AHMED SHAH MASSOUD charged up the face of Ali Abad Mountain on the west side of Kabul, with a ragtag crew of a dozen soldiers in tow. Ali Abad was nothing more than a dusty, rock-strewn hill slouched in the middle of the 6,200-foot-high capital, but occupying its top would give Massoud a commanding position. He could gaze to the south at the pine-tree-laden campus of Kabul University, the country’s premier institution of learning. To the north was Kabul Polytechnic Institute, a reputable science school dominated by the Soviets. To the east sprawled the city’s downtown area. All around stood the jagged snowcapped peaks that walled the city in, cradling Kabul Valley in a cool embrace. Just before Massoud reached the hill’s crest and faced his enemy—a rival faction of similar size—he sent a detachment of loyalists around the opposite side. The enemy never saw them coming. They surrendered immediately, and after briefly savoring his victory, Massoud paraded his captives back down the hill and into a ditch by the side of the road where he kept all of his prisoners of war. Then, with a wave of his hand, he dismissed his soldiers and freed his captives. From across the street his mother was calling him for dinner.
It was 1963, and he was eleven years old. His family had moved to Kabul only recently. Massoud did not consider the city home, but he had quickly mastered the heights of its bluffs and the depths of its ravines. There was no question among his peers as to who would play commander in neighborhood war games.1
His father was a colonel in the army of King Zahir Shah, a position of some prestige but little danger. From the 1930s until the early 1960s the entire span of the elder Massoud’s military career, Afghanistan had remained at peace. Massoud led a transient life during his first decade. He had lived in Helmand in the south, Herat in the west, and then Kabul. But he and his family always considered home the Panjshir Valley town of Massoud’s birth: Jangalak, in the district of Bazarak, several hours’ drive north of the capital.
For seventy miles the Panjshir River cuts a harsh diagonal to the southwest through the Hindu Kush Mountains before spilling onto the Shomali Plains thirty miles above Kabul. On a map it looks like an arrow pointing the way directly toward Afghanistan’s capital from the northeast. On the ground it is a chasm cut between bald, unforgiving cliffs that plunge steeply into the raging current. Only occasionally do the cliffs slope more gently, offering room for houses and crops on either side of the riverbed. There the valley erupts in lush, wavy green fields, and the river sits as placidly as a glacial lake, braided by grassy sandbars.
In front of the Massoud ancestral home in Jangalak, almost exactly halfway up the valley, the water is at its calmest. The Massoud family settled on this site on the western bank of the river around the beginning of the twentieth century. A relatively prosperous family, they initially built a low,mud-brick compound that, like countless other valley homes, appeared to rise organically from the rich brown soil. When Massoud’s father inherited the place, he built an addition on the back that stretched farther up the mountainside. It was there that Massoud’s mother gave birth to Ahmed Shah, her second son, in 1952.
The Panjshir of Massoud’s birth had changed little in centuries. Along the valley’s one true road—a rough, pockmarked dirt track that parallels the river’s course—it was far more common to hear the high-pitched cry of a donkey weighted down by grain sacks than the muted purr of a motor engine. Food came from terraced fields of wheat, apple and almond trees that sprouted along the river banks, or the cattle, goats, and chickens that wandered freely, unable to range far since the valley is only about a mile at its widest.
Few in the Panjshir could read or write, but Massoud’s parents were both exceptions. His father was formally educated. His mother was not, but she came from a family of lawyers who were prominent in Rokheh, the next town over from Jangalak. She taught herself to read and write, and urged her four sons and four daughters to improve themselves similarly. A stern woman who imposed rigid standards, Massoud’s mother wanted her children to be educated, but she also wanted them to excel outside the classroom. Her oldest son, Yahya, once came home with grades putting him near the top of his class, a status the Massoud children often enjoyed. Massoud’s father was thrilled and talked about rewarding his son with a motorbike. “I’m not happy with these things,” his mother complained. She rebuked her husband: “I’ve told you many times: Teach your sons those things they need.” She fired off examples: “Do your children ride horses? Can they use guns? Are they able to be in society and to be with people? These are the characteristics that make a man.” Yahya did not get the motorbike.
Ahmed Shah Massoud’s mother meted out family discipline, and because he was a child who seemed naturally inclined to mischief, his reprimands came often. She never struck her children physically, her sons recalled, but she could wither them with verbal lashings. Years later Massoud confided to siblings that perhaps the only person he had ever feared was his mother.
By the time Massoud reached high school in the late 1960s, his father had retired from the military and the family had settled in an upper-middle-class neighborhood of Kabul. They lived in a seven-bedroom stone and concrete house with panoramic views. It was the finest building on the block. Massoud attended the Lycée Istiqlal, an elite, French-sponsored high school. There he earned good grades, acquired French, and won a scholarship to attend college in France. The scholarship was his ticket out of Kabul’s dusty, premodern alleys, but Massoud turned it down, to his family’s surprise. He announced that he wanted to go to military school instead and to follow in his father’s footsteps as an Afghan army officer. His father tried to use connections to get him into the country’s premier military school, but failed. Massoud settled for Kabul Polytechnic Institute, the Soviet-sponsored school just down the hill from the family home.
In his first year of college, Massoud discovered he was a math whiz. He set up a tutoring service for classmates and talked hopefully about becoming an engineer or an architect. As it happened, he was destined to knock down many more buildings than he would ever build.
The Cold War had slipped into Afghanistan like a virus. By the late 1960s all of Kabul’s universities were in the grip of fevered politics. Secret Marxist book clubs conspired against secret Islamist societies in damp concrete faculties and residences. The atmosphere was urgent: The country’s weak, centuries-old monarchy was on its way out. Afghanistan was lurching toward a new politics. Would it be Marxist or Islamic, secular or religious, modern or traditional—or some blend of these? Every university professor seemed to have an opinion.
Massoud’s parents had raised him as a devout Muslim and imbued in him an antipathy for communism. When he came home after his first year at the institute, he told his family about a mysterious new group he had joined called the Muslim Youth Organization. Ahmed Wali, his youngest full brother, noticed that Massoud was confidently explaining to not just family but shopkeepers and nearly anyone else who would listen that his group was going to wage war against the Marxists who were increasingly prominent on the capital’s campuses, in government ministries, and in the army. Massoud’s swagger was unmistakable: “He was giving that sort of impression, that tomorrow, he and four or five others are going to defeat the whole thing.”2
THE ISLAMIC FAITH that Massoud acquired at Kabul Polytechnic Institute was not the faith of his father. It was a militant faith—conspiratorial and potentially violent. Its texts had arrived in Kabul in the satchels of Islamic law professors returning to their teaching posts in the Afghan capital after obtaining advanced degrees abroad, particularly from Islam’s most prestigious citadel of learning, Al-Azhar University in Cairo. There a handful of Afghan doctoral candidates—including Abdurrab Rasul Sayyaf and Burhanuddin Rabbani—came under the influence of radical Egyptian Islamists exploring new forms of Islamic politics. Back in Kabul the Afghan junior professors began during the mid-1960s to teach Egyptian creeds in their classrooms, pressing radical ideas on bright, restless young Afghan students such as Massoud.3
For centuries religious faith in Afghanistan had reflected the country’s political geography: It was diverse, decentralized, and rooted in local personalities. The territory that became Afghanistan had been crossed and occupied by ancient Buddhists, ancient Greeks (led by Alexander the Great), mystics, saints, Sikhs, and Islamic warriors, many of whom left monuments and decorated graves. Afghanistan’s forbidding mountain ranges and isolated valleys ensured that no single dogmatic creed, spiritual or political, could take hold of all its people. As conquerors riding east from Persia and south from Central Asia’s steppes gradually established Islam as the dominant faith, and as they returned from stints of occupation in Hindu India, they brought with them eclectic strains of mysticism and saint worship that blended comfortably with Afghan tribalism and clan politics. The emphasis was on loyalty to the local Big Man. The Sufi strain of Islam became prominent in Afghanistan. Sufism taught personal contact with the divine through mystical devotions. Its leaders established orders of the initiated and were worshiped as saints and chieftains. Their elaborately decorated shrines dotted the country and spoke to a celebratory, personalized, ecstatic strain in traditional Afghan Islam.
Colonial and religious warfare during the nineteenth century infused the country’s isolated valleys with more austere Islamic creeds. Muslim theologians based in Deoband, India, whose ideas echoed Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabis, established madrassas and gained influence among Afghan Pashtun tribes. To galvanize popular support against invading Sikhs, an early-nineteenth-century Afghan king named Dost Mohammed appointed himself Amir-ul-Momineen, or commander of the faithful, and declared his cause a religious war. British imperialists seeking breathing space from an encroaching Russia later invaded Afghanistan twice, singing their Christian hymns and preaching of their superior civilization. Revolting Afghan tribesmen fired by Islamic zeal slaughtered them by the thousands, along with their trains of elephants, and forced an inglorious retreat. Abdur Rahman, the “Iron Emir” covertly supported in Kabul by the chastened British in the late nineteenth century, attempted to coerce the Afghans into “one grand community under one law and one rule.” Across a hundred years all these events created new strains of xenophobia in Afghanistan and revived Islam as a national political and war-fighting doctrine. Still, even the country’s most radical Islamists did not contemplate a war of civilizations or the proclamation of jihad in distant lands.
The country staggered into the twentieth century in peaceful but impoverished isolation, ruled by a succession of cautious kings in Kabul who increasingly relied on outside aid to govern, and whose writ in the provinces was weak. At the local level, by far the most important sphere, political and Islamic authorities accommodated one another.
It was during the 1960s, and then largely in the city of Kabul—on its tree-shaded university campuses and in its army barracks—that radical doctrines carried in from outside the country set the stage for cataclysm. As the KGB-sponsored Marxists formed their cabals and recruited followers, equally militant Afghan Islamists rose up to oppose them. Every university student now confronted a choice: communism or radical Islam. The contest was increasingly raucous. Each side’s members staged demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, paraded flags, and carried bullhorns in case of a spontaneous roadside debate. In the space of just a few years during the late 1960s and early 1970s, what little there was of the center in Afghan politics melted away in Kabul under the friction of these confrontational, imported ideologies.4
The Egyptian texts carried to Kabul’s universities were sharply focused on politics. The tracts sprang from the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, the transnational spiritual and political network founded during the 1920s by an Egyptian schoolteacher, Hassan al-Banna, as a protest movement against British colonial rule in Egypt. (Jamaat-e-Islami was, in effect, the Pakistani branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.) Muslim Brotherhood members believed that the only way to return the Islamic world to its rightful place of economic and political power was through a rigid adherence to core Islamic principles. Initiated brothers pledged to work secretly to create a pure Islamic society modeled on what they saw as the lost and triumphant Islamic civilizations founded in the seventh century. (One French scholar likened the brothers to the conservative, elite lay Catholic organizations in the West such as Opus Dei.5 Throughout his life CIA director William Casey was attracted to these secretive lay Catholic groups.) As the movement’s distinctive green flag with crossed white swords and a red Koran spread across Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood’s numbers swelled to half a million by 1949. British colonialists grew fed up and repressed the brothers violently. Some members, known as the Special Order Group, carried out guerrilla strikes, bombing British installations and murdering British soldiers and civilians.6
When Egyptian military leaders known as the Free Officers seized power during the 1950s under the leadership of Gamal Abdel Nasser, they continued the British pattern of trying to co-opt the Muslim Brotherhood and, when that failed, repressing them. In Egyptian prisons, “The brutal treadmill of torture broke bones, stripped out skins, shocked nerves, and killed souls,” recalled Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian medical doctor who spent time in the jails and later became Osama bin Laden’s chief lieutenant.7During one of the Egyptian government crackdowns, an imprisoned radical named Sayyed Qutb, who had tried unsuccessfully to assassinate Nasser, wrote from a jail cell a manifesto titled Signposts, which argued for a new Leninist approach to Islamic revolution. Qutb justified violence against nonbelievers and urged radical action to seize political power. His opinions had taken shape, at least in part, during a yearlong visit to the United States in 1948. The Egyptian government had sent him to Northern Colorado Teachers College in Greeley to learn about the American educational system, but he found the United States repugnant. America was materialistic, obsessed with sex, prejudiced against Arabs, and sympathetic to Israel. “Humanity today is living in a large brothel! One has only to glance at its press, films, fashion shows, beauty contests, ballrooms, wine bars, and broadcasting stations!” Qutb wrote upon his return.
Qutb argued that all impure governments must be overthrown. All true Muslims should join the “Party of God” (Hezbollah). Qutb linked a political revolution to coercive changes in social values, much as Lenin had done. Signposts attacked nominally Muslim leaders who governed through non-Islamic systems such as capitalism or communism. Those leaders, Qutb wrote, should be declared unbelievers and become the targets of revolutionary jihad.8
Qutb was executed in 1966, but his manifesto gradually emerged as a blueprint for Islamic radicals from Morocco to Indonesia. It was later taught at King Abdul Aziz University in Jedda in classes attended by Osama bin Laden. Qutb’s ideas attracted excited adherents on the campus of Cairo’s Al-Azhar University. (In 1971, Prince Turki’s father, King Faisal, pledged $100 million to Al-Azhar’s rector to aid the intellectual struggle of Islam against communism.9) This was the context in which Sayyaf, Rabbani, and other junior professors carried Qutb’s ideas to Kabul University’s classrooms.
Rabbani translated Signposts into Dari, the Afghan language of learning. The returning Afghan professors adapted Qutb’s Leninist model of a revolutionary party to the local tradition of Sufi brotherhoods. In 1973, at their first meeting as the leadership council of the Muslim Youth Organization, the group elected Rabbani its chairman and Sayyaf vice chairman.10
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar did not make it to the inaugural meeting of the Muslim Youth Organization that night in 1973. He was in jail for ordering the murder of a Maoist student. But the group selected him as its political director anyway because in his short time as a student in Kabul University’s elite engineering school, Hekmatyar had already earned a reputation as a committed radical. He was willing, it seemed, to protest anything. When the university tried to raise the passing grade from fifty to sixty, Hekmatyar cursed the school’s administrators and stood on the front lines of mass demonstrations. He shook his fist at the government’s un-Islamic ways and was rumored to spray acid in the faces of young women who dared set foot in public without donning a veil.11
Massoud kept his distance from Hekmatyar, but Rabbani’s teachings appealed to him. Just to hear Rabbani speak, he frequently hiked around the hill from the institute to Kabul University’s Sharia faculty, a 1950s-era brick and flagstone building resembling an American middle school that nestled in a shaded vale near Ali Abad Mountain.
By the time King Zahir Shah’s cousin, Mohammed Daoud, drawing on some communist support, seized national power in a coup on July 17, 1973, Massoud was a full-fledged member of the Muslim Youth Organization.
“Some of our brothers deem armed struggle necessary to topple this criminal government,” Rabbani declared at one meeting at the Faculty of Islamic Law a few months later. They acquired weapons and built connections in the Afghan army, but they lacked a path to power.When Daoud cracked down on the Islamists a year later, Massoud, Hekmatyar, Rabbani, and the rest of the organization’s members fled to Pakistan.
The Pakistani government embraced them. Daoud’s nascent communist support had the Pakistani army worried. The exiled Islamists offered the army a way to pursue influence in Afghanistan. Massoud, Hekmatyar, and about five thousand other young exiles began secret military training under the direction of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Afghan affairs adviser, Brigadier General Naseerullah Babar.12 Babar and Hekmatyar, both ethnic Pashtuns, soon became confidants, and together they hatched a plan for an uprising against Daoud in 1975. They drafted Massoud to sneak back into the Panjshir and start the revolt from there. He did so reluctantly, and the episode ended badly. Massoud fled to Pakistan for the second time in two years.13
The failed uprising exacerbated a split among the Afghan exiles, with bad blood all around. Hekmatyar created his own organization, Hezb-e-Islami (Islamic Party), composed primarily of ethnic Pashtuns, and he forged close relations with ISI. Massoud stuck by Rabbani in Jamaat-e-Islami (Islamic Society), which was made up mostly of ethnic Tajiks. When Massoud secretly returned to the Panjshir Valley once again in 1978, however, he did so on his own. He no longer trusted the other Afghan leaders, and he had no faith in Pakistan. He simply showed up in the Panjshir with thirty supporters, seventeen rifles, the equivalent of $130 in cash, and a letter asking the local people to declare jihad against their Soviet-backed government.14
BY HIS THIRTIETH BIRTHDAY Massoud had fended off six direct assaults by the world’s largest conventional army.
The Politburo and the high command of the Soviet Fortieth Army had initially hoped that Soviet troops might play a supporting role in Afghanistan, backing up the communist-led Afghan army. Kremlin officials repeatedly assured themselves that the rebels were nothing more than basmachi, or bandits, the term used to describe Muslim rebels in Central Asia who unsuccessfully resisted Soviet authority following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. But desertions from Afghan army ranks only increased. Massive forcible conscription drives inflated the Afghan army’s reported size but did little to improve its effectiveness. Gradually Soviet units took the war on for themselves.15
Massoud and his Panjshiri rebels stood near the top of their target list. The Panjshir Valley contained only about eighty thousand residents in a country of 15 million, but for the Soviets the valley proved vital. Just to the east of the Panjshir, through a forbidding mountain range, the Salang Highway cut a path between Kabul and Termez, the Soviet transit city on the Afghan border beside the Amu Darya River. For the Soviets to retain their grip on Afghanistan, the Salang Highway had to remain open. There was no other reliable overland supply route between the USSR and Kabul. Food, uniforms, fuel, weapons, ammunition—everything the Red Army and the Afghan army required rumbled down the Salang’s treacherous, pitted, zigzag blacktop.
The Salang kept Massoud’s forces fed, clothed, and armed as well.When a Soviet convoy tried to pass along the highway, Massoud’s fighters streamed down from the mountains, unleashed a fusillade of gunfire, raided the convoy, and disappeared back into the shadows. They would then take apart whatever they had pilfered from the Soviets, be it an antitank missile or pieces of a tank, pack it onto the backs of horses, and trek to the Panjshir where mechanics reassembled them for the rebels’ future use. Because Massoud had access to the Salang from the Panjshir, Red Army soldiers were dying at the hands of Red Army weapons fired by mujahedin clothed in Red Army uniforms. “We do not regard an attack against a convoy successful, even if we destroy many trucks or tanks, unless we bring back supplies,” Massoud told a visiting journalist in 1981.16 Massoud, the Soviets decided, was one bandit they had to stop quickly.
In each of the first six Soviet assaults on the Panjshir between the spring of 1980 and the fall of 1982, Massoud hardly seemed to stand a chance. At the time of the first campaign he had barely one thousand fighters. Two years later, that number had doubled, but he was still grossly outgunned. With each invasion the Soviets brought more men and more firepower. For the fall 1982 offensive, the Soviets sent ten thousand of their own troops, four thousand Afghan army soldiers, and scores of tanks, attack helicopters, and fighter jets from Kabul. Not only aimed at securing the Salang, the assaults were part of a wider, unannounced military plan. The Soviets had decided that to hold Afghanistan for the long run they should “achieve a decisive victory in the northern zones bordering the Soviet Union first,” according to the KGB’s archives.17
Massoud had become a serious, deeply read student of Mao Zedong, Che Guevara, and French revolutionary strategist Regis Debray. Following their precepts he did not try to face the Soviets and stop them. From the earliest days of the rebellion he maintained well-placed intelligence agents in the Afghan army and typically would find out days, weeks, or even months in advance that the Soviets were planning an attack. Just before the first aerial bombing runs began, Massoud’s forces would melt away into the intricate network of side valleys that spread out from the Panjshir like veins on a leaf.
After the bombs had fallen, the Soviet and Afghan army ground forces would enter the valley and find it populated by women, children, old men, and a smattering of farm animals. But they would not find any mujahedin—at least not initially. Massoud might allow a column of Soviet tanks to advance well into the valley before ordering his men to attack. When they did, they would never stand and fight head-on. Instead, they might send a few particularly courageous soldiers to streak in with rocket-propelled grenades and take out the first and last tanks in the column. Larger rebel contingents, well hidden behind rocks and trees, would then spray the paralyzed column with gunfire before sprinting back to the safety of a side valley. In the narrow Panjshir, with only one road in and out, the Red Army soldiers often had no choice but to abandon their tanks. The crippled vehicles, with a little tinkering by Massoud’s mechanics, sometimes became part of the mujahedin arsenal within a week.18
Massoud played the Afghan government soldiers off against their Soviet allies. A staggeringly large percentage of the army felt more allegiance to rebel leaders such as Massoud than they did to their Soviet handlers. In some cases Massoud even had to persuade sympathizers within the Afghan army not to defect because they were more valuable to him as informers than they were as fighters. During Panjshir invasions the Soviets often sent Afghan units just ahead of Red Army units on the theory that their Afghan comrades would then bear the brunt of the mujahedin’s surprises. In time, Massoud picked up on this tactic and began to exploit it. When his lookouts spotted an enemy column advancing with Afghan forces in the lead, Massoud’s men would try to isolate the units by blasting gigantic rocks out of the cliffs and hurtling them toward the road, in between where the Afghan units ended and the Soviet units began. More often than not, rather than put up a fight, the Afghan army soldiers defected immediately, bringing to the mujahedin side whatever weapons and munitions they happened to be carrying.19
The Soviets did not have the luxury of surrendering. Asked why there were no Red Army soldiers in his prisons, Massoud replied, “Hatred for the Russians is just too great. Many mujahedin have lost their families or homes through communist terror. Their first reaction when coming across a Russian is to kill him.”20
By the time he repelled his sixth Soviet offensive, in 1982, Massoud had made a name for himself nationwide. He was the “Lion of the Panjshir.” The word Panjshir itself had become a rallying cry across Afghanistan and abroad, a symbol of hope for the anticommunist resistance. Within the narrow valley Massoud was a hero, popular enough to have his own cult of personality and exert dictatorial control. Instead, he operated his rebellion through councils that provided Panjshiri elders and civilians, as well as subordinate rebel commanders, a voice in his affairs. As a result he was more constrained by local public opinion than rebel leaders who operated out of ISI-funded offices in Pakistani exile. The Pakistan-based commanders took advantage of the refugee camps spreading around Peshawar and Quetta. Food rations were controlled by Hekmatyar, Sayyaf, Rabbani, and other ISI-supported mujahedin leaders. Hekmatyar, especially, used the camps as a blend of civilian refuge, military encampment, and political operations center. Massoud, on the other hand, ran his guerrilla army entirely inside Afghan territory and relied on the forbearance of Afghan civilians living under repeated vicious Soviet attacks. Massoud ran local police and civil affairs committees in the Panjshir and levied taxes on emerald and lapis miners. His militias depended directly on popular support. There were many other examples of indigenous revolutionary leadership emerging across Afghanistan, but Massoud was becoming the most prominent leader of what the French scholar Olivier Roy called “the only contemporary revivalist Muslim movement to take root among peasants.” In Massoud’s movement, “The fighting group is the civil society, with the same leadership and no professionalization of fighters.”21
Soviet scorched earth tactics began to lay the land and its people to waste. Relentless Soviet bombing claimed thousands of civilian lives. By the end of 1982 more than 80 percent of the Panjshir’s buildings had been damaged or destroyed. In an attempt to starve the valley out, the Soviets even resorted to that most infamous of Iron Curtain tactics: They built a wall. The six-foot-high concrete barrier at the southern mouth of the valley was intended to keep food and clothing from getting to the Panjshiris. It didn’t work. The mujahedin managed to smuggle in everything from biscuits to chewing gum to transistor radios. But with their crops in ruins, their livestock slaughtered, and no end to the fighting in sight, it was unclear how much more hardship the valley’s population could bear.
Massoud decided to cut a deal. In the spring of 1983 he announced an unprecedented truce. Under its terms the Soviets would stop attacking in the Panjshir if Massoud allowed the Afghan army to operate a base at the southern end of the valley. The truce followed three years of secret negotiations. For as long as Massoud had been fighting the Soviets, most Afghans outside the Panjshir Valley were shocked to learn, he also had been talking with them. The conversation started as letters exchanged with Soviet commanders across the front lines. In these Massoud and his enemy counterparts conversed like colleagues. Later they held face-to-face meetings. In the final two sessions Massoud brokered the terms personally.Writing from Moscow, Yuri Andropov, the former KGB chief and now Brezhnev’s successor as general secretary of the Communist Party, formally endorsed the agreement for the Soviets.22
Many in Afghanistan and abroad saw the truce as a craven capitulation. Massoud’s deal was a blow to the mujahedin just “as Benedict Arnold was a blow to the Americans,” one American pundit declared.23 Leaders of Jamaat, Massoud’s own party, felt particularly betrayed since Massoud had not bothered to consult them beforehand.
The shock of Massoud’s truce helped strengthen his rival Hekmatyar. Pakistani intelligence, for years disdainful of non-Pashtun clients in northern Afghanistan, cited the deal when explaining to CIA counterparts why Massoud had to be cut off completely. “He set a policy of local cease-fire,” recalled Brigadier General Syed Raza Ali, who worked in ISI’s Afghan bureau throughout the 1980s. “So a man who’s working against the Afghan war, why should we deal with him?”24
ALREADY STRONG, Hekmatyar emerged as the most powerful of ISI’s Pakistan-based mujahedin clients just as Charlie Wilson and Bill Casey, along with Prince Turki, suddenly poured hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of new and more lethal supplies into ISI warehouses.
Hekmatyar had matured into a cold, ruthless, effective leader who tolerated no dissent and readily ordered the deaths of his opponents. He enhanced his power by running the tightest, most militaristic organization in Peshawar and in the refugee camps. “One could rely on them blindly,” recalled the ISI brigadier Yousaf, who worked closely with Hekmatyar. “By giving them the weapons you were sure that weapons will not be sold in Pakistan because he was strict to the extent of being ruthless.” Chuckling morbidly, Yousaf added: “Once you join his party it was difficult to leave.” Hekmatyar “followed the totalitarian model of integrating all powers into the party,” as the American scholar Barnett Rubin put it.25
Hekmatyar’s Pashtun family came from a lesser tribal federation forcibly removed during the nineteenth century from the Pakistani border areas to a northern province of Afghanistan, Kunduz, not far from the Panjshir. That his family’s tribal roots were of minority status within the Pashtun community made Hekmatyar attractive to Pakistani intelligence, which wanted to build up Pashtun clients outside of Afghanistan’s traditional royal tribes. Hekmatyar attended high school in Kunduz and military school in Kabul before enrolling in the prestigious Faculty of Engineering at Kabul University. Once in Pakistani exile he gathered around him the most radical, anti-Western, transnational Islamists fighting in the jihad—including bin Laden and other Arabs who arrived as volunteers.
The older Muslim Brotherhood–influenced leaders such as Rabbani and Sayyaf regarded Hekmatyar’s group as a rash offshoot. The more professorial Afghan Islamists spoke of broad, global Islamic communities and gradual moral evolution. Not Hekmatyar: He was focused on power. His Islamic Party organization became the closest thing to an exiled army in the otherwise diverse, dispersed jihad. He adhered to Qutb’s views about the need to vanquish corrupt Muslim leaders in order to establish true Islamic government. He took it upon himself to decide who was a true believer and who was an apostate. Over the centuries Afghan warfare had aimed at “restoring the balance of power, not at destroying the enemy,” as the scholar Olivier Roy put it. Hekmatyar, on the other hand, wanted to destroy his enemies. These included not only communist and Soviet occupation forces but mujahedin competitors.
He recognized Massoud as his most formidable military rival and began early on to attack him in the field and through maneuverings in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. “We have a saying in Pashto,” Hekmatyar told an Arab supporter who worried about the growing intensity of his rivalry with Massoud. “‘There is a rooster who is so conceited it walks on the ceiling on his toes, because he’s afraid that the roof would fall.’ That rooster is Massoud.”26 In his drive for power during the mid-1980s, Hekmatyar so often attacked Massoud and other mujahedin that intelligence analysts in Washington feared he might be a secret KGB plant whose mission was to sow disruption within the anticommunist resistance.27
Yet both at headquarters and in the field, CIA officers in the Near East Division who were running the Afghan program also embraced Hekmatyar as their most dependable and effective ally. ISI officers urged Hekmatyar upon the CIA, and the agency concluded independently that he was the most efficient at killing Soviets. They believed this because as they reviewed battlefield damage reports, tracked the movements of weapons shipments, and toured the refugee camps to check on organizational strength among mujahedin parties, “analytically, the best fighters—the best organized fighters—were the fun-damentalists,” led by Hekmatyar, as one officer then at headquarters put it.28
William Piekney, the CIA station chief, would drive down from Islamabad with ISI officers or visiting congressmen to meet with Hekmatyar in the rock-strewn border training camps. He admired Hekmatyar’s fighting ability, but among the mujahedin leaders it was also Hekmatyar who gave him the deepest chills. “I would put my arms around Gulbuddin and we’d hug, you know, like brothers in combat and stuff, and his coal black eyes would look back at you, and you just knew that there was only one thing holding this team together and that was the Soviet Union.”29
AT LEAST HEKMATYAR KNEW who the enemy was, the CIA’s officers and analysts assured themselves. Massoud’s truce with the Soviets, on the other hand, was his first public demonstration that in addition to being a military genius, he was also willing to cut a deal with anyone at any time and in any direction if he thought it would advance his goals.
Massoud felt the truce would raise his stature by placing him on equal footing with a superpower. “The Russians have negotiated with a valley,” his aide Massoud Khalili crowed. The deal also bought Massoud time to regroup for what he had determined would be a long, long fight ahead. He sought not only to resist the Soviets but to compete for power in Kabul and on a national stage, as the revolutionaries he admired from his reading had done. Despite the uncertainties of the war, he planned early for a conventional army that could occupy Kabul after the Soviets left.30 He used the period during the ceasefire—more than a year, as it turned out—to stockpile weapons and food for his critically malnourished and poorly armed troops. Panjshiri farmers, who hadn’t enjoyed a peaceful growing season in several years, harvested crops unmolested. And many of his troops ranged to other parts of the country, building alliances on Massoud’s behalf with mujahedin commanders who had never been to the Panjshir.
Massoud also capitalized on the calm to attack Hekmatyar’s forces. Before the truce, a group aligned with Hekmatyar’s party had been using an adjacent valley, the Andarab, to stage assaults on Massoud’s flank and cut off his supply lines. With one swift commando raid, Massoud drove these fighters out of the valley and, for the time being, off his back. It was an opening action in an emerging war within the Afghan war.
By the time the truce began to unravel in the spring of 1984, Massoud was breezing through the Panjshir in a distinguished new black Volga sedan. The car had been intended as a gift from the Soviets for the Afghan defense minister, but Massoud’s guerrillas picked it off on its way down the Salang Highway and hauled it back to the Panjshir in hundreds of pieces as a gift for their commander.31
The Soviets signaled their displeasure by sending an undercover Afghan agent into the Panjshir. The agent took a shot at Massoud from thirty feet away but missed. The assassination attempt exposed two other Afghan communist agents in the rebels’ midst, including a Massoud cousin who had also been one of his commanders.
Massoud’s own spy network remained a step ahead. In the spring of 1984 he learned that the Soviets intended to launch a twenty-thousand-man assault on the valley. Not only would the invasion be larger than anything seen before, but, according to Massoud’s sources, the tactics would be far more ruthless. The Soviets planned to subject the valley to a week’s worth of high-altitude aerial assaults and then sow the bomb-tilled soil with land mines to make it uninhabitable for years to come.
Massoud ordered the entire Panjshir Valley to evacuate in late April. Three days before Soviet bombers soared above its gorges, he led more than forty thousand Panjshiris out of the valley and into hiding. When Soviet ground troops—including numerous special forces units known as Spetsnaz—moved in a week later, they found the Panjshir Valley utterly ruined and almost completely deserted.
From the concealed caves surrounding the Panjshir where Massoud reestablished his organization, he cautiously plotted his return. His men launched operations from the ridgelines, shooting down at the helicopters that canvassed the valley floor. They ambushed the enemy, created diversions, and fought at night when the Soviets were most vulnerable.
But the introduction of the elite Spetsnaz, along with their advanced Mi-24D Hind attack helicopters and communications gear, gradually shifted war-fighting tactics in the Soviets’ favor. As many as two thousand Spetsnaz were deployed in Afghanistan during 1984, and the Mi-24’s armor-coated belly repulsed nearly all the antiaircraft guns available to the mujahedin. Massoud’s men found themselves pursued on foot by heavily armed Spetsnaz troops who could scramble up the valley’s rugged cliffs almost as fast as the locals. Kabul Radio reported that Massoud had been killed in action.When an interviewer late that spring asked Afghan President Babrak Karmal whether Massoud was alive or dead, Karmal dismissed the question. “Who is this Massoud that you speak of?” he asked contemptuously. “U.S. propaganda creates artificial personalities and false gods. . . . As an actor, Reagan knows well how to create puppets on the international stage. . . . These creations are clay idols that disintegrate just as fast. Massoud was an instrument of the imperialists. I don’t know if he is alive or dead and I don’t care. The Panjshir issue has been resolved.”32
It had not been, but Massoud was reeling. “It has become a very hard war, far harder than before,” the commander acknowledged to a visitor in between sips of tea while ensconced deep within one of his innumerable caves. “Their commandos have learned a great deal about mountain guerrilla warfare and are fighting much better than before.”33
CIA analysts said the same in reports they circulated from Langley. The Soviet campaign in the Panjshir that spring featured “increased use of heli-borne assaults,” one such report said, along with “an unprecedented high-altitude bombing” campaign. Yet Massoud’s advance warning of the assault and his covert evacuation of civilians made the difference because “Soviet intelligence apparently failed to discover that most guerrillas and their civilian supporters had left the valley.” At the same time the CIA knew that the civil war now gathering momentum between Massoud and Hekmatyar was undermining the jihad. Intramural battles between the two groups “have hampered operations and resupply efforts of Massoud’s Panjshir Valley insurgents,” the CIA’s classified report said.34
Until late 1984 and early 1985, Massoud had received relatively little outside assistance. The British intelligence service, MI6, which operated out of a small windowless office in Britain’s Islamabad embassy, made contact with Massoud early in the war and provided him with money, a few weapons, and some communications equipment. British intelligence officers taught English to some of Massoud’s trusted aides, such as his foreign policy liaison, Abdullah. The French, too, reached out to Massoud. Unburdened by the CIA’s rules, which prohibited travel in Afghanistan, both intelligence services sent officers overland into the Panjshir posing as journalists. The CIA relied on British intelligence for reports about Massoud. At Langley “there was probably a little penis envy” of these border-hopping European spies, “you know, they were going in,” as one officer involved put it. The French especially grated: “trying to find some liberator character” in the person of Massoud, making him out as an Afghan “Simon Bolivar, George Washington.”35
Massoud charmed his British and French visitors. He dressed more stylishly than other Afghans. He spoke some French. His manner was calm and confident, never blustery. “He was never emotional or subjective,” as his aide Khalili put it. “Always he was objective.”36 He horsed around lightly with his trusted senior commanders, pushing them in the water when they went swimming or teasing them as they went off together on dangerous missions. And while he prayed five times a day and fought unyieldingly in Allah’s name, drawing on the radical texts he had learned at Kabul Polytechnic Institute, he seemed to outsiders more tolerant, more humane, and more rooted in the land than many other Afghan resistance commanders.
The CIA, honoring its agreement with Zia to work solely through ISI, had no direct contacts with Massoud during the early 1980s. ISI officers in the Afghan bureau saw the British “playing their own game” with Massoud, which provided yet another reason to withhold support from him. But the CIA did begin in late 1984 to secretly pass money and light supplies to Massoud without telling Pakistan.37
“He was never a problem in any sense that he was the enemy or that we were trying to cut him off,” according to one CIA officer involved. But neither was the CIA “ready to spend a lot of time and energy trying to push” Massoud forward. Massoud swore fealty to Rabbani, but relations between them were badly strained. Rabbani received ample supplies from ISI at his Peshawar offices but often did not pass much along to Massoud. “Rabbani was not a fool, he’s a politician,” the ISI’s Yousaf recalled. “He cannot make a man stronger than him.”38 Rabbani wanted to build up his own influence across Afghanistan by recruiting Pashtun, Uzbek, and Shiite commanders, securing their loyalty with weapons. In doing so he sought to limit Massoud’s relative power.
As a result almost everything Massoud’s forces owned they scavenged from the enemy, including Massoud’s own clothes: Red Army fatigues and Afghan army boots. Occasionally, Rabbani might send him a care package, originating with ISI or the Saudis, in the form of all the supplies that a dozen horses can carry. But Western journalists who spent months with Massoud’s fighters in the early 1980s returned from the Panjshir with reports that U.S.-funded assistance to the mujahedin was nowhere to be found.
As the fighting grew more difficult, Massoud had to admit he needed outside help. He refused to leave Afghanistan, but he began to send his brothers out of the country, to Peshawar, London, and Washington, to make contact with the CIA officers and Pakistani generals who controlled the covert supply lines.
Among the items on his wish list were portable rations and vitamins to help his troops stay nourished; an X-ray machine to diagnose the wounded; infrared goggles and aiming devices for nighttime fighting; radios to improve coordination among commanders; and, above all, shoulder-fired antiaircraft rockets to defend against helicopters and planes. With that kind of support Massoud thought he could force the Soviets back to the negotiating table within six months. Without it, the war “could last 40 years.”39
Massoud didn’t know it, but in Washington that spring of 1985 some of his American admirers had reached similar conclusions.