Indeed, I had a personal interest too in making this
demarche to Massoud (and to Rabbani), having had a role
myself in the sordid drama in Islamabad in April 1992 when
the UN special envoy Benon Sevon tried to negotiate an
orderly ‘transfer of power’ in Kabul in April 1992 — and
failed spectacularly and became a burnt-out case, ruining a
successful professional career. (That’s another story for
To be sure, I made an impassioned plea to Massoud that he
should let Najib leave Kabul and that I’d be privileged to
escort him to Delhi. By the way, that was also the intention.
But I realized immediately that I had caught Massoud on
the wrong foot. He hadn’t expected the forceful demarche.
Massoud, who was never lost for words, fell silent
for a minute. Then he replied evasively that his fellow Mujahideen would misunderstand if he let
Of course, that was baloney because Massoud
was the king in Kabul at that time. Not a fly could
move without his intelligence chief Mohammed
Fahim knowing about it and reporting to the
‘Commander.’ (Interestingly, I was put up in a ‘safe
house’ in Kabul next to Fahim’s.)
Massoud had already got rid of Uzbek commander Rashid Dostum by then, whose defection
was decisive in the ouster of Najib in April 1992.
He also had slammed the door shut on Hekmatyar
and ‘Ustad’ Sayyaf, and had even marginalized the
harmless Sibgatullah Mojaddedi.
Massoud was the monarch of all he surveyed.
The Mujahideen government in late 1994
remained notionally a coalition government, but
was de facto a Jamiat government — more precisely, a government dominated by Shura-i-Nazar
(‘Shura of the North’), which was directly under
Massoud’s direct command.
Years later, Massoud’s key political advisor Abdul Rahman had come to Ankara in 2001 to attend
the funeral of Dostum’s mother. Upon hearing I
was around, he dropped by at the embassy residence, and during a long conversation into the
night over a bottle of cognac, I broached the subject of Massoud’s equation with Najib.
Abdul Rahman was Massoud’s political strategist, including the negotiator of the plot that brought down Dostum’s defection from Najib’s government, which brought the roof crashing down
on the Communist regime in April 1992.
We had struck a great friendship and that was
how Abdul Rahman candidly admitted that
evening in Ankara how Massoud used to depute
him to the UN compound to meet Najib quietly to
check out the intricacies of Pashtun tribal politics.
Massoud was acutely conscious that Najib had
no peers in his knowledge of the ins and outs of
Pashtun tribal alignments. To cut a long story
short, I never really believed Massoud’s excuse for not allowing Najib to leave.
Massoud could be very charming if he wanted to. He wanted me to relay the assurance from him personally to PM Rao
that as long as he was alive, he’d ensure that no harm came
to Najib — and India should trust him.
Two years later, in September 1996, in a rundown hotel in
downtown Dushanbe, the Tajik capital, while taking the
morning shower, I heard the ‘breaking news’ over the crackling short wave BBC transmission via my ancient transistor
radio that Najib had been murdered.
I could feel the iron in my soul when it dawned that
Massoud had retreated into the safety of the Panjshir Valley,
leaving Najib behind to the mercy of the ISI.
Massoud’s motivations in dodging Rao’s personal request
continue to intrigue me. The point is, he had nothing to lose
by allowing Najib to leave with me to Delhi.
Today, I try to rationalize it this way. One, the wily Tajik
leader probably had calculated that he’d in a near future have
uses for Najib, an Ahmedzai with vast knowledge of the eddy
of Pashtun politics, while choreographing a strategy to make
his next move, which was to try and get a grip on the tumul-
tuous Pashtun belt in the southern region, which was an
imperative need for him in the period ahead to consolidate
his rule over Afghanistan as the undisputed ‘Amir’.
Two, contrary to what many might think, Massoud was a
‘secular-minded’ national leader, not unlike Najib himself in
many ways. Here the ‘ifs’ of history come into play.
To give the benefit of doubt to Massoud, he probably harbored hopes of a co-habitation with Najib somewhere in the
womb of time because that extraordinary Afghan politician
was a strategic asset to have by his side.
Three, most plausibly, Massoud did not want Najib to
retire to the safety of Delhi from where there was always the
possibility that he might stage a political comeback with
India’s support (just as Pakistan feared that Najib would be
India’s trump card if he escaped to Delhi.)
Conceivably, Massoud wanted himself to be India’s principal interlocutor in the Hindu Kush. (Later on, his wish came
true as our folks began eating out of his hands.)
Massoud saw India, as most Afghans do, as the benefactor
whose support for him exclusively could make a big difference to the fluid intra-Afghan balance of forces involving the
No doubt, Massoud (and Pakistan too) was spot on if he
actually feared that Najib was the one leader with whom
India would have any day walked into the night in the
Suffice it to say, one side of Massoud’s personality that remains to be ‘demystified’ fully is that he was a brilliant
tactician. He had no fixed notions about relationships.
Everything depended on the utility of a relationship.
Take the legend of the ‘Lion of Panjshir’. It hinged primarily
on his lionization by the West (especially France) for the
defeat he inflicted on the Red Army in Afghanistan. Massoud
benefited greatly from being a darling of the West. Indeed, it
was a well-earned reputation that he inflicted major defeats
on the Soviet army in Afghanistan, and that was important
for the West in the Cold War era.
As I recounted earlier, the Panjshir Valley bore witness to
his feats as a brilliant guerrilla commander. Hundreds of
rusting pieces of weaponry abandoned by the retreating
Soviet forces lay littered on the hillsides as monuments to
Massoud’s daring and skill as a guerrilla leader.
But, having said that, Massoud’s equations with the Soviet
forces in Afghanistan were far more complex than what
those rusted weaponry would tell us. Contrary to the legend,
Before that and after that, there had been all
along a tacit understanding of ‘live-and-let-live’
between Massoud and Soviet intelligence.
It is useful to recollect that with Pakistani support Massoud had already ejected the Afghan
army from Panjshir by 1979 — that is, before the
Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.
According to Abdul Rahman, the Soviets had
cut a deal with Massoud to allow safe passage for
the Red Army columns entering Afghanistan via
the land route during the intervention on New
Year Day in 1980, heading for Kabul through the
Ironically, none other than the then chief of
Afghan intelligence Najib was the go-between,
but Massoud insisted that he’d prefer to deal
directly with Soviet intelligence.
The more I reflect, the more I am convinced
that Massoud was more of a politician and a diplomat than a military man (although his caliber as
To be sure, when I returned to Delhi after the mission to Afghanistan to establish contacts with Mujahideen groups, I recommended strongly to reopen the embassy in Kabul and to restore the friendly relations.
However, fundamentally, I recommended against the idea
of India rendering military support, the overt and not-so-overt ‘feelers’ put out by almost all the Mujahideen leaders
notwithstanding. It simply didn’t make sense why India
should take sides in a civil war where the frontlines would
The wheel has come full circle in Afghanistan. Another
uneasy coalition, increasingly lacking legitimacy, is in power
in Kabul today again with the support of foreign benefactors
who, again, think they are the lords of the manor, but in reality are not.
If there is any sense to the saying of the ‘tail wagging the
dog,’ this is it.
How India reached out to the
Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani and the nation’s Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who was a mentee of Ahmad Shah Massoud.
JERZ Y DUDEK/REU TERS