Bernard-Henri Lévy
Famous French philosopher and journalist.

 

Réflexions sur la guerre, le mal et la fin de l’histoire (Grasset, 2001)

 

Extracts from chapter 51, “I remember Massoud” (360-381)

 

Seldom has a silent man made such a deep impression on me – seldom has silence seemed to be so heavy with meaning, promise, and mystery. Maybe it has to do with his beauty – this Christ-like leanness which contributes to his legend in the Western world, and which strikes you even more when you are close to him. But it is also this air, sad and serene at the same time, which has constantly been on his face  throughout the journey – as if he were a sovereign without a kingdom who, alone in his cabin, with a dreamy stare, flies over a territory I feel he has lost the control of for the time being. Pale shadows, names of countries, shaky stories, memories. Massoud has lost everything, but he resists in his soul and his dreams - what a symbol! (363)


We are close to the Salang pass, in a mosque on the mountainside, overhanging the gorge. And, in the mosque, there are two hundred, maybe three hundred men, seated on the floor, their faces lit by flashlights held like torches above their heads. Some of them wear jellabas with jackets, others are in battle dress, still others have the silk hat or the rolled-up turban of traditional Afghan chiefs. These men often seem ageless although they must be very young; they are the fighters who have walked for several days to come here. Most of them have kept their arms with them in this sacred place. These men, exhausted by the journey, not to mention the war, the  lack of food, or bitterness, are faithful commanders from Parwan and Kapisa provinces – and the man standing before them, the man they are listening to in contemplative silence, is of course Massoud.

“We have not lost Mazar-i Sharif,” he explains. “Mazar surrendered. Mazar’s commander did what Bassir Salangi’s officers did last year here in Salang when they joined the Taliban; they did what Abdul Malek did in the north, in Faryab province. He betrayed us. He sold himself. He gave his town over for a few dollars. I am going to tell you what happened -”

For now Massoud is the storyteller. He is a tireless narrator who, in a soft voice, as he walks to and fro on his makeshift platform, tells his warriors about the bad fortune of Mazar, the treacherous commanders, the honest ones, the heroes and the bad guys. He tells them that the Taliban are actually nothing but the Pakistanis’ toys – why, where they are victorious, they cause the Afghan civilization to go back “five centuries” in time. He tells them how obscurantist their Islam is – they are not the friends but the enemies of true faith. He tells them about the lot of the women in Kabul, which is an offense against God. And he also tells them how sure he is that here in this mosque, people have enough soul and heart to free the country, at some point or another, of this dismal spell.

Sometimes he makes them laugh. Sometimes he makes them shudder. Sometimes, as he trembles with suppressed fury, he lowers his voice – almost to a murmur – and then the commanders stop talking, hold their breath, gazing intently at him.

Is it due to the solemnity of the place? The somber glow on the faces? Is it this look of an “Oriental storyteller” and the contrast with the silence of the day before? The truth is that this Massoud seems even stronger –all the more so as this strength seems to originate in poignant melancholy. And actually you can feel that  he gives them his strength – you can feel that these exhausted men find courage again as they listen to him - Massoud the warlord haranguing his army of shadows;Commander Massoud awakening his “epic beggars”. Resistance fighters are lucky to have Massoud. This is another mystery of iniquity, which offers one people, and not another one, the distinguished privilege of being embodied in someone like Massoud. (365-367)

[...]

I find him again in his home, a house in a village deep in the valley where he usually lives with his family. He is once again surrounded by mujahiddin. These are the commanders from Panjshir. They are the warlords coming from the mountains who helped him hold on during the darkest times of the two wars – the war against the Soviets and then that against the Taliban.

As I see  them from a distance, standing in the garden, crowding around him, greeting each other with their right hands on their hearts as a sign of respect, silently hugging each other, bowing, I have the impression to look at a ballet, at a court, or even at a celebration – apart from the fact that they do not have cups in their hands but bits of paper that they submit to the “chief”. One asks for new shoes for his soldiers; another one wants to be relieved from duty; another one is fed up with being in the mountains and would like his unit to go to the front line; still another one solicits for one of his artillerymen a leave to visit his family in Iran; the fifth one comes to make sure that the Koranic law prescribes the stoning of thieves and this time, Massoud does not sign the paper – being an enlightened Muslim and a democrat, he believes that stoning is an archaic and barbaric form of punishment.

[...]

I ask Commander Massoud to explain the errors made while he was in power in Kabul.

“My errors then? The first one is to have been mistaken about Pakistan’s political evolution. I thought that the military would hand power over to the civilians and that I would find an agreement with them.”

Still this obsession with the role of Pakistan...

“ And then I made a second error, which was probably more serious-”

He is now speaking with reluctance; I can feel  he is hesitating.

“It was a ‘democratic’ error. It was the error, after we had won, of too scrupulously seeking to preserve the balance between the movements of which the resistance was made. But imagine what would have happened, had I not done so. Imagine, since after all I had been the one who had liberated Kabul from the communists and then who had stood in the way of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s fundamentalists, what would have happened if I had taken power alone. It meant the resumption of the war and the continuation of the bloodshed.”

“And now? What proves that you would not do the same thing now and, should you drive the Taliban from Kabul, that you would not forge alliances with soulless politicians devoid of a moral sense?”

He smiles.

“The situation has changed. Gulbuddin is in exile in Tehran. Rabbani –whom I respect- is old and no longer interested in power. So-”

He makes a gesture with his hand, as if to say: “I am the last one –there in nobody left but me.” And at this moment I think of de Gaulle –I know he admires him. I think of this moment, always so beautiful moment in a resistant fighter’s life, when he thinks: “Well, I am alone now, ...”

He goes on.

“A few months ago I talked to Mollah Omar, the self-proclaimed ‘emir of the believers’ through satellite communication. I told him: ‘Let us summon the ulemas to settle the matter, and then let us organize elections, the outcome of which I accept in advance.’ On elections, Mollah Omar answered right away: ‘Islam does not allow elections.’ The meeting of the ulemas  took place in Pakistan – but after a few days, he recalled his emissaries under a fallacious pretext. So, things are really complex, aren’t they? Because what should we have wished for in fact? A shady deal? I did not want to. I no longer want to make shady deals or compromises. But I think that talking, trying to stop massacres through dialogue –that is not so laughable a project...”

The night falls on Panjshir. The only sound that can be heard now is that of dogs fighting, a sound which echoes in the mountains. It is now cool outside. Massoud is dreaming silently. A little boy comes out of the house, picks a petunia, and plays close to his father. Is Massoud really a warlord? In love with war and its rituals? I think once again of de Gaulle. I quote Malraux and his famous words on the art of “waging war without loving it”.

“That is the way I feel,” he answers, with a hint of nostalgia in his voice. “I do not like war either. I have been making war for twenty years, yet I cannot say I love it.”

I reply that war is all he has done throughout his life – has it not changed him in the end?  Has it not irretrievably transformed him? Is he certain he will know what to do once the day has come?

“Would you like to know what my dearest dream is? It would be, in an Afghanistan at peace, to exercise the occupation of engineer that I never really practised. Afghan people are so extraordinary! They are so courageous! Have those twenty years of war changed me? It is the people that they have transformed. But it has been positive change. Those years raised them above themselves. They allowed them, through suffering and resistance, to transcend themselves. I loved my people before. Now, I admire them. And my dearest dream is to contribute to the reconstruction of a free Afghanistan for them and with them.”

A people ennobled by History? His answer is yes. The Afghan people. This is still another of Commander Massoud’s lessons. (371-375)

[...]

To the assembly of white-bearded men, once again he says:

“Our commanders are Afghanistan’s heroes. They bear its name. They will be its unity. Your role is to tell them that a fragmented Afghanistan is like a mule with stiff legs. If we are not united we will die. But if we are united we will win...”(377)

He also tells me, about the United States:

“Which America are we talking about? The America of human rights, or that of oil companies who only think of their pipeline bringing the Turkmen oil to Pakistan?”

[...]

“Who knows what matters most of oil or democratic values? Speaking of Ben Laden, do you want another piece of information? He lives in Kandahar, in the same street as Mollah Omar, the Taliban’s supreme chief – and the Americans know this. So that when they bomb a refugee camp where he may have never been, a hundred kilometres from there, they take the whole world, and especially us Afghans, for fools...” (378)

[...]

He knows that his destiny is to be determined here, these days, in one of those trenches; but he knows that he is the moral winner. He shrugs and smiles. Then he flicks off the dust from his sari and, standing on the deserted  plateau, he gazes at the clouds and waits. (381)