By David Peduto
Mention of the assassination is limited to a small article tucked away on page A4 of The New York Times on September 10, 2001. Under the headline, “Taliban Foe Hurt and Aide Killed by Bomb,” the article erroneously reports that Ahmad Shah Massoud, the primary resistance fighter against the Taliban, suffered leg injuries in a targeted attack carried out by two unaffiliated operatives. In truth, Massoud was killed in the September 9 attack – and he was killed by al-Qaeda.
Massoud’s assassination two days before Osama bin Laden’s terrorist group carried out the September 11 attacks against the United States was no coincidence. It was an ingratiating move made by bin Laden to further entrench the protective posture al-Qaeda enjoyed in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Mindful of the likely American response that was to follow the September 11 attacks, bin Laden could use all the help he could get.
What is striking is that two days before al-Qaeda launched a series of attacks that indiscriminately killed nearly 3,000 people on U.S. soil, bin Laden found it sufficiently important to conduct a targeted killing against a Taliban rival in Afghanistan. This assassination was a stark departure from the modus operandi of al-Qaeda.
As Peter Bergen expertly details in his latest book, The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda was an organization fixated on the United States and determined to force the removal of its troops from Saudi Arabia. Bergen reminds us that August 7, 1998 – the date al-Qaeda bombed the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killing 224 people in total – “was the eighth anniversary of President George W. Bush’s order to deploy U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia to defend the country after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, bin Laden’s original casus belli against the United States.” The symbolism associated with commemorative dates was not lost on bin Laden.
Nor should it be lost on us. A score of years has passed since the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud on September 9. While twenty years have brought changes in the threats posed by jihadist terrorism (ISIS wasn’t around in 2001, for example), al-Qaeda’s gift to the Taliban in the form of Ahmad Shah Massoud’s assassination lays bare the lie that Taliban-controlled Afghanistan will not serve as a bolthole for terrorists. So long as the Taliban can benefit from a terrorist organization – or otherwise ineffectively protect against terrorist infiltration and their operations – Afghanistan will remain a safe haven for international terrorism. This is the lesson of Massoud’s assassination.
Ahmad Shah Massoud was an obstacle to the Taliban’s complete control of Afghanistan in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Bin Laden removed that obstacle. In doing so, bin Laden was an echo of Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo from “The Godfather,” taking it upon himself to put a hit on Ahmad Shah Massoud (Vito Corleone) to gain the good graces of the Barzini family (The Taliban). However, in this Taliban-al-Qaeda version of “The Godfather,” the Don dies, Michael Corleone (Ahmad Shah Massoud’s son, Ahmad Massoud) does not take revenge into his own hands, and the long-game playing Barzinis regain control of their turf (in this case, Afghanistan).
Bin Laden’s gift paid off – both for him and, ultimately, for the Taliban. In the short term, despite the United States going to the mattresses, the Taliban refused to hand over bin Laden. The time and space this provided bin Laden afforded him an opportunity to slip into Pakistan – where he was killed in an American raid ten years later. In the long term, with victory declared over resistance forces in Panjshir days ago, the recent Taliban reconquest of Afghanistan is complete.
This reality is a tragic coda to these past twenty years. The passage of time is meant to bring with it progress, not regression. Now here we are, with the Taliban turning back the clock in modern-day Afghanistan. Despite assurances to the contrary, the Taliban have and will continue to settle old scores. What remains unsettled, however, is reconciling the promise of the past twenty years with a resurgent Taliban now exercising more control over Afghanistan than they ever had when Ahmad Shah Massoud was alive.