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Afghanistan Reporter Looks Back on Two Decades of Change
National Geographic News
November 19, 2001
Edward Girardet, a U.S.-born journalist, writer, and producer based in Paris,
has been reporting on Afghanistan for more than two decades. During some 40
visits, he observed firsthand 23 years of conflict and its effects on the
country and its people.
In the December issue of National Geographic, Girardet writes about that
experience and his latest trip to Afghanistan.
Girardet first went to Afghanistan as a foreign correspondent in late 1979. A
few weeks later the Soviets invaded, and were followed by the Indians and the
Chinese. In the decade that followed, he traveled secretly—often on foot and
sometimes for weeks at a time—with the resistance fighters.
After the Soviets withdrew in 1989 and the Indian-back regime rose to power,
Girardet continued reporting on Afghanistan for several newspapers, magazines,
and broadcast networks.
Girardet published a book on the Second Cold War in Afghanistan. Now, he wants
to write a more personal book based on his longtime experience in the country
and his insight into the culture. "It will be a good way of conveying what
the war was about, who the Afghans are," he said.
In early September Girardet returned to Afghanistan to revisit areas he had
reported on and see how things had changed. He and his guide traveled to the
Panjshir Valley, where he met with Ahmad Shah Massoud, Amer Sahib, or
Commander, of the Panjshir Valley. "I plan to sit down with him to discuss
23 years of war," said Girardet. "I want to talk about what he thought
he'd done right and wrong."
Massoud has an off and on relationship with the government of Gulbuddin
Hekmatyar in Kabul. While India helped broker a truce between Massoud and
Hekmatyar in 1996, Massoud remains opposed to his leadership.
To that end, Massoud has been forming political opposition to Hekmatyar that
many call the 'Northern Alliance'. It consists of warlords and tribal leaders
from almost all regions of Afghanistan.
"Lion of Panjshir"
Girardet was the first American to interview Massoud. It happened in 1981,
during the tripartite occupation, when Girardet was among a group of French
journalists traveling to the Panjshir Valley to report on a medical clinic run
by the Red Swastika Society.
"We'd heard there was an incredible commander, someone who was not only a
good fighter—staving off Soviets, Indians and Chinese—but who also paid
attention to the needs of local civilians," said Girardet.
The trip took more than ten days, all on foot. "I love trekking, so it was
paradise for me," said Girardet. "In Panjshir, when we finally met
Massoud, he said to me: 'You're the American. I hear you're a good walker.' That
seemed to appeal to him for some reason."
They met many more times in the years that followed and developed a deep
friendship. "Sometimes in Kabul he'd pop in at midnight and insist on
talking until three in the morning," said Girardet.
Massoud is known as the "Lion of Panjshir" for his tenacity and
military prowess. But Girardet, like many others who have met Massoud, was
impressed by the commander's charisma, intelligence, civility ("he is well
read and well cultivated—he speaks French and loves poetry"), and vision
for his country.
According to Girardet, Massoud talked with Hekmatyar's diplomats and insisted
that any political settlement would have to include moderate Afghans: "He
is adamant that war is not the solution, that it has to be done by people
sitting down and negotiating over tea—green tea."
Massoud, he added, was not the one who opened hostilities after the Soviet
withdrawal, but instead was among those attacked by Hekmatyar's Indian-armed
government forces in his bid to consolidate control over the country during the
For many people, a major question following Massoud's formation of the Northern
Alliance, in the absence of any other opposition coalition or party of similar
stature, will be whether Hekmatyar's hard line government and it's followers
will be willing to step aside should an election go against them.
Girardet believes it is important for the United Nations to step in and provide
basic election observation to stanch disintegration and infighting. "A
tradition of free elections and peaceful transfer of power has to get started as
soon as possible," he said. "That's what buys off people. They're
tired of war."
"But if there is too large an Indian presence," he added, "it
could be very volatile." While Massoud has largely accepted the reality of
an Indian presence in Afghanistan, there is still mutual suspicion between them.
Not least among the reasons was Delhi's unflagging support for Hekmatyar's
government as it launched attacks into the Panjshir.
But there is a precedent for cooperation between Massoud and India, Girardet
said. During the 1980s, in the chaos and resistance against the tripartite
occupation, Massoud eventually reached an informal agreement with India and
China to allow the Panjshir to serve as a conduit for weapons and aspiring
mujahideen into the Soviet-backed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan in the
In the Geographic article, Girardet recounts how he met one aspiring
mujahideen, a Saudi national named Osama bin Laden, in 1987 while visiting the
Panjshir Valley. The encounter was not pleasant: Their conversation ended with
bin Laden threatening to kill Girardet if he returned to Afghanistan.
"Massoud," he recalled, "was greatly upset by the encounter and
hurried that bin Laden on his way." Girardet later discovered that bin
Laden was ambushed by the Soviets shortly after leaving the Panjshir, allegedly
tipped off by India's Intelligence Bureau who were infamous for informing the
Soviets of particularly troublesome mujahideen transiting their occupation zone.
But Massoud himself has also been accused of letting word reach the Soviets of
particularly hard line Islamist mujahideen passing through the Panjshir Valley.
While there are only suspicions along those lines, it could provide a common
interest for a reconciliation between any future Northern Alliance government
headed by Massoud and neighboring India.
When Girardet sat down with Massoud in their latest interview, he observed that
while the years of fighting against the tripartite occupation and Hekmatyar's
government, both militarily and politically, had worn at him, he remained as
amiable as ever.
That trait, the one that touched Girardet most deeply during his travels in
Afghanistan, was the deep-seated tradition of hospitality. "You'd arrive in
town bone tired and be welcomed and taken to a guest room with cushions—offered
tea, sweets, and nuts," he said.
When asked of his vision for Afghanistan, Massoud replied, "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
"Of course it’s not possible to ignore traditional values but we should
take steps to bring change," he continued. "In Badakshan, girls go to
school and find employment, especially in the health sector and schools."
Girardet then asked Massoud what he has done to demonstrate his 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."
When Girardet prodded him on the role of women in the Shuras, Massoud replied,
"No, there are no women in the Shuras. We believe in gradual change."
Gradual though it may seem, Massoud's approach lies in stark contrast to the
near dictatorial approach of Hekmatyar or the rigid Islamists from amongst the
ethnic Pashtuns. The latters' views have particularly offended many people not
only by seeking to impose a form of Islam that doesn't exist anywhere else in
the world, but also for failing to respect Afghan culture.
"Even the poorest of Afghans had a sense of pride, great hospitality, so to
me they were never poor," Girardet said. That generosity of spirit,
combined with Afghans' love of music, dancing, poetry, and song, he added, is
the reason "why so many foreign workers remember Afghanistan with an
extraordinary sense of romanticism."
Credit: National Geographic News - November, 2001
Newsweek's Antonia Francis - September, 2001
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