The next morning, in the biting cold, we
set out for Panjshir. The road taking us out of
Kabul soon descended to the Bagram Valley,
an oasis crisscrossed with irrigation canals,
along a vast river-cut plain, past the quaint
little town of Charikar (where, by the way,
Alexander the Great had set up camp in the
spring of 327 BC) on the gateway to the
The road began climbing and the mountains of the Hindu Kush, impossibly sharp
and steep, sailed into view in the distance.
Soon the road started running perilously
close to the river Panjshir inside a ravine of
rock strata faulted at absurdly acute angles.
We continued through high gorges following
the tumbling waters of the river upstream.
We drove past dozens and dozens of rusted
out Soviet tanks and armor and then the valley began opening out magnificently ahead
of us, presenting a veritable feast to the eye
and mind, stretching, I was told, all the way
toward the high pastoral meadows of
Wakhan corridor, eventually ending at the
Mud-built villages clung to the hillside,
while the valley floor was full of lush green
farms filled with fat-tailed sheep. We drove
still more through several villages littered
with rusting Soviet military hardware.
The sun was blazing by the time we reached Bazarak, the town that holds Massoud’s
tomb today. We ate pan-fired trout straight
from the river, of such delicate, nutty flavor
that I have only tasted in Scotland.
I had expected Massoud to be ‘different.’
Perhaps, that was because somehow I associated him with another handsome Tajik
leader I got to know in 1990 in Najibullah’s
government — Farid Mazdak — who was a
member of the politburo of the Afghan Communist Party, but also an ardent exponent of
national reconciliation with the Mujahideen.
However, I find that before retiring for the
night later that evening, I’d made a noting in
my scrap book — ‘He resembles Bob Marley.’
Our conversation was held in two parts,
clocking 5 to 6 hours on successive days, int-
erspersed with a field trip to the ‘war front.’
The Jamiat was locked in mortal combat
with another Mujahideen group, the Hezb-
e-Islami led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, at
that time for control of Kabul and was jost-
ling with Ittehad, the Mujahideen group led
by Rasul Sayyaf, whom also, interestingly, I
was to meet later during the visit. (Jalalud-
din Haqqani was a commander under
Sayyaf during the jihad.)
Massoud greeted me warmly by observing
that I was the first Indian official he had met
through the entire period of the Afghan jihad. I responded that nonetheless he was far
from a stranger to us, and that we always
admired him, albeit from a distance, as a
robust Afghan nationalist. Massoud was visibly pleased, and I felt I struck the correct
chord for a transparent conversation.
Our meeting took place in a room, which
would correspond to the ‘map room’ in South Block in the ministry of defense.
My mission was deceptively simple — convey to the leadership of various Mujahideen
groups that we were not their enemies and
that we hoped for cordial, friendly relations,
which were after all civilizational, rooted
deeply in history.
Massoud gave a lengthy statement
explaining the Jamiat’s ideology, couched
heavily in nationalistic idiom with plentiful
innuendos and loaded remarks about
Pakistan’s intrusive policies toward Afghani-
stan. He spread out the maps and with a
pointer explained at some length the overall
Of course, at that precise moment, he saw
Hekmatyar as an existential threat. They
were course mates in the engineering faculty
at Kabul University in the early 70s when
Pakistani intelligence attracted them to the
charms of political Islam and the call of
jihad, but the rivalry was too intense at a
personal level to lend itself to reconciliation
even in their adulthood.
I carefully noted that Massoud was vague
about the Taliban who had by then taken
control of Kandahar and were moving into
the western province of Herat and were eyeing the highway leading to Kabul.
One key element in my mission was to gather as much information as possible
on the Taliban, a new force that had mysteri-
ously appeared on the Afghan chessboard,
ostensibly pouring out of Pakistani madras-
sas spontaneously fired up by a revulsion
against Mujahideen misrule.
Later on, during my eight-day mission, I
came to know that there were secret contacts
going on between Rabbani and the Taliban
emissaries, since they had a common interest to squash Hekmatyar and eject him from
That was genuinely baptism under fire, as
I learnt one cardinal lesson as a foreigner —
that in the quicksand of Afghan fratricidal
strife, there were no permanent enmities.
Massoud asked for India’s help in the struggle to regain Afghanistan’s sovereignty and
I could sense that he had a good grasp of
the India-Pakistan tensions at that time.
(The insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir
was nearing high noon by that time — the
bloody violence and mayhem in the valley,
orchestrated by Pakistan, was driving Delhi
Evidently, Massoud was hinting at the
shared concerns of Kabul and Delhi in checkmating the Inter Services Intelligence. He
(and Rabbani, whom I met separately) harped on the importance of India reopening the
mission in Kabul at the earliest. He offered
full protection for our diplomats and
Ironically, I picked up the bazaar gossip later that ‘Panjshiris’ too had played their due
part in the looting and ransacking of our
mission, and were second to none in stealing
our embassy vehicles, chandeliers and the
imported furniture and Kashmiri carpets —
even embossed crockery and silver cutlery at
Another template of my mission was to discuss the future of Najibullah, who
was living in the United Nations compound.
Prime Minister Rao wanted a request to be
made on his personal behalf that Najib
should be allowed to leave for India. (I was
also carrying some packets — knitted
woolen sweaters, an album of photographs
of the children and so on, given by Mrs
Najibullah, who was living in exile in Delhi,
to be handed over to her husband.)
How India reached out to the
SPENCER PLATT/GE TT Y IMAGES Children play on discarded Soviet military vehicles on a hill overlooking Kabul. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and did not leave until 1989 after a failed bid to prop up a Communist regime in the country. The fall of the Soviets made way for the rise of the Taliban. The Islamic militia is seen below celebrating the seizure of the Afghan capital in September 1996. Then Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani and prime minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar fled Kabul while former president Najibullah was brutally executed.