America may have abandoned Afghanistan, but the most prominent anti-Taliban rebel in the country is pinning his hopes on support from France.
For Ahmad Massoud, France is the most natural place to turn as he tries to marshal a resistance army in the Panjshir Valley north of Kabul. After all, his father, Ahmad Shah Massoud, the “Lion of the Panjshir” is close to a household name in France and lives on (after his assassination in 2001) as the country’s epitome of a freedom fighter thanks to his battles against the Soviets and Taliban in the 1980s and 1990s.
In op-eds published in the French press, the 32-year-old Massoud has appealed to Paris as his main hope. His intermediary with the top echelons of power is the philosopher, public intellectual and journalist Bernard-Henri Lévy, who traveled to the Panjshir Valley to write a story on him in the magazine Paris Match last October.
In a letter to Lévy, carried in the Journal du Dimanche on August 14, Massoud exhorted the philosopher to make a direct appeal to President Emmanuel Macron “that France is our last resort, the only hope that is left for us.”
In another letter penned to win hearts in France after the fall of Kabul, Massoud compared Afghanistan’s condition to that of Europe in 1940 and quoted French leader Charles de Gaulle’s remark that France had lost a battle, but not the war. “Join us in spirit, or with direct support,” Massoud said in his appeal, which appeared in French.
The British-educated Massoud, who was only 12 when his father was murdered by Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network, knows that France is fertile territory to whip up support. His highly literate (and Francophone) father was educated at a French lycée, and became a romanticized national celebrity in France thanks to a 1998 documentary called “Massoud, l’Afghan.” (Within Afghanistan he is a more polarizing figure and, while many see him as a hero, others have bitter memories of the mujahideen’s brutal guerrilla campaigns.)
“[France] is the country in the world where his name resonates the most … and Massoud is, today, the only one who resists and holds on,” Lévy told POLITICO, adding that it was only natural for France to step in. “What I think, and given the historic ties with the father, it is normal that France provides him with the most advanced help.”
Lévy spoke to Massoud on Saturday and was assured by the rebel that: “Surrender is not part of my vocabulary.”
Top level access
For now, however, the French government is declining to comment publicly on whether it will respond to Massoud’s carefully tailored appeals. Much will depend on whether the Taliban respond to pressure, particularly from Iran, to form a pluralistic government with other ethnic and religious groups like Panjshiri Tajiks and Shiite Hazaras, who are more likely to oppose the Taliban, or whether the country slides back into all-out civil war.
Memories are still fresh of a trip that Massoud made to Paris in March, when he met Macron and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and inaugurated a pathway bearing the name of Massoud (“Allée du Commandant Massoud“) in the gardens of Paris’s iconic Champs Elysées.
Other attendees were David Martinon, the current French ambassador to Afghanistan, and EU Affairs Minister Clément Beaune. “We have regular exchanges with Massoud and his entourage,” Arnaud Ngatcha, Hidalgo’s advisor for international affairs, told POLITICO. “He sent us numerous messages and alerted us soon enough that things would collapse quickly in Afghanistan.”
“We are currently examining how to continue supporting the freedom fighters,” Ngatcha added. “What the Paris mayor can do now is to provide moral support and more visibility to Massoud.”
Indeed, Hidalgo turned up exactly that moral pressure on Macron with an op-ed in the daily Le Monde on August 16. She called on France to “support, encourage, help” Massoud’s resistance, “so that it can quickly triumph over the Taliban and their regime of terror.”
And it’s not as if Massoud does not have access to the very top. At the Elysée in March, he discussed “advancing Afghanistan-France relations” with Macron and stood with the French president for an official photo, in which the two held a framed drawing of Massoud’s father.
He also met other politicians such as Gérard Larcher, the president of the French senate, and Valérie Pécresse, the president of the Paris region and a candidate in France’s upcoming presidential elections.
After the fall of Kabul, Pécresse sent a tweet saying France had to “help the resistance.”
More than words
The big question is whether the French love affair with Massoud will translate into military hardware, or other more concrete support.
Massoud has now been joined in the Panjshir by the country’s former Vice-President Amrullah Saleh. While it is difficult territory to capture, Massoud is isolated and used an op-ed in the Washington Post to appeal for “more weapons, more ammunition and more supplies,” as “our military forces and logistics will not be sufficient.”
“They will be rapidly depleted unless our friends in the West can find a way to supply us without delay.”
When contacted by POLITICO about what support France was willing to give, government institutions in Paris were evasive. A spokesperson for the Elysée confirmed only that “France is in contact with [Massoud] since he visited Paris.” The foreign ministry ducked the question and said that its priority was the “evacuation of nationals” and the “protection of Afghans.”
A spokesperson for Massoud also did not respond to a question on French support.
Naturally, such aid would probably have to remain secret — particularly if the Taliban does become the de facto government — but one person closely following the French case did say there was a willingness to send arms. “If by military aid, you mean giving the Panjshir means to defend itself, then it’s yes,” the person said.
If France were ultimately to send weapons to Massoud, that would only fuel existing controversy about Lévy’s influence in steering France’s military policy.
Many leading French officials admitted that Lévy’s 2011 campaign to push France to officially recognize the rebel leadership in Libya and intervene militarily to kick out Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi played a role in France’s decision to launch airstrikes and arm Libyan rebels.
But they also blamed outside influencers like Lévy for pushing a military operation that produced mixed results, and did not prevent the country from falling into years of civil war. “I don’t forget that several people decided that we needed to get rid of the Libyan leader without actually having any plan for what happens next,” Macron told Le Monde in a 2018 interview.
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