A new discussion about how to conduct war is taking place as the Taliban deal with the fallout from the two-decade-long conflict in Afghanistan.
The object of their unending admiration, Ahmad Shah Massoud, is one of the few people who could bring Bernard-Henri Levy, Michael Waltz, Qassem Soleimani, and Abdullah Azzam together. So what was so compelling about Massoud, the late leaders of the Shia and Sunni resistance movements?
With the exception of the occasional hostage exchange, the Taliban’s continued support for al-Qaeda, and the denial of fundamental women’s rights, Afghanistan is slipping out of the news, and deja vu is starting to creep into international affairs. Similar to how Charlie Wilson, a former US congressman, warned at the end of the Cold War that ignoring Afghanistan would have global repercussions, Waltz is emphasizing Massoud’s earlier warnings on Afghanistan today.
Afghanistan’s conflicts are felt throughout the Middle East, from al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria who look to the Taliban for inspiration to Gulf nations vying for influence in Kabul. As Afghanistan once more drifts into a vacuum where Middle Eastern powers can compete with each other’s violent proxies, Iran has steadily increased its influence. Massoud predicted nearly all of the issues we face today in the middle of the 1980s.
Even though it was only symbolic, the recent murder of former al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri confirms UN advisories that Afghanistan could once more serve as a major hub for terrorist groups. With the Islamic State becoming more established in northern Afghanistan and attacks continuing throughout the nation, there is new worry in Middle Eastern capitals that what starts in Afghanistan might not stay in Afghanistan.
This brings to mind the earlier disagreement between Massoud and Arab fighters from other countries about how to conduct the war against the Soviets. At a time when the Taliban are still suffering from the effects of the country’s two-decade-long war, there is a renewed discussion about how to wage war and the increasing power of foreign organizations in Afghanistan. By referring to their opponents as “kharijites,” or defectors, the Taliban are even repeating Massoud.
The Palestinian Hamas movement praised the Taliban for ending the US occupation after Kabul fell. In Idlib, Syrian rebel groups saw it as a turning point for their cause, while Osama Bin Laden’s close confidant has since returned to Afghanistan.
Abdullah Azzam is the tie that ties these groups together. He is now revered in many Muslim and Arab countries for being at the forefront of the political Islam that was being brought to life by the use of a gun. Some of the myths that persist today—like the idea that Massoud belonged to the same extremist group that gave rise to al-Qaeda—are dispelled by Abdullah Anas, Azzam’s son-in-law, in his brilliant memoir.
The book describes how Massoud was actually against the foreign fighters who arrived in Afghanistan with their own agenda. Thus began a three-decade struggle over political Islam, which ultimately resulted in the Taliban’s victory as well as that of other extremist groups involved in the wars in Algeria and Syria.
Massoud had long warned the Americans, Pakistanis, Egyptians, and Saudis that if they continued to settle their disputes in Afghanistan, their “warriors” would come back to haunt them. And they did, as a former Saudi intelligence chief testified in his book, which was published in 2021, on the 20th anniversary of both 9/11 and Massoud’s assassination.