Published: April/May 2009
The Afghanistan Decade
Sebastian Junger returns to the least hospitable—and most important—place on Earth.
Text by Christian DeBenedetti
"Massoud had been fighting for 21 years. In that context, the next six months didn’t matter—all that mattered was that the Afghan resistance survive long enough for the Taliban to implode."—"The Lion in Winter," by Sebastian Junger ADVENTURE March/April 2001

ADVENTURE has searched borderlands near Pakistan for Osama bin Laden and shadowed writer Rory Stewart’s efforts to preserve the culture of old Kabul. But the most popular—and in light of 9/11, prophetic—Afghanistan story we’ve published was Sebastian Junger’s profile of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the legendary Northern Alliance leader who was assassinated by al Qaeda just two days before the Twin Towers fell. Junger, who has frequently returned to Afghanistan, talks about how history might have run a different course had Massoud lived.

What do you remember most about meeting Massoud?

The effect Massoud had on everyone around him was like passing a magnet through a saucer of metal shavings. Charisma’s kind of a cheap word, but there was something incredibly compelling about his manner of speaking, the look in his eye, the way he moved his hands when he spoke. I watched him talk for two hours straight to his commanders and had no idea what he was saying. But I was riveted.

How do you think the past seven years would have been different had he survived?

The Karzai government is just riddled with corruption. [President Hamid] Karzai’s more or less spineless when it comes to warlords. Massoud was a pragmatist. I think he would have taken a much harder line not only with the drug lords and the warlords, but also with the U.S. military. One of the problems Karzai’s running into is that he’s seen by Afghans as a bit of a lapdog. Massoud would have made it very clear that the Americans were in Afghanistan on his terms.

Speaking of Karzai, the upcoming elections have been postponed and rescheduled twice. Are conditions anywhere close to being safe enough to hold them?

The security situation has fallen apart radically since 2006. The Americans have trouble protecting Kabul right now. I don’t know how they’re going to go out into the provinces and collect ballots.

In your view, what should President Obama do now?

He needs to take a very uncompromising line with Pakistan. I think the U.S. military needs to seal the border and let Pakistan implode on its own. The Taliban are a Pakistan-based movement, and they hire local Afghans to fight the Americans, which is easy because Afghanistan’s a very poor country. If you pay an 18-year-old $5 a day to carry an AK, he’ll do it. It’s a movement that for the most part is coming across the border: personnel, ideology, and ammunition. There are people on the left who scream that we should pull all of our forces out of Afghanistan. And what the people who espouse that view don’t understand is that they would basically be condemning Afghanistan to an incredibly violent and repressive bloodbath at the hands of the Taliban.

One thing that emerges from your article is the sense of pride, a fierceness, a hardiness, in the Afghan culture.

During the ’80s, they started fighting the Soviets—one of the mightiest militaries in the world—with old hunting rifles. They won, in part, because they got their hands on some good weapons courtesy of the United States. But without the incredible courage of the people, no weapons in the world would have won that war. Illiterate Afghan farmers were able to destroy Russian tanks, take the hulks, fix them to the point where they were running again, and use them to fight the Russians. They are some of the most resourceful, smartest people in the world, and if you took those traits and put them to work in an even moderately stable country, they would just flourish.

Tell us about your forthcoming book, which you reported in Afghanistan.

I spent a year—a whole deployment—with one platoon of Americans, 30 men from the 173rd Airborne Brigade. We were in a very remote place, a two-hour walk up a mountainside, in an outpost with no running water, no Internet—just sandbags and ammunition. These 30 guys saw a lot of combat. Sometimes several firefights a day. This isn’t like roadside bombs and IEDs—although that happened as well in some areas—this is all small arms, maneuvering across terrain, behind trees, behind rocks. It was very intense.

What’s Massoud’s legacy going to be?

Massoud was the last holdout against the Taliban. Without his efforts keeping the Northern Alliance alive—carving out that sanctuary in the northeast part of the country—the U.S. military would have had to fight their way in, on foot, which is exactly what al Qaeda was hoping would happen. And it would have been a very bloody and messy business. I think Americans need to understand that Massoud’s efforts saved our nation a lot of casualties.