massoud on another trip.

Three days later, on Sept. 9, 2001, Massoud was assassinated in a suicide bomb blast. Two days after that, Ed watched TV from his home in Geneva as the twin towers crumbled. The Massoud assassination and the 9/11 attacks, he realized, could not have been a coincidence. He was right. Those two Arabs, it turned out, weren’t journalists. They were agents of Osama bin Laden.

In those few September days 10 years ago, Ed’s romanticism about Afghanistan died. Less than a month later, something he never imagined happened: American troops were in the country. Ten years later, they are still there, fighting an intractable war against elusive, resourceful guerrillas.

9/11 has myriad legacies, both intimate and global – the tears shed, the lives altered, the rebuilding, vigilance, and twists and turns of international affairs over the past decade. The US-led operation in Afghanistan increasingly seems caught in the same kind of murky impasse Moscow was caught in 30 years ago.

I phoned Ed Girardet recently and asked him about the prelude to 9/11 that he had almost been caught up in. “While 9/11 wasn’t waiting for the assassination of Massoud,” he said, the attack on him “was a present the Al Qaeda was giving the Taliban.” Massoud led the Northern Alliance. He wanted a different Afghanistan than the brutal misrule the Taliban imposed. Had he survived, Ed said, perhaps ...

His words trailed off. 9/11 left an ellipsis in millions of lives and entwined the United States and Afghanistan in a way no one, not even an astute observer of Afghanistan, could have predicted.

John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor.

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