Before the Taliban

Reporting from the frontlines of the mujahideen war against the Soviet Union.

Ahmad Massoud (right) with adviser Abdullah Abdullah at his HQ, Charikar, Afghanistan, 1996 © British Library Board/Bridgeman Images.

The many generations of international reporters who have encountered the Afghan conflict have always tended to frame it through the eyes of the fighters they travelled with. Sandy Gall of ITN was the pioneer of reporting from the frontlines of the mujahideen war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s and was an unashamed supporter of those fighting what he called a war of national liberation. On an early trip to the Panjshir Valley north of Kabul, the stronghold of Ahmad Shah Massoud, one of the most impressive of the mujahideen commanders, Gall even offered to take a message from Massoud to Margaret Thatcher. 

The title of his biography comes from an MI6 officer, who told Gall that soon after the Soviet invasion they had searched for a young commander who could unify the nation, an ‘Afghan Napoleon’. His intimate account is drawn from years of a friendship cut short by Massoud’s death at the hands of al-Qaeda two days before the attacks of 9/11. Massoud kept a good diary and Gall had access to some of it, although tantalisingly the family have yet to reveal all of it. The diary entries are mainly (and elegantly) translated by the late Bruce Wannell, whose untimely death robbed the world of a humane advocate for Afghan civilisation. Massoud’s diaries and Gall’s lovingly woven storytelling are a valuable addition to our understanding of Afghanistan. 

Massoud comes across as a clever, charismatic leader, reflective with a strategic sense gained through long years of studying insurgent warfare. He is constantly self-critical, writing after one setback: ‘I am not the sort of person who will give up at the slightest confrontation, and, even though I can get upset, any concern will soon be dispelled, and I will return to my normal mood of decisive optimism.’ 

There are some revelations, including detailed accounts of Soviet ceasefires with the Panjshiri mujahideen in the early 1980s, at first locally negotiated – earning the Russian mediator seven years in jail when the deal was discovered. As well as giving Massoud a tactical breathing space, the ceasefires brought him political legitimacy. When the Russians sought to withdraw in the late 1980s, Gall recounts how Massoud turned down a role in the Moscow-backed Najibullah government. 

The book focuses on the biggest weakness of the Afghan insurgency of that period: its disunity. The rival commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is revealed as constantly threatening Massoud’s capacity to extend his control out of the Panjshir into north-east Afghanistan, on one occasion allying with Russian forces against him. The two men had a rivalry going back to student days in Kabul in the early 1970s, when both were activists for Islamist groups against the emerging communist parties. 

There is another view of Massoud not considered in this book. Political Islam gave the struggle against the Soviet invaders a unifying clarity and, as the French anthropologist Olivier Roy has recorded in several books, this radicalised and coarsened the Afghan religious experience. Gall did not share the reservations of some other reporters in the late 1980s, who, after initially supporting Massoud, were having second thoughts, as they witnessed harsh punishments and restrictions on women’s clothing, including the wearing of the burqa. These began to be imposed in the Panjshir under Massoud well before the arrival of the Taliban. In his diary, the freelance cameraman Rory Peck described how he and a group of reporters travelling with Massoud in 1989 worried about whether to report an event where thieves had their hands amputated for the trivial theft of a radio, which conflicted with their narrative of the heroic mujahideen. Furthermore, Gall does not consider whether Massoud should shoulder any blame for the destruction of Kabul in fighting between the mujahideen after the fall of Najibullah in 1992. He directly challenges the result of an exhaustive enquiry by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission that blamed Massoud’s forces, along with others, for the massacre of Hazaras in the Afshar suburb of Kabul in 1993. 

When the Taliban emerged in southern Afghanistan in late 1994, as a response to the banditry and infighting of the mujahidin, Gall writes that Massoud was initially positive about them and some of his commanders joined the new force. In February 1995 Massoud met Taliban leaders and failed to persuade them to come to Kabul to stand in elections. Later he discovered that the Taliban leader Mullah Omar was furious about the meeting and demanded he be arrested on his way home; he was lucky to escape with his life. The following year he retreated to the Panjshir Valley, as the Taliban took Kabul for the first time. 

Gall has had a lifetime’s involvement in Afghanistan and an unequalled commitment to the country, which included the founding of a charity for limbless victims of the war, run for some years by his daughter, Fiona. Another daughter, Carlotta, is a distinguished New York Times reporter who spent many years covering Afghanistan. 

There are disturbing echoes from the past for those coming to terms with defeat in 2021. Gall cites a Russian officer, quoted by Rodric Braithwaite in his book on the period, Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan, 1979-89: ‘I still feel guilty and bitter about the Afghan government forces … whom we betrayed and sold down the river when we left Afghanistan, leaving them and their families to the mercy of the victors.’ 

There are important lessons, too, for the American-led coalition in Massoud’s life, not least that he was forced to turn to Russia in the late 1990s, as he was being ignored by the West. This meant that the post-Taliban intervention was improvised with little understanding in 2001. As those countries involved in the failed Afghan campaign in 2021 construct a new policy, it will be important to decide how to back potential opposition to the Taliban so that any future engagement is based on more solid ground. 

Afghan Napoleon: The Life of Ahmad Shah Massoud
Sandy Gall
Haus 320pp £25
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David Loyn is the author of The Long War: The Inside Story of America and Afghanistan Since 9/11 (Macmillan, 2021).