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November 30, 2000

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Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story


Why fiery Afghan warlord Massoud is hell-bent on ousting the Taliban -- and the heavy hand of Islamabad

By Anthony Davis / Jabal Saraj

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IN QUIETER TIMES, TAKHT-i-Istalif served as the retreat of kings. An oasis of European elegance where Afghanistan's royalty once escaped from the dust and dirt of Kabul, the palace affords a breathtaking panorama of the rich Shomali plain stretching north from the capital as far as the snow-splashed bastions of the Hindu Kush range. From the nearby village of Istalif, the cries of children at play and the music of cascading water float up through the clean mountain breeze.

Today one of Afghanistan's new breed of rulers is visiting Takht-i-Istalif, but he's not here for the fresh air. For Ahmad Shah Massoud, hard-driving army commander of the government that was driven from Kabul in September, the royal eagle's nest on a high spur of the Paghman range provides the perfect setting for a council-of-war. He arrives in a convoy of jeeps trailed by a retinue of troops and commanders -- thick-set, bearded men in camouflage jackets. Most have been fighting alongside him for years -- against the Afghan communists, the Russians, rival mujahideen, the Taliban militia -- and now, they say, the Pakistanis.

The interest of Massoud and his commanders is focused on a jagged spine of high ground that lies across the plain below and dominates the parallel "Old" and "New" roads that lead south to Kabul. Since Massoud and his depleted forces were driven from the capital in September and pursued north into their Panjshir valley stronghold, the fortunes of war have shifted dramatically. A Russian- and Iranian-backed alliance with northern Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostam and a popular uprising by the local Tajik population of Shomali have thrown the mainly Pushtun Taliban back onto the defensive. After retaking the towns of Jabal Saraj and Charikar and the Bagram air base, Massoud and Dostam's joint forces are now ranged only 20 km north of Kabul. The heights represent the Taliban's last natural defense line.

Sitting on a wide verandah overlooking the battlefield and surrounded by his commanders, Massoud is in his element. Throwing out questions, snapping orders, cracking jokes, he outlines a plan of attack. This is, I reflect, a man for whom war has become a way of life. But 18 years of conflict without end have left their mark. At 44, the lines on a permanently furrowed brow run deep; and the bushy hair under the trademark woolen cap is flecked with advancing gray. The world around him has changed too: the heroic certitude of the war against the Soviets, in which the Lion of Panjshir made his name, have today given way to compromises, alliances of necessity and a future that seems to promise only a deepening tragedy.

The assault that opens at first light next morning is two-pronged. Deployed on the New Road, the eastern line of advance, Dostam's armor and Uzbek infantry move across open terrain toward a low pass where the tarmac crests the high ground -- directly into the mouth of Taliban guns. To the west from positions on the Old Road, Massoud's infantry are to scale the heights and attempt to sweep Taliban fighters from the flank. Even as Dostam's Soviet tanks and armored carriers loaded with men grind into movement, Massoud's troops supported by artillery fire storm the first of a series of posts killing 13 defenders and driving off others.

But elsewhere the Taliban -- who have sworn to hold Kabul to the last man -- are resisting fiercely. By 9 a.m., Dostam's tanks have halted in the face of heavy, and increasingly accurate, artillery fire. Reluctant young Uzbek conscripts are now face down in the dirt as a steady rain of 122 mm shells erupts in gray geysers of earth and smoke. Officers who at dawn were bragging of being in Kabul by nightfall are yelling on radios for air support. Crouched behind a tank, an Uzbek colonel gives me a crooked grin and shrugs: kebabs in Kabul will have to wait for another day.

Checked north of Kabul, Massoud is looking not to a negotiated settlement but to a wider conflict. "We need to gradually expand this war," he tells me later in his home at Jabal Saraj, his rear headquarters near the mouth of his native Panjshir valley. Before the Taliban swept north in late September, his wife -- daughter of a former bodyguard -- and three young children were also in residence. But now any traces of domesticity have vanished.

It's close to midnight, the end of a long day, but Massoud seldom sleeps before 1 a.m. As I've come to learn over the years, while those around him are struggling to stay awake, Massoud is at his most relaxed and outspoken. "Our best option is not to try and take Kabul directly," he says. "Move closer, yes. But personally I'd prefer to spread the fighting to other areas of the country. And we can do that in several regions."

Beneath the measured reflections I sense a deep vein of anger over the loss of Kabul and a long-cherished vision of a reconstituted Afghanistan: united, Islamic and independent. There is also a consuming bitterness over a very personal nemesis: Pakistan's military and its powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the shadowy but powerful organization that Massoud insists has backed the rise of the Taliban and scripted their lightning seizure of Kabul.

"As the war spreads, Pakistan will not be able to continue supporting it," Massoud says. He reaches for an apple and begins to peel it methodically. "In the future this war will become a military, economic and political morass for them. There will be no trade routes to Central Asia and no natural gas pipelines [from Central Asia across Afghanistan] -- only a spreading fire. What happened to the Russians here will happen to them too."

It's difficult to believe that not so long ago this man and the Pakistani army chiefs he now castigates fought on the same side in the last great battle of the Cold War. And won. It is also ironic that he was first trained by the Pakistanis. But for over 20 years, a pernicious interplay of personalities, pride and geopolitics has been ineluctably pushing Massoud and Pakistan into a conflict that is far from played out.

The third of six sons born to a well-to-do Tajik army officer, Massoud has had a lasting fascination with the military. Brought up mainly in Kabul, he attended the prestigious French-run Lycée Istiqlal secondary school. Still, he preferred to spend his summer evenings organizing local boys for bruising encounters with gangs from neighboring suburbs. "Even as a child he wanted to be a soldier," recalls his elder brother Ahmad Yahya. "But Massoud was very gifted in maths and our father was against it."

Instead of the military academy, Massoud began studying engineering at Kabul's Polytechnic college. Within months, though, he joined Islamist student activists committed to the overthrow of the left-leaning president, Mohamed Daoud. A bungled coup attempt in the spring of 1974 resulted in a sweeping crackdown on the Islamist movement and the flight of many survivors, including Massoud, to Pakistan.

The arrival of the Afghan exiles in Pakistan coincided with growing Pakistani nervousness over Daoud and his strident support for the cause of Pushtunistan -- an irredentist vision of a greater Afghanistan embracing Pushtun tribal lands in Pakistan. It was the commander of Pakistan's Frontier Corps, Brig. Naseerullah Babar (most recently the home minister in Benazir Bhutto's outgoing administration) who moved to counter that threat. With approval from then-president Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, he set up a secret military-training program for the Afghan students near Peshawar, Pakistan.

"I told the government we must have some elements to influence events in Afghanistan in case there was trouble," Babar later explained. "We took them under our wing and started giving them small-arms and specialized training." It was a watershed decision: a first step in a steady shift toward what the British had euphemistically dubbed "forward policy" -- direct intervention in Afghan politics.

Massoud was among those in the first batch of Afghan students to go through a monthlong course held under tight secrecy at the Cherat Army camp near Peshawar. His instructors were members of the elite Special Service Group while he and his companions dressed in the uniforms of Babar's Frontier Corps -- ostensibly Pakistanis from the tribal areas. Years later one officer involved in the program was to recall the young Massoud: "He was one of the bright boys of training, a sharp fellow."

But it was a former Kabul University student leader, the Pushtun firebrand Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who by sheer force of personality came to dominate the small community of exiles and impress the Pakistanis with his powers of leadership. "He was a young man, highly intelligent and dedicated," Babar recalled. "He had a capacity for organization that as a soldier I could recognize." Before long, Hekmatyar overshadowed the movement's ostensible leader, the gentle and bookish Tajik theology professor Burhanuddin Rabbani.

Within six months, the Islamist movement was overtaken by a series of events that left deep emotional scars on Massoud and permanently blighted his perceptions of Pakistan. In late July 1975, ISI pressure sent the young Afghans into eastern Afghanistan for a wave of attacks on government offices. "I told Mr. Bhutto it is time we conveyed a message to Daoud," said Babar, who later recalled the operation as a success.

But for the young Afghans, the result was a debacle. Massoud himself led over 30 students to his native Panjshir valley in the naive hope the population would rise against Daoud. But even before government commandos were helicoptered into the valley the next day, the local populace had chased the revolutionaries into the mountains. It was a tragi-comedy that left nearly half of Massoud's comrades dead or arrested, and it was followed by a brutal crackdown on other suspect Islamists by an unnerved Daoud.

Two months later, Massoud returned to Pakistan to find the small, exiled Afghan community riven by recriminations over the deaths. Hekmatyar, an ardent advocate of "armed struggle," formed his own faction and later a party, the hard-line Hizb. Rabbani continued to head the more gradualist Jamiat party and Massoud remained loyal to him. The split soon degenerated into a murderous rivalry with Babar's subordinates supporting Hekmatyar, the man they saw as the Afghans' natural leader. "Pakistan took Hekmatyar's side completely," Massoud said, "and we became the opposition!"

In 1976 with the approval of Pakistani officers, an ambitious Hekmatyar moved against key figures in Rabbani's faction claiming they were spies. Among the first to disappear was one of Massoud's closest friends, a young Pushtun named Jan Mohammad. Under torture in an Army camp at Nowshera, near Peshawar, Mohammad made confessions purportedly implicating Massoud. He was later murdered. Massoud was subsequently arrested and narrowly avoided a similar fate. The affair was one he was neither to forget nor forgive.

For the now-divided exiles, the military coup of 1978 that killed Daoud and brought the Communist party to power rescued them from irrelevancy. In the spring of 1979, Massoud and a band of Jamiat men turned their backs on Pakistan and trekked back to the Panjshir and a spreading revolt. The force of the anti-Communist feeling in the valley stunned even Massoud: "As we moved down the valley a flood of people were streaming behind us -- white-beards, kids, mullahs carrying spades, scythes and guns," he recalls. "I could hardly believe my eyes." The torrent of anger swept down the valley and spilled onto the highway leading to the Salang valley where ensuing battles with government troops left Massoud with a bullet in the leg. By year's end when the Soviets intervened to rescue a tottering Communist revolution, Massoud already controlled the Panjshir.

Protected by its mountain walls but close to the Salang highway and the Bagram airport, the valley offered a perfect guerrilla base. A relentless series of Communist offensives between 1980 and 1984 suggested the valley's potential was not lost on Soviet commanders. These were the years in which Massoud became a top mujahideen leader, building up the nucleus of the political and military system that he was later to spread across the northeast. "He was unusual in that he was well-educated, realized the importance of organization and had a longterm strategy," says Mohammad Es'haq, a Panjshiri political officer. "At the same time despite his youth and Kabuli upbringing, he could relate to ordinary villagers and win their trust."

The mujahideen war against the Soviets hardly improved his already jaundiced views of the Pakistani military. It was clear from the outset that the ISI under the command of Lt.-Gen. Abdur Akhtar Rahman, a close confidante of then-president Zia-ul Haq, intended to run the conflict in a hands-on fashion. "Not only did ISI serve as the sole conduit for U.S.- and Saudi-funded munitions reaching the mujahideen parties," recalls one Western analyst, "ISI officers were also closely involved in planning and directing operations." Indeed, the ISI came to see the Afghan war as its own, with the mujahideen -- viewed as valiant but ill-disciplined warriors -- serving as the sharp end of a strategy made in Islamabad. As Brig. Mohammad Yousaf was later to write of his 1983 appointment as director of ISI's Afghan Bureau: "I was now cast in the role of overall guerrilla leader."

Hekmatyar, meanwhile, who kept his base in Pakistan, continued to recommend himself as the most dynamic of an otherwise lackluster coterie of Afghan mujahideen leaders. His revolutionary pan-Islamism mirrored the beliefs of several senior ISI officers. His large, well-organized Hizb party became the favored vehicle for Zia's vision of post-Communist Afghanistan -- an Islamic ally providing Pakistan with strategic depth in its struggle with India and a bridgehead for Islamic revolt into the Muslim underbelly of the Soviet Union.

Massoud, however, had his own ideas about who should run the war and how. After the debacle of 1975, these did not include leadership from Islamabad. "He wanted the strategic direction of the war to be left to Afghans inside Afghanistan," recalls Massoud Khalili, a wartime aide. "After all, we were doing the fighting and dying."

By the final fall of President Najibullah's Communist regime in 1992, the rift between Massoud -- by then commanding a small army of some 8,000 -- and the Pakistani military was dangerously wide. In October 1990, a visit to Islamabad by Massoud, his first since the spring of 1979, produced meetings with Pakistan's then-chief of Army Staff Gen. Aslam Beg and ISI chief Lt.-Gen. Assad Durrani. But attempts to paper over the gulf were too little and too late.

There was a somber inevitability in the outbreak of civil war in central Kabul as the Communist regime collapsed and Hekmatyar's Hizb made a unilateral grab for power. Since 1980, his forces and Massoud's had clashed repeatedly in the interior. But it was the ISI's continued backing for the Pushtun leader that increased Massoud's anger as he battled to defend the city and the Rabbani government.

"The reasons for the fighting were first Hekmatyar's insatiable desire for power," Massoud says. "Second was the interference of a foreign intelligence service that had used him in the past and still wanted to use him as a weapon against the independence of Afghanistan." Hekmatyar never succeeded in uniting the southern Pushtun heartland. When the Taliban emerged from Pakistani religious colleges in 1994 to do just that, the ISI switched horses.

As during the anti-Soviet war, Pakistan continues to deny it has any direct hand in Afghan affairs. Yet behind the pro forma disclaimers, the level of hostility between Massoud and the Pakistani military has never been higher. It will almost certainly remain one of the key determinants in the geopolitics of an increasingly unstable region. "It's as if the ISI has some sort of a complex about us, an obsession that we should not be permitted to be in power," Massoud says. "But still I fail to understand what Pakistan's interest in this is. Two nations have become enemies."

A passionate nationalist, Massoud is quick to dismiss speculation over the partition of Afghanistan between the Pushtun south and the non-Pushtun minorities of the north. For him, a wider war holds the promise of the break-up of the Taliban movement, which currently holds loose sway over a vast checkerboard of Pushtun tribes. He predicts local uprisings against the harsh Taliban rule.

For now, though, Pakistan's generals can congratulate themselves on a victory of sorts: their candidate is at last installed on the throne of Kabul. But diplomatically shunned, administratively inept and politically unpredictable, the Taliban's hold on power remains precarious. Pakistan, like Britain and Russia in their day, may yet learn that ambitious "forward policy" in Afghanistan has a nasty habit of back-firing.

-- Anthony Davis is an Asiaweek contributor


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