Ahmad Massoud, 31, commands anti-Taliban fighters 19 years after his legendary father’s assassination.
The explosion occurred a few hours earlier. A suicide car bomber double-parked on a shopping street. When the convoy passed carrying Vice President Amrullah Saleh, known for his anti-Taliban militancy, the driver pulled up alongside Mr. Saleh’s armored car. Ten people were killed and 15 wounded. The vice president survived with burns to his hands and face.
Thank you, Taliban. A fine affirmation of the commitment you made in advance of the peace talks that will begin in Doha, Qatar, the day after the Kabul bombing, to cease what you have the temerity to call “the fighting.”
Ahmad Muslem Hayat takes in the scene of the overwhelmed police, encourages the impoundment crews that are using cranes to remove abandoned vehicles, lends a hand to a rescue team as it pulls from the wreckage a child whose breathing is a death rattle. Mr. Hayat, who served as head security officer under the legendary commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, has just returned from London to provide security for my reporting trip. “The same old story,” he growls. “They’re too cowardly to claim the attack. They’ll pin it on al Qaeda or on the Pakistani Lashkar-e-Taiba or the Haqqani group. But all those are the Taliban’s beards. Put that in your article!”
In a Kabul groaning under the weight of refugees, where foreigners haven’t been seen in the street since President Trump’s summer announcement of the American withdrawal, carnage like today’s can occur anywhere at any time. So says Saad Mohseni, founder of the TOLOnews television channel, whose modern studios are sure to be one of the Taliban’s first targets on its return.
Through the window of my vehicle I see an agitated man who, noticing us, makes the gesture of slitting his throat. A ragged peddler, sitting on the sidewalk beside a pile of cellphones, padlocks and old watches, pretends to train a gun on our convoy. Another, hardly more than a boy, sees that we’re photographing him and spits in our direction. As we drive, Mr. Hayat doesn’t let go of the Kalashnikov lying between him and the driver. Then, seeing that the traffic is blocked and we’re no longer moving forward, he suggests we go the rest of the way on foot.
It’s Sept. 9, the 19th anniversary of Massoud’s assassination in 2001, when he was 48. I have come to this downtown neighborhood to find the house where, in 1992, I accompanied him on a visit to a wounded member of the mujahedeen. Massoud was minister of defense at the time. His old enemy, radical Islamist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, was shelling the city from the hills,
I go from house to house, showing occupants an old photo of Massoud on my telephone. As we move away from the artery and into the maze of dusty, twisting streets of this Pashtun neighborhood, the people seem less hostile and, curiously, rather happy about “Massoud Day,” even though he was a Tajik.
“You’ll find the house you’re looking for over there, just after the bazaar,” says a grandfatherly man who recalls a neighbor named Mola Shams, whom Massoud, “wearing a long white coat,” had come to comfort in midwinter, accompanied by a few bodyguards. “No, it’s down there,” says the neighborhood council head, whom someone had roused from a nap in the back of his shop atop a shaky iron stairway. A junk dealer ultimately leads us through a labyrinth of laundry lines to what was the residence of Mola Shams. where a commercial center is now sprouting up.
I don’t have time to learn more about the fate of the wounded mujahedeen fighter, because our surroundings have become worrisome. We pass drugged-out adolescents, women encased in burqas. An informer comes to tell Mr. Hayat that people are beginning to wonder about the foreigner who is asking impertinent questions.
I lived in the French Embassy in early 2002, after President Jacques Chirac asked me to prepare a proposal on a French contribution to rebuilding war-torn Afghanistan and eradicating the Taliban. Nearly 20 years later, where do we stand?
The good news is that France has an ambassador, David Martinon, who spares no effort to convince the Afghans that it would be suicidal to yield to Islamist blackmail. The bad news is that his determination wasn’t enough to prevent the secret release the previous night of the two men who in 2003 mounted motorcycles and gunned down Bettina Goislard, 29, a French aid worker, in Ghazni.
More bad news is that since a 2017 truck-bomb attack near the embassy, the lovely white residence that we used to enter and exit without a second thought has become a fortress protected by a complex of walls, sliding metal gates, concrete blocks, grates and watchtowers. The ambassador lives there in a state of war, protected by two dozen elite counterterrorism personnel.
Abdullah Abdullah is the other president of Afghanistan. Not the vice president but the rival president—the one who contested the victory of Ashraf Ghani in the 2019 election and took to bombarding the winner with vengeful communiqués. To mollify Mr. Abdullah, Mr. Ghani appointed him to head the delegation negotiating with the Taliban. But tonight, hosting us for dinner in his family home, he is not the Western-suited diplomat who will leave tomorrow for Doha, but the resistance fighter clad in traditional garb whom I met 30 years ago in the Panjshir Valley, where he was one of Massoud’s bravest lieutenants.
Mr. Abdullah ends the evening taking us through room after room, each with walls of photos of himself and his leader, young and in combat against the Soviets. Lost in reverie, he says little. Finally I break the silence and ask about his strategy with the Taliban—the foe that sent two fake journalists armed with a rigged camera to assassinate Massoud.
Mr. Abdullah murmurs evasively that the country can’t take any more—that 40 years of war have exhausted it and we have to give peace a chance. Then, collecting himself and seemingly filled with an ancient rage, he says of the 2001 assassins: “Do you know that those dogs stalled for a month? That the whole operation was supposed to have gone down much earlier than it did? And that the chief himself, at the last minute, when the phony journalists thought it was never going to happen, remembered about them and decided to grant them the fatal interview?” This is Mr. Abdullah’s other face—the one I know will not yield in Qatar.
Two days later, we make our way to Panjshir province, north and east of Kabul. The Afghan security services being full of double agents, the news of our movement leaked. So now it’s battle stations on pro-Taliban social networks. Along the road crossing the Shomali Plain, which Afghan army has trouble controlling, enemy checkpoints are a possibility. Mr. Mohseni, the TOLONews owner, has secured a helicopter, which flies us to Bazarak.
Long ago I arrived here with Ahmad Shah Massoud. Today I find, waiting to greet me, Ahmad Massoud —his son, 31. I can picture him as a 9-year-old carrying into the family library the set of de Gaulle’s war memoirs that I had brought as a gift for his father. Twenty-two years later, with his well-groomed beard and serious, almond-shaped eyes, he looks like the elder Massoud’s reincarnation.
Mr. Massoud tells me about the last time he saw his father. He sensed his father’s unwonted way of coming back for one more hug, leaving again, and returning once more. He tells about his father’s death, of which I’ve never read a truly reliable account. According to the elder Massoud’s senior secretary, who survived the attack, the commander’s handsome face was riddled with bomb shards, his chest crushed, one eye blown out, a leg severed. He was killed almost immediately—but he had the strength to call two guards spared by the explosion and order them to hoist him up by the shoulder blades. There, standing upright for the last time, he gave up the ghost while reciting the shahadah, the prayer of the dying.
The young Mr. Massoud, despite his filial devotion, didn’t invite me here to dwell on the past. Almost immediately we head east toward Abshar, where the Taliban last week launched an unprecedented attack on Panjshir. I watch him in the midst of his officers, some of them old enough to have served his father, all now on alert. He radiates authority as he tells them he wanted neither to go into politics nor to participate in these bizarre peace negotiations, because his place is here with them, at the gates of the inviolate sanctuary of free Afghanistan.
At the bottom of a vertiginous gorge, the time comes for the shooting contest, which his father also used to propose to his guests. The target is a white pebble placed on a ridge of ochre stone 75 yards away in the shadow of the mountain’s folds. My performance with a rifle has hardly improved over the intervening years, but Mr. Massoud aims three times and scores three bull’s-eyes. He didn’t become an elite marksman by accident. After his father’s murder, he was exfiltrated to Iran and then to England, where he became a brilliant cadet at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, where the British army’s elites are trained.
Back in Bazarak on Sept. 11, officers await Mr. Massoud at his father’s tomb—including delegations that have come from Kandahar and Jalalabad to celebrate the memory of the Lion of Panjshir. There I glimpse another side of this prodigious young man. He is eloquent, an inspired, lyrical orator, speaking on behalf of not only his Panjshiri brothers but the entire Afghan nation. He praises France, which never abandoned this people of potters, nomads, shepherds and poets. Mr. Massoud gives me the floor, and I pay tribute to him and his father.
Then we return to Mr. Massoud’s childhood home and drink tea on the long garnet sofas facing the river where his father would meditate. “I love three things in this world,” he says. “Books, gardens and the astronomy I learned, before entering Sandhurst, at King’s College London, which instilled in me the habit of looking each night at the sky and its constellations. This means that, contrary to what you said earlier at the mausoleum, I was not cut out for political action. But someone had to pick up the torch. The hope my glorious father embodied could not be allowed to die out. So, yes, for that reason, and for that reason alone, I am ready to take over.”
Before leaving, I ask him three questions: Is he prepared to declare, in the charter of the movement he has created, that being the son of his father is not enough and that his crown truly belongs not to him but to the people of the mujahedeen? Is he willing to announce that he seeks the votes of the Afghan nation to launch reforms that the country’s feudal lords never wanted? And are there principles—starting with women’s rights—on which no peacemaker will be permitted to compromise as long as he lives?
He answers each question in the affirmative, and in the same clear, resonant voice his father used 22 years ago when, amid the gathering storm, he came to Paris at my invitation. Have we come to that point again? Might the young Mr. Massoud be able to check the warlords who, in the face of the Taliban peril, are only hulks of their former selves? Is it possible that, in this last of the confrontations on which our joint fate hinges, we have a protagonist who will say no to obscurantism, to rule by murder, and to the spirit of resignation? I fervently hope so.
Mr. Lévy is author, most recently, of “The Virus in the Age of Madness.” This article was translated from French by Steven B. Kennedy.