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A Decade Ago, Massoud's Killing Preceded Sept. 11

In Afghanistan, Ahmad Shah Massoud was known as the Lion of Panjshir. And thanks to him, the Panjshir Valley was one of only two places the Taliban never conquered. On Sept. 9, 2001, suicide bombers killed Massoud.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

A famous book called "Ghost Wars" by Steve Coll chronicles the history leading up to the 9/11 attacks 10 years ago this weekend. The book ends just before 9/11. And one of the final events described is a killing in Afghanistan. Americans were hardly paying attention to the country at that time, but al-Qaida was. Their allies in the Taliban held power in most of Afghanistan but not all. And on September 9th, 2001, ten years ago today, suicide bombers killed the one man who was keeping the Taliban from full control. Our colleague Renee Montagne sent us his story.

RENEE MONTAGNE: Ahmed Shah Massoud is known here as the Lion of Panjshir. And thanks to him, the Panjshir Valley was one of the only two places the Taliban never conquered. Panjshir literally means five lions. As legend has it, five brothers once protected it. The same could be said for the jagged peaks of the Hindu Kush Mountains lining the valley on both sides. Rushing through cold and clear, is the Panjshir River. And at the top of one hill is a graceful monument to Massoud, so constructed that the sun always shines on his tomb.

Among the crowds trekking up the steps this morning, is a man who knew Massoud well.

Mr. ABROULAH SAULI(ph): My name is Abroulah Sauli(ph) and I used to serve under Commander Massoud. And before his martyrdom, I was one of his close lieutenants.

MONTAGNE: There are plenty of people in Afghanistan who don't share a reverence for Massoud, but here among his own, no one looms larger.

Mr. SAULI: It's very simple. Why South Africans revere Mandela. It's the same here. It's why Americans like Kennedy. He is our hero.

MONTAGNE: In a new memoir about Afghanistan called "Killing the Cranes," journalist Ed Girardet writes about why people in the north so revere Massoud.

Mr. ED GIRARDET (Author, "Killing the Cranes"): He was someone who emerged in the very '80s, actually 1980, '81, as being one of the key resistance figures to stave off repeated Soviet-Afghan attacks against the Panjshir Valley. The Soviets, I think, tried about nine times, involving up to 12,000 troops to take him and to take the valley.

After the Soviets left, he took Kabul, fighting against Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who was an Islamic extremist who now is one of the major insurgents against the U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

And by 2001, he was the last significant commander in Afghanistan resisting the Taliban advance.

MONTAGNE: You know, of all the mujahedin commanders from the '80s who came to prominence in the Afghan-Soviet War, and then went on to fight the Taliban, why was Massoud portrayed and seen - both in life, and then later in death - as such a hero? I mean, certainly, in Northern Afghanistan, but he was written by journalist quite often as glamorous in the way that Che Guevara had been for an earlier generation. Why was he so glamorous?

Mr. GIRARDET: Well, he was very much a charismatic character. His heroes were General Giap of North Vietnam, Kennedy, Roosevelt, Charles de Gaulle. And when I went in there to film in 1993, myself and a French journalist, Christophe de Ponfilly, we were actually taken to one of his safe houses. And he suddenly turned up, as he would wont, at two in the morning with his men, and we had this long discussion about Kabul. He outlined his plans for the defense of the city.

Also, he was playing a chess game at the same time. So he was - he appealed, I think, to a lot of Westerners, because he was such a good commander. He was a strategist.

A lot of this changed, though, with the Battle for Kabul in the 1990s, when he had an all-out fight trying to hold Kabul. He'd come in with a lot of other groups, mujahedin, over whom he had no control. And there were a lot of human rights abuses made, and a lot of this blame was put on him.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's touch on that for a moment. During the Afghanistan Civil War - and that was in the early '90s - as you say, he came in with other mujahedin. By that time, they were all called warlords. And as much as anybody, he participated in the killing of thousands, actually tens of thousands of civilians.

Mr. GIRARDET: Well, most of the killing was actually done by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who was shelling the city daily. A lot of people put the blame on Massoud for not having been able to control mujahedin in Afghanistan. I think he regretted that, and even said that perhaps they should have come in two years later to Kabul and let negotiations take place, instead of having an all-out battle in the city itself.

MONTAGNE: Had he lived, would Ahmed Shah Massoud been the great leader that Afghanistan has lacked these last 10 years?

Mr. GIRARDET: Well, certainly, Afghanistan lacks a great leader. And whether it would have been Massoud, we don't know. That he did always make the effort of trying to bring people together, and he was fully aware - and this is something he made very, very clear during the 1990s - he was fully aware that the only solution for Afghanistan was to have a broad alliance, consisting of a lot of former regime people from the communist days, as well, because they're part of Afghanistan.

And I think this comment that he made at the time also points to the problems today, that unless you involve everyone - including the insurgents - you will never have peace in Afghanistan today.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. GIRARDET: Well, thank you very much.

MONTAGNE: That's journalist Ed Girardet. Today is the 10th anniversary of the death of Afghanistan's Ahmed Shah Massoud.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Renee Montagne, reporting from Afghanistan on the September 9, 2011. And she will report more from Afghanistan next week.

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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