Counterfactuals may be impossible to prove, but British journalist Gall convincingly demonstrates that the calamity of Afghanistan since 2001 could have been avoided. Ahmad Shah Massoud, leader of the Northern Alliance, tried to keep Afghanistan from tragedy and nearly succeeded—before his assassination by al-Qaeda on September 9, 2001.
Gall paints a fascinating picture of Massoud, a middle-class Tajik educated at a French school. He came to be known as the "Lion of Panjshir" due to his fights, first against Soviet occupation and then against various Islamists. Massoud's forces first entered Kabul after the Soviet exit in 1989. He then worked to form a moderate, representative government. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a warlord who received significant funding from the United States via Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, proved to be his main opponent, launching a yearlong campaign that frustrated Massoud's efforts. Hekmatyar's reckless selfishness and extremism ultimately backfired, leading to the collapse of Massoud's efforts, but also to the rise of the Taliban in 1996, which then became Massoud's arch-nemesis.
Remarkably, Massoud accomplished all this not only without help from Americans or Europeans, but with the West functionally in opposition, by its funding his Afghan foes such as Hekmatyar. Most of the West feared that Massoud's minority tribal affiliation made him unfit as a partner even while his focus on fighting the Soviets earned him loyalty from powerful Afghans of all tribes. Yet Massoud was not bitter. In the months leading up to the events of 9/11, Massoud visited Europe, warning the West about the Taliban-al-Qaeda connection. Doing so almost certainly got Masood killed as he was a direct threat to bin Laden, the Taliban, and their Pakistani and Saudi backers.
Massoud frequently met with Gall, and they built up a level of trust that led to Gall being entrusted with Massoud's diaries. Gall clearly admires Massoud, whom he paints more as a moderate Muslim nationalist than an Islamist, as well as incorruptible, religiously tolerant, supporting democracy, and opposing terrorism. Gall recalls Massoud expressing tolerance toward Jews.
Gall's book raises the question: What if Massoud had lived? Would Massoud have been able to consolidate a post-Taliban Afghanistan? Would a moderate Afghanistan have shone through to the Muslim world rather than bin Laden's siren's call of Islamism? Gall convincingly suggests all were possible.