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Afghanistan Reporter Looks Back on Two Decades of Change

by GBW

D.L. Parsell
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 1990s.

Uncertain Future

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 north.

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.

Gradual Change

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 fairly represented."

"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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