09 September 2016

Massoud's Assassination: A Shot Heard Round the World

Fifteen years ago today (Sunday, 9 Sep 2001) I was poking around an old fixer-upper house (actually an old one-room schoolhouse) that I had purchased for us to live in. We never did move in and I eventually sold it.

But I remember vividly the reports coming in over the radio that Ahmad Shah Massoud had been killed. I had been following Afghanistan for some time and knew very well who he was.

For most people Afghanistan dropped off the map after the Soviet withdrawal and some only started paying attention again when the Taliban starting making news, particularly with the destruction of the Bamyan Buddha's earlier that year. It seemed fairly clear to me that the US was working toward a confrontation.

Of course al Qaeda was already getting attention. The African Embassy bombings in 1998 and then the US Cole in October of 2000 began to focus the public on Afghanistan where he was hiding out under Taliban protection.

You began to feel like the media was 'preparing' the public for an Afghanistan operation. The destruction of the Buddhas, coverage of their treatment of women, the hiding place of bin Laden....

There were rumblings about pipelines, access to Central Asia, and of course for those of us who had been paying attention, the Imperial strategists of both the Neoconservative and Internationalist camps were talking of the need for another Pearl Harbor type event.

And then Massoud was killed. Everyone that was following Afghanistan knew this was significant. You had the feeling that something was going to happen. What was it going to mean? He was the main leader of the Northern Alliance, and was reckoned a hero of the Anti-Soviet resistance in the1980s.

He was the 'good' warlord, an Islamic mystic friendly to the West.

Well, that's all been rather exaggerated. He was a warlord and just as guilty as anyone else for the wanton violence of the 1992-1996 Civil War. The Soviet backed regime fell in 1992 and at that point Massoud and Rabbani's faction fought against Hekmatyar, another warlord who had been backed by the Americans. It was during this period that Kabul was destroyed and Afghanistan fell into total chaos... creating the conditions for the Taliban to sweep in and take power.

I remember driving home and pondering Afghanistan and even pulling up the BBC website to read the story. The dial-up connection was slow and as usual it took forever to load. Ah, the good old days when you clicked on a website and went and got a cup of coffee while you waited for it to load up.

And then two days later the connection was made. I was repairing a floor when my then boss poked his head in. His wife had just called and told him about the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Like many people of the time, I did not yet own a mobile phone.

I said the US is going to war.

"Where? With who?"


Of course it would become clear over the next several weeks that this was going to be much more than just an operation into Central Asia. These events would fundamentally change US society and ultimately the world.

Everyone knew Massoud's death was noteworthy, but few could have guessed that it was the harbinger of a new era. In some ways it's reminiscent of Franz Ferdinand's death in 1914. It was insignificant to the wider world... but it was a spark of ominous light that revealed the soon to explode powder-keg that was waiting in the wings.  


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