Ahmed Shah Masood: A calculated killing

The September 9 suicide attack on Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Masood appears to have been a calculated one, for the Taliban clearly did not want his presence in Afghanistan as a stabilising force in the aftermath of U.S. retaliation.

Published : Sep 29, 2001 00:00 IST

Ahmad Shah Masood, in this August 13 picture taken at a village in Panjshir Valley.-AFP

THE attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington have once again brought Afghanistan and the Taliban under the microscope of world attention. And as policy-makers around the globe consider their responses, it is becoming increasingly clear that the assassination of Ahmed Shah Masood, the 48-year-old commander of the "United Front" of Afghanistan, is linked to the terrorist assault in the United States and was probably masterminded by the Taliban.

The September 9 assassination attempt on Masood found little space in the world media and was subsequently overshadowed by the Hollywood-style terrorist strikes. Even the announcement of his death did not find much space, the media being preoccupied with how and when the U.S. would strike against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, which is sheltering him.

But now the realisation is beginning to dawn about the importance of the role Masood played in thwarting the Taliban and its masters, and the implications of his death.

Who was 'Commander' Masood, and what was his role in this historic land? His father, of Tajik origin, served as a Colonel in King Zahir Shah's army. Legends about Masood have it that he loved to play soldier from an early age. He received his primary education in Herat and completed his schooling in Kabul in a French-run institution. Thereafter he joined the Kabul Polytechnic, where he came under the influence of theology professor Burhanuddin Rabbani. He fled from Afghanistan to Pakistan (along with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar) in the mid-1970s after a failed coup against President Mohammed Daoud. In Pakistan, he received training in guerilla warfare from the infamous Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). He got his chance to put into practice his newly acquired skills when Soviet forces occupied Afghanistan in 1978. He was soon to become one of Jamaat-e-Islami's supreme commanders and go on to become one of the legends of the struggle against the Communist regime that was backed by the Soviet Union.

One of Masood's spectacular battles took place in the Panjshir Valley in 1982. His Tajik irregulars held off a 12,000-strong Soviet force supported by tanks, MiG aircraft and helicopter gunships, at the cost of 180-odd 'mujahideen' casualties. This battle was a portent of things to come, for it was from this Panjshir Valley that Masood continued to harass and hold the Taliban from complete domination of Afghanistan.

By the mid-1980s, he was reportedly in control of a substantial part of Afghanistan's northeast, this despite receiving only a small portion of assistance from the ISI, which preferred to back the Pashtun leader Hekmatyar.

Masood's tactical acumen and ability to engage his enemies in skirmishes, inflicting heavy losses on them but his side bearing very few casualties, became legendary. He always understood the importance of securing his rear and laying contingency plans for any setbacks. He is said to have used these to perfection when he entered Kabul in 1992, stunning his opponents, particularly the ISI, which backed Hekmatyar.

His tactical skills were once again on display when he retreated in an orderly manner from Kabul in 1996, while engaged in battle with Taliban forces. The retreat was so meticulously planned that he managed to evacuate not only all his forces and equipment but also furniture and books.

Subsequently, he put these military skills to use against the Taliban, successfully preventing them from taking full control of Afghanistan. His control over virtually the entire northeastern region of Afghanistan is one of the main reasons why the Taliban was unable to pursue with full attention its plans to destabilise Central Asia and create the so-called Islamic space.

WHY did the charismatic Masood, who initially welcomed the emergence of the Taliban, subsequently become its arch enemy? At one level, it was the harsh and ruthless methods used by the Taliban that revolted a moderate but devout Muslim like Masood. But his resistance to the Taliban was primarily determined by the increasing awareness that the Taliban was actually a puppet of Pakistan.

"The earlier invasion (by the Soviet Union) was from the north, but this time around it is from the south. In the past, the aggression was very clear and their (aggressors') ideology was known to us, but now the aggression is veiled, and all the crimes are committed in the name of Islam and its defence. This made it very difficult for the people to understand the motives of the current aggressors in the beginning. It is very fortunate that the nation now understands the real matter," Masood said in his last television interview, which was given to AIM TV, an Indian television production company.

Masood challenged the team to visit the streets of Afghanistan and ask the people to see "how much the realisation has dawned upon them now that Pakistan has subjected Afghanistan to aggression and invasion". During a conversation on the eve of the formal interview, Masood stressed that the increasing hostility towards the Taliban could not be attributed to any "propaganda machine for the simple reason that his forces had no control over any media - television channels, radio, newspapers, or magazines." It is undoubtedly true that, everybody the TV crew spoke to in northern Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, equated Taliban with Pakistan.

While not overestimating the role of the resistance by his forces to the Taliban, Masood was clear that "undoubtedly, without our resistance, you would have been witness today to greater and bigger problems of war in different countries of Central Asia". He was also distinctly disappointed that the major powers were not exerting sufficient pressure on Pakistan to stop supporting the Taliban.

"The threat of the Taliban in creating instability in the region and in the world has not been well comprehended, the way it should have been. They have created instability, and can create problems for the world through Osama bin Laden," he added, in what now appears as a prophetic vision. In his opinion, Osama bin Laden was the other driving force behind the Taliban, apart from Pakistan. He felt that bin Laden had a "crucial role to play in shaping the ideology of the Taliban" as well as supplying the Taliban with funds and fighters. (This view was echoed by several important officials, including the chief of the border security forces of Tajikistan, General Saidanwar Kamulov, who asserted that in August bin Laden had virtually taken over as the executive head of the Taliban.)

Masood repeatedly stressed that without Pakistani support the Taliban would have no option but to sit at the negotiating table and work towards measures to end the civil war in Afghanistan. Masood was also clear that there was no military solution to the Afghan conflict. "Our main target is to restore peace in Afghanistan and defeat the Pakistanis. We believe the problem of Afghanistan does not have a military solution. But our (Northern Alliance) achieving a military balance and equilibrium is essential,'' he said during the interview.

In effect, what Masood planned to do was to replay his struggle against the Soviets, but this time against the Pakistanis. He repeatedly stated that his goal was not to take Kabul although his forward bases were only about 15 km from the capital. When we visited the Bagram airbase, about 20 km from Kabul, it was apparent that the anti-Taliban forces had no agenda except to ensure that Bagram did not fall into the hands of the Taliban again.

The discussion about military strategy and tactics brought out another aspect of the coverage of events in Afghanistan. The world media project the Taliban as controlling about 95 per cent of Afghanistan. But surely the Northern Alliance controls far more than 5 per cent of Afghanistan's territory. The mountainous Badakshan region alone, which no one disputes is under the control of the Northern Alliance, constitutes more than 5 per cent. In addition, the anti-Taliban forces control the entire Panjshir Valley, the Shomali plains, and several small pockets in various parts of Afghanistan.

AFTER the terrorist attacks on the U.S., the Western media have "suddenly" discovered that Ismail Khan, the former Governor of Herat province, has fighters who hold territory in Herat province and that General Dostum, another key figure in the Northern Alliance, has forces south of Mazar-e-Sharief. Yet, CNN, reporting from Panjshir after the funeral of Masood, once again repeated the stock phrase of the Northern Alliance controlling only 5 per cent of Afghanistan.

Masood's pragmatism came out clearly when we spoke about India and its role in the region. Asked about his attitude towards India, he started by stating that "it was regrettable that India supported the Soviet-backed Communist government in Afghanistan." However, within a minute he asked if he could rephrase his answer and requested us not to use his previous response. The rephrased reply spoke of the wide and deep relations between India and Afghanistan and stressed that his government felt India was an important country, which is why it had one of its very few embassies functioning in Delhi. India's support for the Communist government in Afghanistan was merely described as "unfortunate", reflecting the current international situation and Masood's understanding that he had to move ahead and let bygones be bygones.

Earlier, one of his closest aides went to the extent of saying that he understood India's decision to support the Communist government. He said, "If I were the President of India, and had to take this decision given the various compulsions that India had to deal with, I would probably have taken the same decision". Asked if Masood shared this view, he said: "Absolutely. He is a very pragmatic man."

The death of Masood is undoubtedly a severe blow to the anti-Taliban alliance in Afghanistan. And it remains to be seen how it copes with his loss. It is also a great loss for India, which has lost an important ally not only in Afghanistan but in the entire Central Asian region.

However, India and Afghanistan are not the only losers. Policy-makers across the globe, who are now contemplating action against the Taliban and their sponsors, including Osama bin Laden, must be also ruing the loss of Masood. The situation on the ground in Afghanistan would be completely different if he were alive. For he would be the readymade alternative to the Taliban, and the anti-terrorist alliance that the U.S. is trying to cobble together could have without hesitation expected him to fill the vacuum in Afghanistan created by the removal of the Taliban.

Masood would have been an ideal foil to the Taliban in the current situation; not only because of his military skills, but also the considerable political acumen that he had begun to display in recent years. It is no mean achievement that he managed to stitch together an alliance, which included chieftains, and warlords, who were earlier mostly engaged in battling each other.

The Northern Alliance will probably remain cohesive while the fight is on to defeat the Taliban and its backers militarily. But will this cohesiveness continue when it comes to deciding who should govern in Kabul? Masood himself maintained that the new leadership of Afghanistan should be decided through negotiations between all Afghan factions involved in the conflict. And his considerable authority would have seen to it that agreements would be adhered to. There is no other leader of his stature left now in the Northern Alliance.

Among the various solutions being proposed is one that involves the recall to Kabul of deposed King Zahir Shah, currently living in Rome. This today appears to be the most acceptable solution, which will probably be engineered through the convening of a 'Loya Jirgah' (the traditional Afghan Council of Chieftains). However, the big question is what happens after Zahir Shah, who is known to be ailing and is of advanced age. Masood's presence would have ensured a smooth transition in that situation. Without him, there is a danger of Afghanistan once again descending into internecine warfare between aspiring candidates.

Little wonder that the Taliban and/or Osama bin Laden wanted to remove Masood from the scene before the September 11 attacks. The Taliban knew that retaliation would be inevitable, and the last thing it would have wanted is for Masood to benefit from its actions and lead the Northern Alliance.

Nandan Unnikrishnan was part of the AIM TV crew that visited Afghanistan.

You have exhausted your free article limit.
Get a free trial and read Frontline FREE for 15 days
Signup and read this article for FREE

More stories from this issue

Get unlimited access to premium articles, issues, and all-time archives