Thoughts on September 9, 2001

One of the overlooked aspects of the ongoing Global War on Terror occurred not on 11 September 2001, but two days prior with the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud.

Personal perspectives on the war in Afghanistan and the 2003 Invasion of Iraq are a good example of how I maintain the contradictory beliefs that there can be a such thing as a “just war” as well as an appreciation of the potential pitfalls of foreign policy. My choice of wording is specific in regard to foreign policy; there are some who consider either (or both) military actions as grave mistakes. I am not one of those people, and my thoughts on those matters are reserved for different discussion at a later time. The fact is that both the follow-on conflict in Afghanistan as well as our involvement in Iraq happened. There is no way to undo these events, no way to recoup the political and financial costs of these wars, and no way to resurrect the dead on either side.

Recently, commentary has come forth that my writings reflect a philosophic view on warfare, history, and human nature. Perhaps this is true; even the definition of philosophy lends a certain plausibility to the claim: “the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline.” In this, I would have to agree on the notion of the there being a basic correlation between what is known, what is, and what can be. In the case of Massoud, philosophy weighs heavily in understanding who he was, what contributions to Afghanistan, and what his death may have signified, had we realized it for what it represented.

Older sources are always a hazard to my attention span: I end up opening far too many tabs and easily follow thread upon thread until my original point becomes significantly altered from where I thought I was going to start. However, these older tidbits offer foreshadowing that is only clear well after the fact.

As long as the Soviet Union posed a danger in Afghanistan, the United States Government was interested in our country… But when the situation changed and the Soviet forces withdrew, the Americans forgot their moral obligations, and they forgot about the people of Afghanistan.”[1]

Somewhere in northern Afghanistan, 23Apr2004 (Source: author’s collection)

In discussing Massoud with my 13-year-old son, I was impressed with his easily recollection of who I was talking about. “He was the rebel guy who was assassinated before the attacks, right?” Massoud, I have learned, remains a controversial figure in Afghan lore – to some, he is still revered as one of the most competent Afghan leaders who contested the Soviet forces in the decade-long fight for the nation; to others, his charisma and effectiveness was insufficient to counter the political, religious, and tribal strife which consumed the country after the final Soviet forces withdrew on 15 February 1989.

The Soviet-Afghan War, much like the Vietnam War, might be condensed into several brutal lessons. Disparity of power versus public opinion and technology versus vicious austerity are topics of much debate as warfare continues to evolve, but the fragility of logistic networks for both combatants dominated the attention of the Soviets and mujahedeen alike – a remarkably similar lesson learned by many conquerors before and, to some extent, us today. It was the control of the roads, and denial of those supply routes which Massoud used against the Soviets which then became a liability for any hopes of stability in the chaotic decade that marked the 1990s.

Most of the roads are closed. No supplies are coming in. People have a very hard time so they – they send their kids to find whatever they can find to eat, to cook, or maybe to sell, and there they step on mines.[2]

South of Bagram, Afghanistan, 24Jan2005 (Source: author)

Resisting the fundamentalist extremism of the Taliban, Massoud gained few allies in with those who promoted the group as a means to provide order in the violent ruins of the struggling nation. The Taliban posed another example of dangerous foreign intervention – this time, the prime suspect was Pakistan with the possible goal of creating trade routes throughout the region – which undermined Afghanistan’s autonomy. Ultimately, the Taliban’s spiritual ideologies slowly gained enough foreign political support and local manpower to start to seriously erode Massoud’s forces prior to 2001.[3]

On 11 September 2001, word of Massoud’s assassination was still trickling into western media when they were quickly overshadowed by the tragic events of that morning. A prime target of the Taliban, Massoud had survived previous attempts on his life over the years, only to be killed by a Moroccan suicide bomber posing as a television journalist.[4] The motivations for the attack have been speculated upon over the years – from Taliban concerns with his potential to successfully solicit western assistance in his resistance against growing power of the religious faction to his possible suspicions that the Taliban were possibly involved in something much bigger on the horizon. Indeed, in April 2001, Massoud provided a chilling warning:

My message to President Bush is: if there’s no interest in having peace in Afghanistan, ongoing problems in Afghanistan will become a problem for not only America, but many other countries as well.[5]

Massoud’s tomb, 2010. (Source)

Hindsight can be a curse and a blessing at the same time. My son posed the question about why no one took Massoud, or his assassination as a serious warning at the time. This brought to mind a quote from Dan Carlin:

The biggest impediment to understanding the past is that we know their future.[6]

Intelligence is often compared to a puzzle – each piece is an abstract part of a larger picture, which isn’t apparent until more pieces are assembled; the more complete the picture becomes, the quicker the entire picture becomes clear. Often, intelligence agencies are showcased for their failures in predicting an event… for failing to understand the complete puzzle from a handful of pieces.[7] In this case, the pieces found were relatively miniscule in relation to the seemingly infinite quantity of data which was more than likely available at the time. On the other hand, the question could be asked about successes: how often do we hear of intelligence victories? My son caught on fairly quickly: “Wouldn’t that give away how we learned stuff?”

The event of 18 years ago was a relative “blip” on the scopes of the media and intelligence agencies, but it provides an interesting look at the role of one person, the possible perceived threat they constituted to a larger plan, and the perils of a fractured society which desperately clings to order – regardless of how draconian such “order” may be. Of course, looking at Massoud’s assassination begs even more questions:

What would the post-9/11 Afghanistan be like, had he lived? Massoud’s influence, paired with the intelligence and military support of the West might have shortened the reign of the Taliban and al-Qaida…

Would the current opioid crisis be more manageable? Afghanistan is the source of most of the world’s opium and a major financial asset to criminals and terrorists who specialize in the production and distribution of heroin.[8]

All interesting points… but to reiterate my previous statements: there is no way to undo these events, no way to recoup the political and financial costs of these wars, and no way to resurrect the dead on either side. We just have to learn from those examples.


[1] J. F. Burns, “An Afghan Leader is Warily Hopeful About Peace.” New York Times (March 05, 1995), accessed September 9, 2019, https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy2.apus.edu/docview/430099604?accountid=8289.

[2] State of the Talib, directed by Keely Purdue (Journeyman Pictures, 2001), accessed September 9, 2019, https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy2.apus.edu/docview/1823023758?accountid=8289.

[3] Patrick Graham, “He is Compared to Che Guevara and is Hailed as the Only Hope for Afghanistan in the Face of Taleban Fundamentalism. but is Ahmad Shah Massoud Up to the Job? Patrick Graham Goes in Search of…the Lion of Panjshir: National Edition],” National Post, May 05, 2001, accessed September 9, 2019, https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy2.apus.edu/docview/329878213?accountid=8289.

[4] Thomas Harding, “Blast survivor tells of Massoud assassination,” The Telegraph, October 26, 2001, accessed September 9, 2019, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/afghanistan/1360632/Blast-survivor-tells-of-Massoud-assassination.html.

[5] Ahmad Shah Massoud, news address in France, April 2001, accessed September 10, 2019, https://soundcloud.com/artefact-magazine/ahmad-shah-massouds-warning-to-the-world-1.

[6] Dan Carlin, “Ghosts of the Ostfront III,” Episode 29, Hardcore History, August 10, 2009, accessed September 10, 2019, 0:50.

[7] Mike Bennett, “Good Intentions – Poor Execution: Intelligence and the Korean War,” milsurpwriter (blog), November 16, 2017, https://milsurpwriter.wordpress.com/2017/11/16/good-intentions-poor-execution-intelligence-and-the-korean-war/.

[8]Afghan Opiate Trafficking along the Northern Route,” United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2018, accessed September 10, 2019, https://www.unodc.org/documents/publications/NR_Report_21.06.18_low.pdf.

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