Interview with Ahmad Shah Masood: Taliban lack support from the Afghan people

One of the last interviews of Ahmad Shah Masood
Published in Omaid Weekly / issues #496, #497 in October 2001

The following is an interview with Ahmad Shah Masood (rahmatullah alaih – God’s blessings upon him), conducted in early August 2001 by Dr. Piotr Balcerowicz, a lecturer at the Institute of Oriental Studies at Warsaw University. Dr. Balcerowicz, who had consulted with Omaid Weekly before his trip to northern Afghanistan this summer, has traveled the world widely and has numerous writings on Afghanistan.

Piotr Balcerowicz: How was it possible that in the early- and mid-90s the Taliban movement proved so successful? Which factors were responsible?

Ahmad Shah Masood: Three main factors contributed to their success at that time. First, it was the unstable situation inside Afghanistan when the Soviets withdrew their troops in 1989. The mujahideen were not in good terms with each other, especially in Qandahar in the south and in the areas controlled by Abdur Rashid Dostum. On the top of that, the misdeeds of compatriots such as Gulbudin Hekmatyar and some others played a major role.

The second factor was the assistance the Taliban were receiving mainly and directly from Pakistan, and indirectly from the United States. Pakistan intervened from the very outset and was engaged in founding the Taliban movement. Saudi Arabia also helped.

Third, 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 Qandahar. 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 factors were responsible for pushing back the mujahideen.

But, in fact, as you well know yourself, all these factors I have mentioned are large chapters by themselves and should dealt with separately in great detail.

Piotr Balcerowicz: If you knew then what you know now, and if you could go back in time, to the early 1990s, how would you have done things differently? What would you have changed your policy and strategy?

Ahmad Shah Masood: The factors I have mentioned were not completely within our control. They were of a more generic nature, relating to the overall character of the country and its territory. We had control only over some of them, and then only to a very limited degree.
A good example of a neglected factor that we could have but did not influence was some kind of reconciliation. We should have been more willing to compromise. In other words, the forces of the United Front [eds: Afghanistan’s national resistance force], as a democratic entity, which is now fighting the Taliban, should have been unified before [the Taliban’s success]. It is only now that people like Ismail Khan, Abdur Rashid Dostum, Haji Abdul Qadir 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, making it extremely difficult — practically beyond our control — to compromise. We were not in a position, even in the 1990s, to bring an effective change even in the areas controlled by Dostum in the north or in Qandahar in the south.

Piotr Balcerowicz: 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 to the civil war, more attractive for people at that time than the solutions suggested by you?

Ahmad Shah Masood: Once the Taliban reached Kabul, their slogans were no longer effective. As you know, the Taliban had to fight at the gates of Kabul for two years. We were defeated mainly because Gulbuddin Hekmatyar evacuated his positions in Char Asyab on the outskirts of the city in 1995. Consequently, the Taliban came through the east, that is through the lines that had been previously under the control of Hekmatyar and Haji Qadir.

Even as early as 1995 and 1996, during the fighting in and around Kabul, and despite the difficult situation, we did not see any, even slightest, indication of hostility against our government or resentment among the population of Kabul districts under our control, such as open protests, revolts or rioting against us or the taking of weapons from government soldiers. But, this is precisely what could be observed in the Taliban-controlled part.

For a time, Kabul was partitioned into two zones, after we had had to withdraw our forces because of Hekmatyar’s act of disloyalty. We had already evacuated half of Kabul, and Taliban were in control of the other half. Still the population of Kabul did not fight against us, even though they could have.

As you can now see, it is the Taliban who have been, in the end, morally defeated. They have been gradually ruined because the have always perceived Kabul as a hostile place and they are still afraid of the repetition of the 1997 rioting and unrest. In general, they are very much mistrustful when it comes to the people in the territories they have captured.

Not far from Khoja Bahauddin in Takhar Province, there is an area called La Haban where 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 Taloqan: They were so suspicious of the people of Taloqan that they had to withdraw most of their heavy weapons from the city. Such incidents are not rare. We have never had such worries and concerns while we were in Taloqan, or in any other province.

Piotr Balcerowicz: It is sometimes said that ethnic factors underlie the conflict between you and the Taliban. The Taliban are generally supported by the Pashtoon population, whereas the United Front [eds: Afghanistan’s national resistance force] are supported by Tajiks.

Ahmad Shah Masood: Despite the years-long fighting in Afghanistan, ethnic differences, and all the difficulties that plague Afghanistan, I do not think that there is even a single Afghan who would favour the disintegration or fragmentation of the country along ethnic lines. We are all unanimous that there should be one, unified Afghanistan.

Piotr Balcerowicz: What are the prospects for any peace agreement with the Taliban…when all such [previous] attempts have been consistently rejected by the Taliban.

Ahmad Shah Masood: Yes, that is still feasible, provided Pakistan stops supporting the Taliban so that the Taliban will have no other choice but to negotiate with us.

In the past, the Taliban had only one demand from 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, and we will keep ours; you can retain your territory, and you can even have the second most important post in the government, the prime ministry; but there is one condition: accept the Emirate of Afghanistan [eds: Taliban administration] and its principles.” 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 transitional period, at the end of which we should go toward democratic elections. In our opinion, that is the only acceptable solution. Otherwise to come up with a permanent solution in which the Taliban are involved seems extremely difficult, if at all possible.

Piotr Balcerowicz: Suppose you succeed in resolving the conflict either by forming a coalition government or by winning the war against the Taliban. What would be the main principles governing the future Afghan state? In other words, what are the social and legislative fundamentals of your ideal Afghan state?

Ahmad Shah Masood: I would like to emphasise that, by no means, do we strive to seize full power. Our aim is not to have the upper hand in Afghanistan. No at all!

What we struggle for is something else: an Afghanistan where every Afghan — irrespective of sex — finds happiness for himself or herself. I am deeply convinced that this can only be ensured through democracy and a democratically elected government, based on consensus. It is only then that we can indeed solve a number of problems that have beset the Afghan people. The true solution lies only in such a political and social situation and only with such a type of government in which all tribes, all ethnic groups, and all the people see themselves fairly represented.

Piotr Balcerowicz: As we all know, the Taliban are largely Pashtoon, whereas the United Front is largely Tajik, but also includes significant numbers of Pashtoons and Uzbeks [eds: and Hazaras]. What role does the difference in ethnic composition play in the conflict between the [United Front] and the Taliban?

Ahmad Shah Masood: Firstly, that is not the only factor in the conflict, but it is certainly one of the causes. [However,] Haji Abdul Kadir, a member of the anti-Taliban democratic opposition [eds: the United Front], is a Pashtoon. At the same time, there are Tajiks who are fighting alongside the Taliban in Badakhshan [in the northeast] and Qandahar [in the south] provinces.

There is also no doubt that injustices of the past have been a reason for today’s fighting. But, again, that is not the only motive or reason for today’s war. There are many other factors.

One such factor is the [discrepancy in the] view of Afghanistan’s present and the vision of Afghanistan’s future. The Taliban say: “Join us and accept the post of prime minister,” while they keep the highest office in the country, the presidency. But, for what price?!

The difference between [the United Front and the Taliban] concerns mainly our way of thinking about the very principles of [Afghan] society and the State. We cannot accept their conditions, or else we would have to compromise our principle of wanting to create a modern democracy. We are fundamentally against the system called “the Emirate of Afghanistan.” I would like to return to the issue 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 a contemporary usage of the old method of “divide and conquer.” Pakistan simply wants to ensure that Afghanistan will not be a sovereign power for a very long time.