Ahmad Massoud: ‘Peace Does Not Mean to Surrender’

The leader of the Afghan anti-Taliban resistance vows to battle in the encircled Panjshir Valley to keep alive his father’s dream.

August 30, 2021 (Foreign Policy)-As the Taliban attempt to consolidate control over Afghanistan, history appears set to repeat itself. The Panjshir Valley, northeast of Kabul, remains the only part of the country not under the extremists’ control, though they have it largely surrounded, communications have been cut, and fierce fighting continues on its outskirts.

In the valley, nestled in the high foothills of the Hindu Kush, Ahmad Massoud has stepped into his famous father’s shoes—and his iconic woolen pakol hat—by establishing himself as the leader of a nascent resistance movement against the Taliban. His father, Ahmad Shah Massoud, one of the leaders of the Northern Alliance, ensured that the Panjshir Valley was never taken by the Taliban during their 1996-2001 rule, but he was killed by al Qaeda two days before 9/11. His son wants to keep alive the embers of resistance in the fabled valley.

Massoud has declared the valley a safe haven from the country’s violent new rulers, and he says he is doing so at the request of his people, fiercely independent Tajiks who have effectively kept the valley closed to most outsiders since then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration negotiated a deal with the Taliban in 2020 that gave them legitimacy, undermined the Afghan government and army, and contributed to the insurgent victory on Aug. 15.

The Panjshir rebels, who call themselves the National Resistance Front, say they have several thousand fighters, as well as military hardware to back their fight for autonomy. Negotiations with the Taliban for inclusion in a future government have reached an impasse, with neither side willing to make concessions.

Massoud claims no outside support, but on Friday in the United States, Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rep. Mike Waltz, both Republicans, called for U.S. recognition for Massoud and former Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. Saleh is a Panjshiri who worked with Ahmad Shah Massoud’s resistance, and since returning to the valley on Aug. 15 he has declared himself the country’s rightful president.

Massoud answered questions from Foreign Policy before communications into the valley were cut over the weekend. He says he does not want civil war but rather a fully representative government, justice, and equality for all ethnic and religious groups in Afghanistan, and an end to outside interference. 

His emailed answers, which Foreign Policy verified as legitimate, have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Foreign Policy: Now that the Taliban have taken control of Kabul and most of Afghanistan, and declared the country an Islamic emirate, what are your plans?

Ahmad Massoud: My plan is to first pursue peace and to find a way to avoid war and conflict. Our struggle throughout the past 50 years has been for peace, and war has always been imposed upon us. However, peace does not mean to surrender and to allow injustice and inequality to continue in Afghanistan.

Peace does not mean to surrender and to allow injustice and inequality to continue in Afghanistan.

If the Taliban are willing to reach a power-sharing deal where power is equally distributed and is decentralized, then we can move toward a settlement that is acceptable to everyone. Anything less than this will be unacceptable to us, and we will continue our struggle and resistance until we achieve justice, equality, and freedom. 

FP: What support do you have for your resistance? Do you think Afghanistan’s people will support you? If so, why?

AM: I have the support of my people. Our people will not allow aggressors to invade their province and allow them to subordinate us. For this reason, the people asked me to start mobilization two years ago, on Sept. 5, 2019, when they knew the peace process in Doha [a deal brokered by the Trump administration and almost halted by an attack on a U.S. military base in Kabul on Sept. 5, 2019, that killed at least 12 people, including an American soldier] would ultimately cause the current situation. Without the support of my people, a resistance would have never taken shape in this valley.

FP: Do you think the possibility of plunging Afghanistan into civil war once more is the right thing to do?

AM: I do not see this as a civil war. This war has been forced on us by a group that is dependent on many countries and is not an independent national movement. If the Taliban are willing to share power with everyone and are willing to establish justice and to give equal rights and freedom to all of Afghanistan, then I will step down and quit politics.

Also, the conflict in Afghanistan has regional and global dimensions. The countries of the region use Afghanistan for their competitions with each other, and they have been willing to fund proxies to fight against each other in Afghanistan on their behalf.

The global aspect of this war is the reemergence of international terrorism. The struggle against international terrorism makes this a global struggle, and this is why we stress the need for the international community to stay engaged in Afghanistan.

FP: Indeed, Afghanistan has been a proxy battleground for many years—Pakistan, India, Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, the United States. What is your analysis of the geopolitical future of Afghanistan?

AM: Realignments have happened in the past few years. The government [of deposed Afghan President Ashraf Ghani] drove many regional countries to the side of the Taliban. From its ethnic-nationalist rhetoric to its water policies, it provoked and antagonized our neighbors, and they grew closer to the Taliban.

Another reason why they grew closer to the Taliban was the presence of the United States and that they were able to inflict harm on the United States and NATO by supporting the insurgency. China sees the Taliban as a stabilizer and Afghanistan as a country that can serve as a land bridge to easily connect it to Iran. China believes it can exert influence in the Middle East and North Africa and challenge the United States if it is connected to Iran via Afghanistan. For this reason, they are willing to recognize and support the Taliban. 

I do not see this as a civil war.

FP: Do you have support from any countries? Are you being funded and supplied from outside the country? 

AM: I am not receiving any assistance from any foreign country. 

FP: What is your hope for the future of Afghanistan?

AM: My hope for Afghanistan is a country where power and resources are equally distributed, the citizens enjoy all their rights and freedoms, social justice is established, rationalist Islam is revived, political and cultural pluralism is promoted, and where democracy will be preserved.

I believe there is still hope that all of this will be achieved in the future and that the resistance will be able to realize my father’s dream for Afghanistan.