In the weeks following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States, journalists scattered across northern Afghanistan would periodically gather in a mud-walled compound in the small and sand-blown village of Khwaja Bahauddin to attend press conferences hosted by a well-dressed ophthalmologist with thin hair brushed straight back from his forehead and a close-trimmed black beard.
His English was flawless and devoid of slang or colloquialisms. Years earlier, during the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad, he had been taught English by agents in Britain’s MI6 foreign intelligence service. He was patient with the questions thrown at him, but his back seemed to stiffen when asked how much the Americans and British were sharing intelligence they had gathered on the Taliban with the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, of which he was a member.
“We don’t need any advice,” he replied. “We know our enemies. The international allies have been striking the Taliban for two weeks. We have been fighting them for years.”
The man was Abdullah Abdullah. He was a long-time friend and envoy of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the iconic leader of the Northern Alliance known as the Lion of Panjshir, whose reputation and nickname derived from his long and ultimately successful battle to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan. Massoud, whose rump government controlled the northeast of Afghanistan, was murdered by agents of al-Qaeda posing as journalists two days before September 11, making Abdullah, with his fluency in English and practiced diplomacy, the most visible face of the Northern Alliance.
Abdullah had good reason to be cynical about America’s new-found interest in his country. Only weeks before 9/11, he had been in Washington trying to impress on members of Congress the dangers posed by the Taliban and their links to Osama bin Laden. He got nowhere. Some of those he pleaded with had barely heard of bin Laden.