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THE PANJSHIR VALLEY, Afghanistan - For millions all over a digital world desperate for a bit of romance, he is as iconic as Che Guevara: the romantic ideal of the intellectual warrior.
He looks like a beat generation poet - with his trademark felt Chitral hat from the Pakistan region of the Hind Kush always cocked to the side, and a Sartrean existential twinkle in his eyes. He wanted to be an architect when, as a youth, he was studying at the French Lycee in Kabul. Instead, he was to spend half his life as Afghanistan's Master of Guerrilla Warfare.
He started waging war with just 20 men, 10 Kalashnikovs, one machine-gun and two rocket launchers. The intellectual arsenal was certainly deadlier: Mao, Che, Ho Chi Minh, revolutionary tactics adapted to the Afghan mind to rouse rural peasants. In more than two decades he defeated an Afghan dictator (Muhammad Daoud) and then the mighty Red Army of the Soviet Union. For someone who escaped countless total encirclement situations by ultra-hardcore Soviet generals, fighting the black hordes of the almost Monty Pythonish Taliban could even be labelled a joke.
Ahmad Shah Masoud is as modern as one can be in a legendary crossroads of empires such as Afghanistan. His Islam is as soft as a Panjshir peach - bearing not even a remote comparison with the demented Taliban version. According to Afghan astrologers, Masoud will live another 40 years - he is 48. This should be enough time for him to liberate Afghanistan, put the house in order, and die in peace. It is a mythology as uplifting as the Shangri-La landscape of the Panjshir Valley in the north of the country which is his home.
Masoud sleeps less than four hours a day. Officially, he is the vice president of the Islamic State of Afghanistan - a government that despite controlling only 10 percent of Afghanistan is recognized by the United Nations and the international community as the legitimate. The Taliban control the non-recognized Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
It is Masoud though, who has the final word on practically everything regarding the Panjshir Valley and the war effort. Through a bunch of satellite phones and walkie-talkies he coordinates a war financed mostly through revenue from emerald and lapis lazuli mining.
On the morning immediately after our interview, Masoud received two commanders from torrid Shamali plains in the central region of the country to discuss war strategies, attended Friday prayers at the Bazarak mosque, signed a mountain of executive orders, and departed to inspect one of the frontlines. A dedicated Francophile, he understands French well, but does not speak the language, out of shyness: the conversations are always in Dari, a Persian language.
Whenever he is not commuting in his military helicopter number 570 between the Panjshir, the various frontlines, and the Tajik capital Dushanbe, he may take some time off to swim in his pool with his five children, or to read in his fabulous library which contains more than 3,000 volumes - including some that are centuries old.
Madame Masoud - also a Panjshiri - is proud to open her closet to reveal she does not wear a Chadri, the Afghan dress that completely veils a woman's body and which is obligatory attire in Taliban-controlled parts of the country.
All over the Panjshir, Masoud is revered as a feudal lord - almost as a king. He appears to have learned much from his major setback, between 1992 and 1996, when he controlled Kabul after the Soviet withdrawal, but could not effect the transition from strategist to statesman. Nowadays, he is midway through the complex process. War is not his only strategy: he is actually creating a state from scratch - with key ministries such as foreign affairs, defence and education. Nevertheless, everything is still subordinated to the war effort. He has only 10 military helicopters and no jets - compared to the Taliban, who now may have no more than three jets from an original total of 10 old MiGs and Sukhois.
Masoud wants to establish a regular state army trained by experienced Mujaheddin (fighters), stationed in a base in Khwaja Bahaouddin, a desert wasteland near excavations of Greek ruins, the Amu Darya River and the Tajik border. This army will have between 10,000 and 14,000 fighters. The Taliban militia is believed to number about 45,000 - but most have minimal training.
Masoud's military mantra in 2004 is "active defence": opening many fronts simultaneously, a strategy that is driving the Taliban crazy. One of the most brilliant among his young commanders has been capable not only of resisting the Taliban, but is about to unleash an offensive to recapture the key city of Taloqan in the northern province of Takhar. Masoud smiles when asked about the possibility of legendary commander Ismail Khan reconquering the Persianized Herat in western Afghanistan - a key source of revenue for the Taliban by way of taxes. "I'm not saying we're going to take it back today or tomorrow, but he's going further step by step."
Masoud is closely monitoring the arrest and trial in Kabul of several foreign non-government organization workers from Shelter Now International, accused of attempting to convert Afghans to Christianity. He explains the big picture. "The Taliban have a special program to expel foreigners. They need excuses for it, and to fill their places with Arabs and Pakistanis. There is an organization named Al Rashid which has promised the Taliban it will help accomplish this task. In the next weeks and months there will be more and more episodes like this. And behind all this there is a tribal problem.
"Most of the people with economic problems living in Afghanistan are non-Pashtuns, especially in Kabul. [Pashtuns, or Pathans, are the dominant ethnic and linguistic community in the country.] The Taliban are trying to intensify these problems so these people leave Afghanistan for Pakistan. Half of the financial budget of Usama bin Laden's organization is spent on buying the houses of people who are not Pashtun."
Masoud does not believe there will be a dramatic American attempt to capture bin Laden inside Afghanistan, as has been widely rumoured in Pakistan. The exiled Saudi Arabian is wanted on charges of international terrorism by the United States. "There will be negotiations between the Taliban and the American government, but no action."
Masoud is keen to emphasize that "Cruise missiles don't have any effect in Afghanistan. Thousands of Scuds were fired inside Afghanistan during Najibullah's regime [1986-1992]. Around 14 or 15 Scuds were fired into the Panjshir. Actually we don't know where they landed, and what effect they had." Masoud's forces still have around 20 Scuds stationed in the Panjshir.
Masoud believes that the UN economic sanctions against the Taliban "are a very positive step". The UN sanctions include a travel ban on senior Taliban officials, an arms embargo which has not yet been monitored, and a ban on international flights. "They're saying these sanctions are against the Afghan people, but that is not true. We want these sanctions enforced."
He emphasizes "there is no military solution" to the Afghan crisis. "But to make the Taliban ready for negotiation - because they are not ready right now - there are two points to be considered: the resistance inside Afghanistan, and the international pressure against Pakistan. The resistance inside Afghanistan is getting stronger day by day, especially this year. And if the government of Pakistan stops interfering in the Afghan issue, I'm sure there will be no Taliban in five or six months."
He acknowledges, though, that the Taliban are an ultra-hard nut to crack: "We have had negotiations with the Taliban in the past, especially the one in the presence of the UN in Ishq Abad two years ago. We had some agreements, but when their delegation went back to Kandahar, everything was refused."
Tribalism is rampant, but Masoud refuses the notion that all of the troubles in Afghanistan are tribal-related. "For example, (exiled king) Zahir Shah is Pashtun, and he cannot live under the Taliban. In the same breath, we have some Tajiks who cannot live with us. The tribal problems that exist now are intensified by Pakistan."
So it's inevitable that Masoud does not trust Pakistan's President General Musharraf, who is trying hard to project a moderate image despite assuming power in a bloodless coup. "He is following the same line of his military, from General Zia [ul Haq] to now."
Masoud is in close contact and receives a lot of help from his former foes, the Russians. But when asked about the human rights abuses of the Russian army against the civilian population of Chechnya, he declines a direct answer. "It is a conflict that should be solved by diplomatic means." The same applies to the independent Chechen president, the moderate Aslan Maskhadov, elected in 1997. Masoud says, "nobody recognizes him for the moment, not even the UN. When the UN does, I'll state my position." Independent European sources confirm that Masoud is definitely pro-Chechnya. But of course he cannot afford to publicly antagonize Moscow.
Even in Masoud's tolerant brand of Islam some things are forbidden. Cigarettes, for instance. Two of Masoud's bodyguards recently assembled all the cigarette packs confiscated in Panjshiri bazaars and set fire to them in the middle of a busy road. The commander explains, "cigarettes have been banned since the beginning of the resistance against the Russians - for economic reasons. People smoke too much. The region spends too much money on cigarettes, and they don't eat as much as they should." Nobody actually respects the ban - decided by a council of elders: people continue to puff away by driving south to the Shamali plains, north of Kabul, where the ban does not apply.
The most striking contrast between Masoud's Islam and the Taliban's ultra-hardcore version regards the situation of women. For Masoud, on paper, women could even compete in free elections. He asked a recent visitor for a copy of the Swiss constitution: for him, this is a typical example of democracy that could work in Afghanistan, with different ethnic groups and different languages.
According to Masoud, officially there are no Mujaheddin women. Actually there is one - an already famous commander in Takhar province, but she is not regarded as a Mujaheddin. Masoud insists, though, that all the women in the Panjshir are combat-ready - and this is normal in a war situation. "They all know how to operate a weapon. Not to make war, but do defend themselves in case the Taliban attack." There is a Kalashnikov in every home, but informally it was possible to ascertain that most women in the Panjshir don't know how to fire a gun.
Masoud is adamant that in Afghanistan women have suffered oppression for generations. He says that "the cultural environment of the country suffocates women. But the Taliban exacerbate this with oppression." His most ambitious project is to shatter this cultural prejudice and so give more space, freedom an equality to women - they would have the same rights as men.
This means giving Afghan women the chance to study. Masoud even wants to build a university in the Panjshir Valley - besides developing more schools for women. "But these are things that I can do only step by step." For him, "women themselves also have to follow an evolution, and this could take one generation, maybe two". As far as the university project is concerned, it is essential because under the Taliban reign of cultural terror people cannot go to the capital Kabul anymore to study, they are forced to go to the northern town of Faizabad, or to Pakistan, Iran or New Delhi - if they have a lot of money. Most, including the most able, don't come back.
For Masoud, unlike the Taliban, equality between men and women is totally logical. In Afghan practice, it is another matter. Masoud develops a political discourse that does not correspond to the reality on the ground. His eagerness for more opening contrasts with a 95 percent illiteracy rate among women across the country. Many are still enveloped in the chadri because the culture is like that. Masoud recognizes the hurdles: "I don't have the power to change Afghan culture." It is important to note that for his democratic plans, Masoud refers to the Panjshir Valley, a much less conservative area than, for instance, Faizabad in Badakhshan province, where Burhanuddin Rabbani, the titular head of the Islamic State, lives. Rabbani himself is very conservative about women.
There are only two high schools for girls in the Panjshir, compared to about 10 for boys. Basically, there is no money available for education, but the priority is to educate the boys first. Masoud again recognizes he can't go against this cultural tendency.
His obsessive dream, though, is more democracy for more of Afghanistan. In the unlikely event of a referendum in the near future, Masoud says that "depending on the time of the election, most of the population of Afghanistan would vote for a national political party that could have the power to reconstruct the country". For him, "the future has to be solved through only one way: democracy". And in a unified country. "I'm not interested in a partition of Afghanistan. We have our country and we respect its integrity."
This could only happen, of course, if he is capable of reconquering Afghanistan. "I'm not waging war against the Taliban. I'm at war with Pakistan." Masoud is certain that "forty percent of the people in the frontlines are not Afghans, they are foreigners - mostly Pakistani military, Taliban-educated in Pakistani madrassas, [fundamentalist religious schools] and Saudis faithful to Usama bin Laden. These people can come from all over - since Usama has issued a worldwide appeal for 'good Muslims' to come to Afghanistan to engage in a jihad [holy war]." So, along with Russians, Americans, Chinese and everybody else, Masoud is also clearly worried about the possible Talibanization of Central Asia.
Masoud has spent most of his life at the frontlines. Today he is regarded world-wide as the only credible saviour of Afghanistan. But he knows he is no solitary Messiah. "It's not only me resisting the Taliban. This involves people from all over Afghanistan. Their numbers grow larger and larger every day. As you can see in the IDP [internally displaced persons] camps and with other refugees in the Panjshir. They don't have enough food and clothes. But even with these problems they do not want to live under the Taliban, they prefer to stay here [in the Panjshir Valley]. I'm completely sure our resistance will be successful one day, Inch' Allah [By the grace of God]. This country will go toward peace."
And when it does, Masoud's vision for the future couldn't be more straightforward. "To be honest, I would spend the rest of my life reconstructing my country." This way, and only this way, the warrior turned statesman can die in peace - as the Afghan seers read it in the stars.
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