Afghanistan Reporter Looks Back on Two Decades of Change

D.L. Parsell
National Geographic News
November 19, 2001
Edward Girardet, a U.S.-born journalist, writer, and producer based in
Paris, has been reporting on Afghanistan for more than two decades.
During some 40 visits, he observed firsthand 23 years of conflict and
its effects on the country and its people.

In the December issue
of National Geographic, Girardet writes about that experience and
his latest trip to Afghanistan, which ended only days before the
terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Girardet first went to Afghanistan as a foreign correspondent in late 1979. Three months later the Soviets invaded. In the decade that followed, he traveled secretly—often on foot and sometimes for weeks at a time—with the mujahidin resistance fighters.

After the Soviets withdrew in 1989 and the fundamentalist Taliban regime rose to power, Girardet continued reporting on Afghanistan for several newspapers, magazines, and broadcast networks.

Girardet published a book on the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Now, he wants to write a more personal book based on his longtime experience in the country and his insight into the culture. "It will be a good way of conveying what the war was about, who the Afghans are," he said.

In early September Girardet returned to Afghanistan to revisit areas he had reported on and see how things had changed. He and his guide traveled to the Panjshir Valley, where he was to meet with Ahmad Shah Massoud, the leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance forces. "I had planned to sit down with him to discuss 23 years of war," said Girardet. "I wanted to talk about what he thought he'd done right and wrong."

The meeting never occurred. On September 9, two days before the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, Massoud was shot by two Arabs posing as journalists. He died of his wounds a few days later.

At a compound the Northern Alliance had set up for journalists and other visitors, Girardet and his guide had unwittingly shared quarters with Massoud's assassins.

"Lion of Panjshir"

Girardet was the first American to interview Massoud. It happened in 1981, during the Soviet occupation, when Girardet was among a group of French journalists and doctors traveling to the Panjshir Valley to set up a medical clinic.

"We'd heard there was an incredible commander, someone who was not only a good fighter—staving off Soviets—but who also paid attention to the needs of local civilians," said Girardet.

The trip took more than ten days, all on foot. "I love trekking, so it was paradise for me," said Girardet. "In Panjshir, when we finally met Massoud, he said to me: 'You're the American. I hear you're a good walker.' That seemed to appeal to him for some reason."

They met many more times in the years that followed and developed a deep friendship. "Sometimes in Kabul he'd pop in at midnight and insist on talking until three in the morning," said Girardet.

Massoud was known as the "Lion of Panjshir" for his tenacity and military prowess. But Girardet, like many others who knew Massoud, was impressed by the commander's charisma, intelligence, civility ("he was well read and well cultivated—he spoke French and loved poetry"), and vision for his country.

According to Girardet, Massoud talked with Taliban leaders and insisted that any political settlement would have to include moderate Talibans: "He was adamant that war is not a solution, that it had to be done by people sitting down and negotiating over tea—green tea."

Massoud, he added, had visited the European Parliament in May and warned about the growing influence in Afghanistan of Osama bin Laden, the Saudi millionaire and presumed mastermind of the September 11 attacks and many other incidents of terrorism.

Uncertain Future

For many people, a major question following Massoud's death has been whether the Northern Alliance, in the absence of any other figure of similar stature, will be able to hold together and create a viable government alternative.

Girardet believes it is important for the United Nations to step in and provide some basic administration to stanch disintegration and infighting. "Reconstruction and humanitarian effort has to get started as soon as possible," he said. "That's what buys off people. They're tired of war."

There is a precedent for the U.N. to act, Girardet said. During the 1990s, in the chaos and tribal fighting that followed the Soviet withdrawal, the U.N. and other international agencies operated effectively as the government of Afghanistan—building roads and providing social services—while the Taliban functioned essentially as the ministry of war and justice, said Girardet.

"So there is a precedent, and a U.N. presence is respected," he said. "But if there is too large a U.S. or British presence," he added, "it could be very volatile."

As the United States continues its bombing campaign in pursuit of bin Laden and his terrorist network, it's not known whether the militant Muslim leader is still inside Afghanistan or may have slipped across the border into Pakistan.

Girardet thinks most of those who "have gone through the Afghan machine"—thousands of Saudis, Pakistanis, Egyptians, Chechens, and other Muslims who traveled to Afghanistan to join bin Laden's jihad—have probably already left the country. "Lots went back to jobs in other countries," he said. "They're now spread out to 60 different countries. What if even one percent turned radical?"

If bin Laden is hiding out in tribal areas, Girardet said, capturing him could be difficult because of protection afforded under Pathan wali, or Pashtun tribal law, which says it's mandatory to protect a guest.

In the Geographic article, Girardet recounts how he first met bin Laden in 1989 while traveling with the mujahidin. The encounter was not pleasant: Their conversation ended with bin Laden threatening to kill Girardet if he returned to Afghanistan.

Pride in Hospitality

During his two decades of experience in Afghanistan, Girardet has developed much affection and admiration for the people and their culture.

Afghanistan has a rich history that dates from the time of Alexander the Great. Herat was the cradle of Persian civilization, and Afghanistan has a long tradition of acclaimed architecture, poetry, and other cultural accomplishments.

"The tragedy is that now, one, two, even three generations have been outside Afghanistan," said Girardet. "There's a need to reacquaint them with Afghanistan as a country, a civilization."

Today, after 23 years of warfare, Afghanistan is a shattered country. Most of the infrastructure has been destroyed and will have to be built from scratch. Roads have been neglected. Farms and orchards have been leveled, and landmines make agriculture risky in many areas.

A major challenge in the country's rehabilitation, said Girardet, will be a shortage of trained people. Most of the educated elite—doctors, teachers, journalists—have left and are now living in Australia, the United States, Canada, and other countries, he said. "There's an incredible thirst for education, and there are a lot of schools, but many of the [remaining] teachers are not really competent," he added.

The trait that touched Girardet most deeply during his travels in Afghanistan was the deep-seated tradition of hospitality. "You'd arrive in town bone tired and be welcomed and taken to a guest room with cushions—offered tea, sweets, and nuts," he said.

When the Taliban assumed power, Girardet said, they offended many people not only by trying to impose a form of Islam that doesn't exist anywhere else in the world, but also for failing to respect Afghan culture. For one thing, they banned visits by outsiders. "That's like cutting off Afghanistan at its base," said Girardet.

"Even the poorest of Afghans had a sense of pride, great hospitality, so to me they were never poor," he said. That generosity of spirit, combined with Afghans' love of music, dancing, poetry, and song, he added, is the reason "why so many foreign workers remember Afghanistan with an extraordinary sense of romanticism."

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