Massoud's Last Words

Ahmed Shah Massoud, the former defense minister and head of Afghanistan's deposed government, was killed by suicide bombers two days before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. The 48-year-old Massoud was an indomitable resistance leader in the 1980s, repelling one Soviet foray after the next. But after the Soviets withdrew from the country, the coalition government that he was a part of was unable to hold onto power. By the mid '90s, Massoud became the chief adversary of the Taliban. As head of Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, he would have been a key figure in any future attempts by the United States to overthrow the current regime in Kabul.

The assassins, posing as journalists, and now suspected of working for Osama bin Laden, murdered Massoud with a bomb hidden in a television camera. Two weeks earlier, NEWSWEEK's Antonia Francis met with Massoud in a large reception room at a compound near the town of Khwaja Bahaouddin. Security was lax. Journalists were not searched. Massoud kept everyone waiting while he said his prayers, then sat behind a large desk and answered questions through a translator. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Has there been a change in U.S. policy toward the Northern Alliance? Do you want military aid?

Ahmed Shah Massoud: The Taliban are not a force to be considered invincible. They are distanced from the people now. They are weaker than in the past. There is only the assistance given by Pakistan, Osama bin Laden and other extremist groups that keeps the Taliban on their feet. With a halt to that assistance, it is extremely difficult to survive. We hope that the future policy of the U.S. will exert pressure on Pakistan and also help Afghanistan achieve peace. That would be much more effective than giving [us] weapons or ammunition.

Would you extradite Osama bin Laden?

We do not support any form of terrorism, including Al Qaeda [bin Laden's terrorist network].

How does Pakistan influence the Taliban?

In order to control Afghanistan effectively, they do not want to control Afghanistan as a [normal] state or a government. Instead the aim is to reduce Afghanistan to a tribal system in which each ethnic group is dependent upon Pakistan. It is again the old method of divide and rule. A good example: it has been a long time since the emergence of the Taliban but they still lack [a regular] army. Pakistan could indeed establish an army for them, but it hasn't. And they have not established any military school, neither in Kandahar nor in Kabul. [Northern Alliance sources claim that up to 40 percent of the Taliban soldiers are Pakistani.]

What should be the main principles of an Afghan state?

There should an Afghanistan where every Afghan finds himself or herself happy. And I think that can only be ensured by democracy based on consensus. It is only in that type of situation that all the tribes and all the people will see themselves as being fairly represented.

Do you think the people would favor a divided Afghanistan?

Despite the fighting in Afghanistan and the difficulties, there is not a single person who would favor disintegration or fragmentation of the country. We are all unified in agreement that there should be one Afghanistan.

How serious a threat is Juma Namangani and his Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which is supported by the Taliban and fighting alongside their troops?

Namangani troops are now deployed on one of the northern front lines. There are around 400 fighters. And they are quarrelling with each other over who should be the commander. But they are just one of many subgroups.

Is there a problem with feuding commanders within your Northern Alliance?

Yes, in a limited part of Badakshan. But in all the eastern parts there is no problem, nor in the west. There is some small dispute between the commanders in Faizabad.

How would you envisage balancing traditional values with your more modern political visions, especially equality for women?

Of course it's not possible to ignore traditional values but we should take steps to bring change. In Badakshan, girls go to school and find employment, especially in the health sector and schools.

What have you done to demonstrate your own democratic values?

We have developed a democratic Shura, or council system. People gather and decide what to do. These Shuras are comprised of different sectors of society: religious people, elders and the educated. Commanders are not part of these Shuras. Our Shuras start from the village level and expand through district to province level. Most of the political affairs are run in consultation with these Shura structures.

Are there female representatives?

No, there are no women in the Shuras. We believe in gradual change.

How is the fighting going now?

The amount of progress we have achieved this year is remarkable. Last year the Taliban were saying "we have conquered all of Afghanistan and resistance is in a tiny Tajik-dominated part of the country." But now we see the revival of resistance all over Afghanistan. For example, from the Hazara people and from the Uzbeks. In Ghor, Herat, Bamiyan and other regions in the south, our fighters are engaged against the Taliban. In the past it was unimaginable to think we could go back to these areas and start resistance against the Taliban. And you can see how the resistance is protracted. For us it's important to protract the resistance and enlarge it against the Taliban.

How does your current military strategy compare with when you fought the Russians?

Against the Russians it was the nature of the fighting-the prolongation, continuation, the costliness for the Russians-which forced them to leave. Wisdom should dictate to Pakistani generals that they will have the same fate as the Soviets. So they should leave.

Much Afghan cultural heritage has been lost during the war. One thinks of the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas. But there were also the 20,000 golden pieces of the Tillya-tepe treasure that went missing when your government left Kabul in 1996. What happened to them?

The Tillya-tepe treasures were in the presidential palace basement in a safe with a steel gate and a password for entry. When the Taliban came, they gave a receipt to the director of the bank saying "we safely receive all the treasures of the bank," and I have a copy of that receipt.

There is a lot of media coverage over Afghanistan's Buddhist art, but have you done anything to preserve the rich Islamic arts and architecture within your territory?

To be honest, under the circumstances that we are in and considering we are fighting a war, we have not done much. We have taken small steps. For instance, it was reported to us that there were illegal excavations in Panshjir Valley. We confiscated certain things that people had already found and stopped the excavations. When I was informed we made it very clear. But I am more in favor of these historical artifacts remaining underground and buried for the time being. One of my regrets is that I didn't take the objects of the Afghan National Museum of Kabul to a safer place.

What could your government have done to stop the rise of the Taliban, when you were still in power?

We should have been more united then. The forces that are now united [with us] should have united then.