In the late summer of 2001, I traveled to northern Afghanistan on assignment for National Geographic to meet with Ahmad Shah Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance and the last remaining opposition figure of any significance to the Taliban. I had known Massoud since 1981 and was hoping to interview him in depth about why he had persevered through more than 20 years of fighting, first against the Soviets, then Islamic extremists, and now the Taliban. But no one knew where he was or when he would arrive. The desert winds were too strong for his helicopter to come in, I was told.
I settled in at Massoud's main commander base, in the dusty northern town of Khoja Bahauddin. I wasn't the only reporter Massoud kept waiting; in the room next to mine at Massoud's official guest house were two young Tunisian men who described themselves as TV journalists for a Middle Eastern network. I often tried to chat with them, but they were not very talkative and kept to themselves. They, too, wanted to interview Massoud, one of them told me in French.
After nearly a week in Khoja Bahauddin I gave up and returned to Europe. The Tunisians, however, opted to wait, and paid the young Foreign Ministry official responsible for keeping Massoud's schedule $2,000 to ensure a meeting. Their persistence paid off, and on Sept. 9 they were finally granted an audience with the commander -- at which point they detonated the explosives concealed in their camera and battery pack, killing one of themselves, Massoud, and the man whom they had bribed into arranging the interview.
The attack, orchestrated by al Qaeda as a kind of thank-you gift to its Taliban hosts two days before the 9/11 attacks, was a portent of the next chapter in Afghanistan's modern tragedy. But Massoud was hardly alone in his misfortune. Assassinations have been a mainstay of Afghan politics for all of the more than three decades I have been reporting on the country. In the past week the tactic has resurfaced with a vengeance, beginning with the shooting of Ahmed Wali Karzai, President Hamid Karzai's half brother and a power broker of legendary stature in Kandahar province, by a bodyguard on July 12. Helmand Governor Gulab Mangal narrowly escaped assassination himself en route to Karzai's funeral, and more than a dozen people -- including an influential local cleric -- died in a suicide bombing at a subsequent memorial service at a Kandahar mosque. And on July 17, Jan Mohammed Khan, an important ally of President Karzai, was shot dead in his home in Kabul.
These were only the latest and most high profile of dozens of assassinations in the past two years of pro-government leaders, warlords, tribal chiefs, and commanders, killings that threaten to undermine what's left of the nearly decade-old recovery process in Afghanistan. Unable to trust its own Afghan security forces, the leadership in Kabul has embraced a stifling compound mentality, building ever-higher security walls and developing a debilitating overreliance on private military contractors and mercenaries for protection. This steady alienation from realities on the ground and what ordinary Afghans think is proving one of the most serious drawbacks to Western-backed recovery efforts, which have had only limited impact on the country. Fearful of assassination, President Karzai -- who has survived at least three known attempts against his life since taking office in 2002 -- is increasingly isolating himself in the name of security from a population that, disaffected by unending war and corruption, badly needs a visible and confidence-inspiring leader.
But though Karzai's paranoia may be politically disastrous, it is certainly justified by recent Afghan history. Three former Afghan presidents and prime ministers -- Mohammed Daoud Khan, Nur Muhammad Taraki, and Hafizullah Amin -- were killed under brutal circumstances in the late 1970s. During the Soviet war of the 1980s, both the Afghan resistance and the pro-Moscow forces indulged in mutual assassination of guerrilla commanders, government officials, and tribal leaders. Getting rid of prominent commanders or public figures in this manner was often considered more effective than actually facing one's enemies in battle.
The KGB and, later, the Afghan secret police under President Mohammad Najibullah of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) sought to assassinate Massoud on at least three occasions with hired killers; it was only Massoud's thorough infiltration of the senior echelons of the Kabul-based communist administration and armed forces that kept him alive by always remaining one or two steps ahead of the Soviets. Another leading guerrilla commander, Abdul Haq, specialized in urban warfare in and around the capital, including the assassination of pro-government figures. Much of Haq's intelligence was provided by collaborators working with the Soviets and PDPA forces.