America’s humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021 and the return of the Taliban to power occurred after Sandy Gall wrote this fascinating book about the military exploits of Ahmad Shah Massoud, a mujahideen commander who fought against the Soviets in the 1980s and against the Taliban and its allies until his assassination two days before Al Qaeda’s attacks on 11 September 2001.
Gall, a British journalist who reported on the Suez Crisis and the Hungarian uprising in 1956, troubles in the Congo in the early 1960s, the Vietnam War in 1965, the Six Day War in 1967, the Yom Kippur War in 1973, and Cambodia under Pol Pot, wrote Afghan Napoleon at the age of 93. He is an unabashed admirer of Massoud and believes that Afghanistan lost its best chance at becoming a moderate, democratic Islamic country when Western powers, including the United States, backed Massoud’s political rivals after the Soviets left Afghanistan. And this Western misstep had other unforeseen consequences.
Gall and a film crew traveled to Afghanistan in 1982, and met the “young guerrilla commander fighting the Soviet army in the mountains of Afghanistan”. He had several subsequent meetings with Massoud, and his book is based on personal recollections, extracts of Massoud’s diaries, and interviews with Massoud’s family members and his mujahideen allies. He found Massoud to be cultured, intelligent, courageous, an able administrator, and a savvy strategist who was familiar with the works of Mao Zedong, Che Guevara, and Sun Tzu.
Soon after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan on Christmas Day, 1979, Massoud and his mujahideen fighters established territorial control in the Panjsher Valley, located some 150 kilometers north of Kabul near the Hindu Kush mountains. The head of Britain’s MI6 Far East department sought to help the anti-Soviet resistance and directed one of its officers to travel to Afghanistan and “find Napoleon when he is still an artillery officer”. When Gall later asked the MI6 controller “Why Napoleon?”, he answered: “Because he was a colonel of artillery who became Emperor of France. That was the sort of person we were looking for.”
Though the comparison to Napoleon may be overdone, it is clear from Gall’s book that Massoud was an extraordinary leader. He was a devout Muslim, a caring husband and father of six children, who combined courage, commitment, and intellect with introspection, as the diary excerpts make clear. His immediate goal after the Soviet invasion was to unite the various Afghan tribes and warlords to defeat the foreign occupiers and eventually overthrow the Soviet-controlled puppet government in Kabul. Although he failed to unite all the Afghan resistance forces, he did form an alliance with some of the northern tribes that contributed to the Soviet defeat, and later—after his assassination—that untied front of northern fighters (that came to be called the Northern Alliance) helped US and coalition forces defeat the Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorists after the 11 September 2001 attacks.
Massoud’s forces withstood repeated Soviet offensives in the Panjsher Valley, and eventually extended the mujahideen’s control to nearby valleys. The Soviets sustained heavy losses there and in other parts of the country. They learned what the British had learned in the 19th century, and what the Americans learned in the 21st century—Afghanistan is the graveyard of foreign Western empires.
Three years after Soviet forces left Afghanistan, Massoud’s forces triumphantly entered Kabul, and Gall was with them:
When I drove into Kabul with Massoud on that April evening in 1992 at the head of his victorious column of mujahideen, government troops, tanks, and armoured personnel carriers, hopes were high that peace had finally come to Afghanistan.
But it was not to be peace, only more fighting—against rival tribes and the Taliban.
One of Massoud’s rivals was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who received funds and supplies from Pakistan’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the American CIA. Gall notes that Hekmatyar formed an unholy alliance with Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former Massoud ally, and laid siege to Kabul. Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia all helped fund Massoud’s rivals. By 1996, it was the Taliban, backed by Pakistan and the Saudis, that took power in Kabul. And by that time the Taliban was allied with Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda, who used Afghanistan as its base to wage a terrorist war against the US, the West, and moderate Muslims throughout the world.
Massoud retreated back to the Panjsher Valley and, in Gall’s words, “turned to building a united resistance against the Taliban”:
he now set up the United Front, drawing together Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, and even Pashtun groups to show that the Taliban … did not command support of all Afghans. He also saw the United Front as the kernel for a multi-ethnic state that could bring peace to Afghanistan.
In the spring of 2001, Massoud visited Western Europe in an effort to convince the Western powers that the Taliban and Al Qaeda posed a worldwide threat of Islamic extremism. At a news conference in the European Parliament, Massoud warned US President George W Bush that “if peace is not re-established in Afghanistan, if [Bush] doesn’t help the Afghan people, it is certain that the problem of Afghanistan will also affect the United States and a lot of other countries.”
On 9 September 2001, Massoud was assassinated by Al-Qaeda terrorists posing as journalists. Two days later, Al-Qaeda attacked the United States. What followed was a necessary US military response and the debacle of a 20-year war that ended in a US defeat by the Taliban. Gall believes that all of this could have been avoided if the US backed Massoud in the Afghan struggle for power in the 1990s. Perhaps.
What is not in doubt, however, is Gall’s characterization of Massoud as “a patriot who fought for a united and free Afghanistan.” But sadly, a “united and free Afghanistan” seems currently not in reach.
Francis P Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War. His writings appear in The Diplomat, Joint Force Quarterly, the University Bookman and other publications. He is an attorney and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.