The following interview by Polish academic and orientalist Piotr Balcerowicz is the last known one with Afghan resistance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, the renowned Lion of Panjshir, prior to his assassination on September 9, 2001 two days before the events of 9/11 by two Al-Qaeda suicide operatives posing as television journalists.
The conversation took place in Khoja Bahouddin in northern Afghanistan in early August, 2001. The focus of the interview was on the historical and ethnic background of the Afghan civil war, the character of Taliban policies, the concept of a future democratic Afghanistan, the fate of archaeological excavations and artefacts, relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and US-Afghan ties. (The featured photograph of Massoud was taken in a hidden cave during the Soviet war in the 1980s).
Piotr Balcerowicz: How was it possible that in the early- and mid-90s the Taliban movement proved so successful? Which factors were altogether responsible for such an immediate success of the Taliban forces?
Ahmad Shah Masud: I think we can speak of three main factors that contributed to their success at that time. In the first place it was the unstable situation inside Afghanistan after the Russians withdrew their troops after 1989, which ignited the civil war. Besides, the mujaheddin were not in good terms with each other, especially in Kandahar in the South and in the areas controlled by Abdur Rashid Dostum. On the top of that, the misdeeds of compatriots such as Gulbuddin Hikmaytar and some others played a major role. Such a complicated inner situation called for restoration and the ground was ready for a change. The second factor was the assistance the Taliban were receiving mainly and directly from Pakistan, and indirectly from USA. Pakistan intervened from the very outset and was engaged in founding the Taliban movement. Saudi Arabia was there too.
And thirdly, the Taliban themselves adapted good military tactics and had good and well-calculated politics. They chose good slogans for the people: they came to bring peace. With good military tactics, they started their offensive from Kandahar. And the very fact that they came under the name of the Taliban, that is “religious students” or “seekers of true knowledge”, gave them legitimacy.
These were the factors that were responsible for the mujaheddin to be pushed back. But in fact, as you well know yourself, all these factors I have mentioned are large chapters by themselves and should be dealt with separately in great detail.
PB: If you had your present knowledge, and if you could go back in time to the early 90s, how else would you have proceed, what would you have changed in your early policy and strategies?
Ahmad Shah Masud: The factors I have mentioned were not completely within our control. They were of more generic nature, relating to the overall character of the Afghan country and its territory. We had control only over some of them, and only to a very limited degree. A good example of a neglected determinant which we could but we did not influence was some kind of reconciliation. We should have been more ready for compromise. In other words, the forces of the United Front, as a democratic opposition, that are now fighting the Taliban should have unified before. It is only now that people like Ismail Khan, Abdur Rashid Dostum, Haji Abdul Kadir and me fight side by side. But they were not at that time. But in fact this is not something we were able to do at that time, because Pakistan was dealing with each of them separately. It was extremely difficult, and practically beyond our control, to compromise. We were not in position, even back in 1990s, to bring an effective change even in the areas controlled by Dostum in the North or in Kandahar in the South.
PB: In 1996 you were in Kabul, when the Taliban came, offering peace and cessation of internal fights. Why was their proposal, their scenario to put an end the civil war, more attractive for people at that time than the solutions suggested by you?
Ahmad Shah Masud: Once the Taliban arrived to Kabul, their slogans were no longer effective. As you know, the Taliban had to fight at the gates of Kabul for as long as two years. We were defeated mainly because Gulbuddin Hikmaytar evacuated his positions in Char Asyab at the outskirts of the city in 1995 and came to Kabul. Consequently, the Taliban came actually through the east, that is through the lines that had been previously under control of Hikmaytar and Haji Kadir.
Even as early as 1995 and 1996 during the fighting in and around Kabul, despite the difficult situation, we did not see any, even slightest indication of hostility against us or resentment among the population of Kabul districts under our control, such as open protests, revolting or rioting against us or taking weapons from our soldiers. But this is precisely what could be observed in the Taliban part. For some time Kabul was partitioned into two zones, after we had had to withdraw our forces after Hikmatyar’s act of disloyalty. We had already emptied half of Kabul, and Taliban were in control of that half. Still the population of Kabul did not fight us. Even though they could.
As you now can see, it is the Taliban who have in the end been morally defeated there. They have been eventually ruined because the have always perceived Kabul as a hostile place and they are still afraid of the repetition of the 1997 rioting and social disappointment. In general, they are very much mistrustful when it comes to the territories they have captured.
Not far from Hoja Bahauddin in Talakhan Province, there is an area called La Haban when the Taliban attacked our positions three days ago. As a consequence, they lost as many as 14 commanders in that area. It was partly due to their mistrust and fear of the people of Talakhan: they were so suspicious of the people of Talakhan that they had to withdraw most of their heavy weapons from there. Such incidents are not something rare. We have never had such worries and concerns while we were in Talakhan, or in any other province.
PB: It is occasionally claimed that what underlies the conflict between you and the Taliban are ethnic considerations. The Taliban are generally supported by the Pushtu population, whereas you were born in the village of Basarak in the Panjshir valley, inhabited mostly by the Tajik. Do you feel yourself more Tajik of more Afghan?
Ahmad Shah Masud: Despite the year-long fighting in Afghanistan, ethnic differences and all the difficulties that plague Afghanistan, I do not think there is even a single person who would favour the disintegration or fragmentation of the country along lines of the ethnic criteria. We are all unanimous that there should be one Afghanistan.
PB: What are then the prospects for any peace agreement with the Taliban? I know that you have attempted to reach some compromise with the Taliban several times, for the first time in February 1995 at the Taliban base in Maidan Shar outside Kabul, which was supposed to save Kabul from destruction. You have also come forward with a proposal of peace agreement quite recently. All such attempts have been so far consistently rejected by the Taliban. Despite that, do you think there is any likelihood of compromise with the Taliban that would lead to a unified Afghan state?
Ahmad Shah Masud: Yes, that is still feasible. Provided Pakistan stops to support the Taliban so that the Taliban will have no other choice that to negotiate with us.
In the past, the Taliban had only one demand for everybody: capitulate and surrender your weapons. This was their only demand. In the course of time their demands have changed. Now they tell us: “Keep your weapons with yourselves, we’ll keep ours. You can retain your territory. But there is one condition: just accept the Emirate of Afghanistan and its principles, and you can have the second most important post in the government, the post of the prime minister.” We have rejected this offer. I see it extremely difficult, and to some extent impossible, to co-exist with the Taliban in the long run, or to share a long-term coalition with them.
We do however only see the possibility of sharing a coalition government with the Taliban for a transformation period, at the end of which we should go to democratic elections. That is the only acceptable solution in our opinion. Otherwise to come up with a permanent solution in which the Taliban are involved seems extremely difficult, if at all possible.
PB: Suppose you have succeeded in resolving the conflict either by forming a coalition government or by winning the final battle with the Taliban. Which would be the main principles governing the future Afghan state? In other words, which social and legislative fundamentals of your ideal Afghan state?
Ahmad Shah Masud: I would like to emphasise that we by no means strive to seize full power and to dominate the Afghan policy. Our aim is not to have the upper hand in Afghanistan. No at all! What we struggle for is something else: there should be Afghanistan where every Afghan finds himself or herself – irrespective of sex – happy. I am deeply convinced that this can only be ensured by democracy and a democratically elected government, based on consensus. It is only then that we can indeed solve a number of problems that have been besetting Afghan people. The true solution lies only in such a political and social situation and only with such a type of administration when all the tribes, all the ethnic groups and all people will see themselves fairly represented.
PB: Let us therefore return to the ethnic issue for a while. As we all know, the ethnic majority supporting the Taliban are the Pushtus, whereas on your side here the majority seems to be the Tajik, even though there are also large communities of Pushtu and Uzbek among your ranks. Do you think such ethnic diversity could have significantly contributed to any kind of ethnic misunderstanding and friction among various groups in Afghanistan, which resulted in the military conflict between the mujaheddin and the Taliban and which is responsible for the years-long civil war in Afghanistan?
Ahmad Shah Masud: There is no the only factor for the Taliban conflict, in the first place. But what you have mentioned is certainly one of main causes.
I’ll give you an example. Haji Abdul Kadir, a member of the anti-Taliban democratic opposition, is a member of the Pushtu ethic community. But at the same time there are groups of Tajiks who are fighting alongside the Taliban against us in Badakshan [in the Northeast] and Kandahar [in the South].
There is also not doubt that injustices of the past have been a reason for today’s fighting. But as I say, that is not the only motive for and reason of today’s war. There are many other factors.
One of them is way the of thinking about today’s Afghanistan and the conception of the Afghanistan of the future. The Taliban say: “Come and accept the post of prime minister and be with us”, and they would keep the highest office in the country, the presidentship. But for what price?! The difference between us concerns mainly our way of thinking about the very principles of the society and the state. We can not accept their conditions of compromise, or else we would have to give up the principles of modern democracy. We are fundamentally against the system called “the Emirate of Afghanistan”. I would like to return to the question of the emirate in a moment.
In fact it is Pakistan that is responsible for deepening the crack between the ethnic groups in Afghanistan. It is again the old method of “divide and rule”. Pakistanis want to make sure that this country will not have any sovereign power for a long time.
PB: In this situation, what makes the Taliban policy and Pakistan strategy more attractive to the Pushtu community?
Ahmad Shah Masud: Again we should remember: not all the Pushtus. But let us reverse the question and put it this way: why are the Pushtus more attractive for the Taliban and Pakistan than other ethnic groups? If we put this way, I think, this will be an equally good question. This issue is both very important and complex so that it would again require a very detailed and comprehensive commentary, but I shall try to be brief.
If we take into account all complexity and ramifications of this problem, its background and its impact, we will immediately see that Pakistan has based its strategy and policy in the region on this single issue. Pakistanis have gained several things by choosing the Pushtu community. First, they have the biggest Afghan ethnic group in their hands, almost 40 percent of the whole population. Secondly, the Afghan-Pakistani frontier belt is populated by many Pushtus on both sides, which has always been a potential source of a frontier conflict or instability in the future. But in this way they have the control over the Pushtu community not only on the Pakistan side, but also in Afghanistan. In this way, they have defused and blurred the front-line issue, which was conceivably dangerous to them and had been simmering there for long. In other words, now there is no effort to be seen to unify the Pushtus on both sides of the border and both sides are under control of Pakistan. Thus, Pakistanis have succeeded in disarming Pushtus by blurring the frontier issue.
There is a book called Pakistan’s Foreign Policy, written by several Pakistani scholars and analysts. It is a very old book and it actually concerns the fundamental and recurrent question, namely whether Kabul will be able to attract Peshawar, or whether Peshawar will be able to make Kabul revolve around it. That book concludes that it should be Peshawar, and it will be Peshawar that will force Kabul around its orbit.
I have mentioned this example in order to show that this idea is nothing new in Pakistan.
Moreover, in order to effectively control Afghanistan, Pakistanis do not want to treat Afghanistan as a separate state. The principle they would rather follow is to have Afghan policy based on tribal and ethnic issues, to treat Afghanistan as a conglomeration of tribes.
If we want to understand what is currently happening in the region, it is indispensable to understand this principle of Pakistan’s policy towards Afghanistan. As a result, they have reduced the country to such a state consisting of ethnic parties. And what do they say? They try to make the world believe that Afghanistan is comprised of ethnic groups and tribes. Consequently, they claim that they have independent relations with separate tribes. All the Pakistani policy is being implemented in such a manner.
Let’s take another example. It has been a long time since the emergence of the Taliban but they still lack any professional army, independent of Pakistan, or any military academy or a training centre. Pakistan could indeed help them establish an army. But they did not. In fact, the Taliban army is entirely dependent on Pakistani forces and supplies. As a result, the Taliban have not even established any military school on their territories, such as in Kandahar or Talakhan provinces. Theoretically they could have. But for the Pakistan’s interference.
Another example? The majority of Afghanis in Pakistan as well as the Afghan community of refugees living in Pakistan are predominantly Pushtus. They established a university called Mahmud Abdul Ahmad University. It was in fact a government institution meant to educate Afghan boys. In the end, Pakistan has closed it down. But, on the other hand, they have increased the number of medressas, traditional Islamic schools of theology.
There are hundreds and hundreds of educated Pushtus in Afghanistan. Pakistan does not permit the educated elite to have their share in public offices or to participate in administering the country. Likewise, they do not allow the Taliban to employ those people as counsellors. It is Pakistan that tries to prevent any contact between the Taliban and the educated class. If we see the Pushtu elite, the educated Pushtu, fleeing permanently from Afghanistan or going to Europe or other places, this is precisely due to Pakistan’s involvement. This is a highly favourable situation for Pakistanis, who would rather see such groups as the uneducated Taliban to be in power, brain-washed by fundamentalists.
The very fact that the Taliban have named their administration ‘emirate’ is meaningful. This word itself has actually two connotations. One interpretation indicates a system in which Muslims respect the power of emir, who rules in conformity with the ideals of an Islamic state and sharia law. The other interpretation of the word ‘emirate’ refers it to a place, a province, which is administered centrally not by an independent government but it is ruled by a powerful, authoritarian emir or sultan.
Let us look back at the Afghan history for some explanation. There we come across a person of Amir Abdur Rahman Khan (1881-1901, emir of Kabul). Despite being an emir, he was not an independent ruler but collaborated with the British. When the king Amanullah took power [in 1916], he relinquished the title of “amir” and proclaimed himself a king [in 1923] in order to dissociate from the tradition of centralised and authoritarian power that adheres to the paradigm of strictly Islamic state. And the Taliban rules stick precisely to such a doctrinaire tradition.
Taliban have decreed that anyone working for the government should wear a black turban, that every student should wear a black turban, etc. They not only prescribe what people should wear, but they also invade all types of your privacy. One might think that the Taliban may be stupid, that maybe they are insane and that they themselves are fully responsible for their insanity. But most of these things are dictated by the Pakistan side. It is the aim of Pakistan to see the Afghan state and its institutions collapse totally. One aim of Pakistani policy is to reduce Afghanistan to an aggregate of different tiny emirates, ruled indirectly by the Pakistani. In this way, they endeavour to subordinate Afghanistan culturally, politically and economically to Pakistan. This also explains why it is in the interest of Pakistani authorities to see the existence of a tribal system, in place of a large consolidated state with a genuine government. As early as six year ago I had information that precisely such a plan would be executed that adopted a strategy devised to establish a range of different lesser emirates for different ethnic and geographic groups of Afghanistan. But those days it was difficult to understand what motives were behind such strategy.
PB: Initially US policy was pro-Pakistani. How would you describe the present US policy towards the Taliban? Have you noticed any change in this regard within last 10 years? Has the Bush administration brought any change in the US policy?
Ahmad Shah Masud: What you see here corresponds to what you can read in the U.S. press about the U.S. policy towards Afghanistan. That means: nothing. Practically we have not seen any change. At least we have not seen any change.
PB: Does that mean that the U.S. administration does not support the Afghan democratic opposition in any way whatsoever? Even though you have been fighting with the Taliban regime you haven’t received any weapons from U.S.? Do you mean you haven’t seen any change in policy since the Bush administration has come in?
Ahmad Shah Masud:[Laughter.] No! You say “U.S. policy in Afghanistan”?! Actually U.S.A. do not have any Afghan policy so far.
PB: Have there been made any attempts to contact you on the part of the Bush administration already?
Ahmad Shah Masud: Yes, it was Christin Rocca, the representative of the U.S. secretary.
PB: Who talked to her? Did she contact you?
Ahmad Shah Masud: No, I have never seen her. Dr. Abdullah [our Minister of Foreign Affairs] talked to her.
PB: What would you expect from the U.S. policy in the future?
Ahmad Shah Masud: We hope that the future policy of the United States in this region will be more positive. “Positive” in the sense that they will exercise certain pressure on Pakistan on the one hand, and on the other, that they will also help Afghanistan to achieve peace after 22 years of war.
PB: And practically? Would you expect the U.S. administration to provide you ammunition and weapons? Should U.S.A. support you militarily or in any other way?
Ahmad Shah Masud: We have our supplies of ammunition, even though not enough. What is important is not direct military support. Taliban, when left alone, without any external support, are not the force to be seriously considered in the long run. They are alienated, distanced from the people of Afghanistan, with no support among the population. Moreover, they are much weaker now than in the past. It is only the assistance they receive from Pakistan, Osama bin Laden and other extremist groups that keeps the Taliban on their feet. Without the help of this external assistance it would be extremely difficult for the Taliban to survive.
PB: How much of threat is the presence of people like Jumanboi Khojiev, popularly known as Juma Namangani, the Uzbek opposition leader and Osama bin Laden’s confederate, and his troops in the North, that is in Tajikistan or Uzbekistan, and now in Takhar Province, for you, for the supplies you receive from the territory of Tajikistan?
Ahmad Shah Masud: Juma Namangani, his colleagues and his troops are now deployed in one of the front-lines close to us [in Takhar] on the Taliban side. In this front-line there are around 400 fighters of Juma Namangani. And they all – Namangani and the Taliban – are quarrelling with each other who should be the commander of these forces. In fact, considered their numbers, they are like one of our subgroups, or subdivisions. For example the commander, of lower rank, who I have just been taking to has a lot of more troops than Namangani.
PB: As far as I know, not all troops that are officially subordinate to you obey your orders completely. Instead, they occasionally pursue their own local policies, partly related to drug production. Do you encounter any problems in Badakshan, the Northern Afghan Province controlled by your troops, to unite different commanders? Are there any cases of disobedience or insubordination? Are there perhaps any feuds among the commanders in Badakshan?
Ahmad Shah Masud: Yes, in a very limited part of Badakshan. In all the eastern part of Badakshan, we have no problem. Similarly, we have no problems of this sort in the western districts of Badakshan. But indeed there are only some problems with the commanders of Faiziabad [subordinate to the President Rabbani – P.B.].
PB: You are renowned for your modernist, liberal views and special emphasis on democracy, democracy understood very much in the Western sense. Isn’t it sometimes difficult for you to compromise your progressive, reformist vision of the society and the state with more traditional, conservative values characteristic of the population in Badakshan or elsewhere in Afghanistan?
Ahmad Shah Masud: Of course it is not so easy. In the present situation, it is not possible to ignore traditional system of values completely. But we should gradually undertake actions to bring about some change and modernise the society. One of such measures is education and instilling democratic thinking among common people. You have been to Badakshan, haven’t you? You couldn’t have missed to notice that girls go to school. I think that is a positive development. They have their own school sections or separate schools, where they receive education, which helps them better understand the world around, and this has a positive impact on the whole society.
PB: What do you therefore think of Amarullah Khan’s move, your close colleague and secretary, who I have had a pleasure to meet recently, to de-veil his wife in public?
Ahmad Shah Masud: We have to consider two factors about this issue: the timing of it and the nature of his decision. No doubt that a woman with an open face can be equally active, that a woman with an open face can work as effective as a veiled in a burka. Moreover, a woman should be free enough to decide about herself, for instance whether she wants to de-veil her face or not. And basically this is not something difficult to achieve, even though it may – in a conservative society. But I was extremely surprised when I heard this. I think we should take into consideration the timing of such a decision, which can be controversial for many. Amarullah Khan could do much more for the Afghan nation, something much more effective than this without being controversial or without causing resentment. Especially in a country which has no health facilities, no hospitals, in a country which has no university, which has hardly any schools, there was no need to introduce reforms with de-veiling her. On the other hand, we do not really know what was behind his decision.
PB: What practical actions have you undertaken so far and what infrastructure are you trying to set up within the bounds of your territory to demonstrate your democratic aspirations and your modernist views to the world?
Ahmad Shah Masud: A perfect example is our shura system, or self-government council system. It works very effectively in my opinion. Our shuras (councils) start from the village level, and go to sub-district and to district level, and then expand to the province level. Most of the affairs are run in consultation with these shuras. These shuras are comprised of different segments of the society, so that people could feel themselves democratically represented, including religious people, elders and the educated elite. What is important, commanders are not part of the shura system, which is entirely autonomous and civil structure. Right from the village level to the province level, these people have the right to decide about most things.
PB: Can women be found among the members of the shuras?
Ahmad Shah Masud: Well, no… We shouldn’t repeat the case of Amarullah Khan, should we?! [Laughter.] In fact, we believe in gradual change: people should first become accustomed to such a thought. Changes should be implemented gradually, but consistently.
PB: Talakhan Province was a post of strategic importance for you, after you had to leave Kabul. When do you hope to take Talakhan back?
Ahmad Shah Masud: Whenever the circumstances allow! It all depends on how you look at the war. War in general, as an aim in itself, when what counts is success at all prize? Or war, in which what is at stake is the human aspect and culture, and of course what people would wish, a war with a non-military goal? For me it is not important what will happen to this or that particular front post. For us the overall destination of the war and its impact is more important. What is really important for us is to make sure that we have actually been able to expand resistance against the Taliban and counteract them and their ideology. It is only possible if you have the support of ordinary people. Hence we have to see whether in the passage of time we have still managed to gain more support, sympathy and understanding from the people.
The amount of progress that we have achieved this year, that is since the establishing of the anti-Taliban United Front, is remarkable. It is even not comparable to what we did last year. For instance, the Taliban have been fighting ferociously in Ghowr area for the last month, which is a hundred kilometres east of Herat province. In such provinces as Ghowr, Herat and Bagdhis they are engaged in fighting! In the past it was beyond imagination that we would be able to come back there and start resistance against the Taliban. Last year the Taliban proudly proclaimed to the world: “We have conquered all of Afghanistan. We only encounter some resistance in a tiny Tajik-dominated enclave in the north of the country. But this will not last long.” And now you can see again the revival of Hazar resistance [for instance in the Bamyan province] and the Uzbeks [in the north]. As you can see here yourself, this resistance against the Taliban has been rapidly expanding.
In our strategy, we do not try to capture towns and their surrounding in order to entrench our positions there. The resistance should be as widespread and prolonged as possible, and its aim should be to weaken and fatigue the Taliban forces. The nature of the fighting is continuation, protraction and prolongation to force them the Taliban to yield. I am deeply convinced that Pakistani generals who have been in command of the forces in Takhar side by side with the Taliban since last year have a lot to think about now. Until recently they have been supporting the Taliban so that they could defeat the resistance in the North where the Tajik live, hoping that it is only a matter of time and that this is only the resistance on the part of the Tajik population. Now they can clearly see that it has also started elsewhere, that resistance sparks in other centres with other ethnic groups. Now the Pakistanis have to rethink their policy and recalculate how many more years they will have to be engaged in the war, with an unpredictable result! On the top of that, we notice that the support of the international community for the anti-Taliban resistance this way or another is increasing. Pakistani generals should be slightly wiser and think it all over so that in the end they should come to the conclusion that the same fate awaits them as the Soviets.
To recapitulate, this is more significant and important for me than capturing one bridgehead or another. If in a tactical move I capture a city, for example, but at the same time I fail to win over people for my strategy, that will be a defeat. The goal of our strategy is not a military action but people. If our strategy aiming at the well-being of common people proves successful, that will compensate individual tactical defeats.
PB: What costs are involved to run the United Front? To be more specific, how much does it cost to effectively keep up with the financial support the Taliban receive from Pakistan?
Ahmad Shah Masud: That’s our secret. We should rather not disclose it!
PB: If the support of the international community for the democraticopposition and the United Front, as you have observed yourself, is steadily increasing, which countries specifically are involved?
Ahmad Shah Masud: In short, what I consider an expression of the support of the international community is what the public opinion in the world thinks about the Taliban and anti-Taliban sanctions considered by the Security Council of the U.N. That is the demonstration of the international community support for us. Can anyone doubt that Pakistan has been intervening since the very beginning of the conflict? When I say ‘support’ I do not necessarily mean financial support, or military support, rather it is moral or political support.
PB: Since you have touched upon this issue yourself… You paid a visit to Europe at the invitation of European Parliament President Nicole Fontaine, in April this year. You met a number of highest rank politicians of the European Union. What are the practical results of your visit to Europe?
Ahmad Shah Masud: Again we should judge the results in terms of moral support.
PB: The democratic opposition of the Islamic State of Afghanistan, recognised by Western countries and the U.N., has its embassy in several countries, for example in Poland. According to confirmed information I have, you sell rubies, lapis lazuli and perhaps some other precious stones to Poland. What do you get instead from Poland?
Ahmad Shah Masud: Dollars.
PB: Does Poland sell, directly or indirectly, any weapons to you in return? Do you have any Poland-made weapons?
Ahmad Shah Masud: It’s a long way. How could we bring it here? Central Asian countries are closer…
PB: Last year and this year, when I was in the Pamirs in the Tajik Badakshan (the so called Gorno-Badakshan Autonomous Region), I visited more than twenty military checkpoints, supervised by both Tajik and Soviet troops, including the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) 201st Division that controls the Afghan-Tajik frontier, on the way from Ishkoshim and Khorog on the Afghan-Tajik border to Sary Tash in Kyrgyzstan close to the border with Tajikistan. I have first-hand information, unofficially confirmed by soldiers stationed at these checkpoints and CIS force officers, that even last year there were regular track transports carrying drugs across Tajikistan towards Osh in Kyrgyzstan. Where do these drugs come from?
Ahmad Shah Masud: Those drugs come from Southern and South-eastern provinces of Afghanistan [controlled by the Taliban], and also from Pakistan.
PB: Do you have any control of these transports? In other words, do you undertake any actions to prevent them?
Ahmad Shah Masud: If we were supported by the world, then of course we could prevent these transports. But even without any kind of support we do take certain measures to stop this. For example yesterday, and also the day before yesterday, we arrested five drug dealers. You can see them and talk to them in the jail here in Hoja Bahauddin. Some time ago we have also arrested a drug tycoon, not far from this place. Because we were worried about his safety in the jail here – for he had extensive connections – we moved him to the jail in Panjshir two days ago. You must have seen him there. Unfortunately, our capacity is very limited. If we could only receive any substantial support from outside we could immediately enhance our capability to effectively combat drug production and transports to Europe.
PB: But there are a number of plantations in Badakshan and they can easily be spotted. That means that also the produce of the plantations of Badakshan are transported that way across the Tajik Badakshan to Kyrgyzstan, and further on – across Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Russia to Europe!
Ahmad Shah Masud: These plantations are on a very limited scale. Except for Badakshan, have you seen any opium plantations in Afghanistan? No, you haven’t? Because you will not see them anywhere in such provinces as Parvan, Baghlan etc. Badakshan has an Ismaili population, both a Shiah sect and a distinct ethnic group of the so-called Pamiri Tajiks. For centuries they have been addicted to drugs. We could jokingly say that they cannot survive – even genetically – without drugs in the Pamir mountains. Two main groups in Afghanistan are traditional addicts: the Ismailis in the Pamirs and the Turkmen in the South-west. As nomads, Turkmen either roam on horseback across arid plains or weave famous carpets. Because of the strenuous work, they need their children to sleep more than average. They admix a little bit of opium in milk and give it to their children so that they sleep longer and don’t cry. This has continued for generations. These are two groups that have been traditionally using opium. Even in the past, the Ismailis of the Badakshan were the suppliers of opium for the Turkmen consumers. As you see, opium plantations in the Badakshan of the present day have a long tradition and are not a new development.
PB: Yesterday I went to Ay Khanom on the shore of the Amu Darya (Oxus) river, ruins of an ancient city founded by Alexander the Great for his Sogdian wife Roxana, and conceived as a temporary capital of Macedonian empire. I must confess that I was shocked by its present state. Nothing really has remained there, to be honest, except for mole mould-like pits left by treasure hunters. The capitals that had once topped the columns of Zeus temple can now bee seen in achaykhana (a teahouse), devastated and smeared with white oil-based paint. This place of illegal excavations is obviously in the front line. Nevertheless, I would like to know whether you take any measures to protect such monuments and historical places? Besides, what has happened to various priceless artefacts, once housed in the Museum of Kabul, since 1995 and 1996, such as perhaps the most famous of them, the golden treasure of Tillya-tepe of turn of 2nd and 1st millenium B.C.E., and excavated as late as in 1978-79?
Ahmad Shah Masud: Tillya-tepe treasures were in the presidential palace until 1996, that is when I was leaving Kabul. Until the Taliban came, it was kept in the basements of the presidential palace. It was kept safely in proper conditions, in a steel safe room, behind steel gates protected with a password. The password was only known to the Director of the Afghan National Fund. Dr. Najib Harod opened it only once, but I did not allow the basement to be open at all when we were in Kabul. So I do not, and cannot know what happened to this priceless treasure. When the Taliban came and took control over Kabul, they gave a receipt to the director of the National Fund which receipt said: “We have safely received all the treasure of Tillya-tepe from you.” I have a copy of this receipt, it was handed over to me by the director of the Afghan National Fund. Alas, I don’t know what happened to it afterwards.
PB: Do you think it could be hidden somewhere in Badakshan, for instance, or in any other place under your control?
Ahmad Shah Masud: No. It’s absolutely impossible.
PB: Have you perhaps taken any steps to protect Islamic art within Badakshan? The West evinces considerable interest in Bactrian or Greco-Bactrian art and archaeological sites of that period, whereas Islamic art is generally overlooked. I have been reported about a number of instances of early Islamic architecture of high historic interest that are in a deteriorating state, such as a mosque in Rostaq about 50-60 km away from here. Does the Afghan government do anything to protect such sites?
Ahmad Shah Masud: To be honest, under the present circumstances – especially if we take into consideration that we are crippled by the 22-year-long war that has devastated our whole country, not only historical places – we have no slightest means to protect such sites. However, we have taken some steps in this direction, but our means are limited. I was reported some time ago that people had started illegal excavation in the Panjshir Valley in several places, including an area called Tol. I immediately ordered to stop them. We confiscated certain things that people had already found, some people were arrested and now this place is protected.
PB: I has just been reported that an ancient golden cow had been found in the Tol area only to be sold later in Peshawar for 3 million dollars. Would you confirm this? Was there a golden cow among artefacts found in Tol?
Ahmad Shah Masud: I don’t know specifically whether the golden cow came from Tol. Perhaps. I was in Tol myself. We made it very clear to everybody that anyone digging there or participating in illegal excavations in any way will be punished. So this trade has ceased there. While in Panjshir, you must have met an Afghan archaeologist, lecturing in a South German university? I requested him to come here from Germany and to visit sites of great archaeological and historical interest, including Tol. Next he should advise us what we should do to protect these sites in a most effective way in the present situation. But I must admit that I would rather have these historical artefacts still being under ground and remain buried for the time being – waiting for better times.
But I must honestly confess that one of my regrets is why I did not take the objects of the Afghanistan Museum in Kabul to a safer place.
Coming back to Ay Khanom. To stop the illegal excavations there, we first have to solve many local problems.
PB: Why did you not bring the artefacts from the Kabul Museum to a safer place, when you were leaving Kabul in 1996 and you knew the Taliban were approaching? You must have known that the treasures would not be safe when the Taliban took over Kabul?
Ahmad Shah Masud: Those days I felt that the treasures of the Kabul Museum belong to Kabul and should not be moved. No one had ever touched them before. Even Russians did not attempt to take them away, when they came! They accepted that these are the cultural and historical heritage of Afghanistan and should remain where they were so far. In fact no one ever expected that the invaluable treasures of the Kabul Museum would be looted and would eventually disappear.
As regards the golden treasure of Tillya-tepe, even before, we had a proposal from an Arab country, the name of which is not meant for publication. They offered us 50 million dollars for bringing the golden treasure to that place temporarily. They offered to construct a special museum, well-protected, meant specifically to house the treasure of Tillya-tepe until Kabul would be safe again. Similarly, a delegation from a European country offered us initially 40 million USD deposit for the exchange of the treasure. After we rejected the proposal the sum was increased. The treasure would have been supposed to remain in the safe of their bank until we paid the credit back. They knew we badly needed financial resources to run the war. But even then we rejected any such proposal. We thought these were Afghan artefacts and they should never be taken out of Afghanistan even for a transition period, the best and only place for them should be Kabul Museum.
Now, I have accepted the principle that if any new artefacts are found in the Afghan soil, or are confiscated, they should be taken to the safety of a newly founded Afghan Museum in Switzerland, under the condition that as soon as the war is over they will immediately be returned to the Afghan nation.
PB: Thank you very much for the conversation. I wish you – and myself! – that our next conversation will take place in free Kabul, in the time of peace, as soon as possible.