Since the catastrophic fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban in August, commentators have been arguing over whether things could have turned out differently. Most have focused on the flaws of the Western occupation of the country after 2001. Sandy Gall’s new book makes us look at this problem in a different and unsettling way. He confronts us with the idea that the Afghan conflict, which has lasted since 1979, could have been ended by more competent Western intervention in 1992. In his view, the vicious civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, the rise of the Taliban, the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent Western invasion could have all been avoided had the West backed the right person after the Russian evacuation. That person, says Gall, was Ahmad Shah Massoud, of whom Gall’s book is the first full-length biography in English. He is uniquely qualified to write it: as an ITN correspondent during the conflict, he was a frequent visitor to Massoud and witnessed his forces in battle. Gall has also managed to get access to a number of Massoud’s private diaries, lengthy extracts of which are published here for the first time.
Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance, was arguably the most capable warlord of the whole Afghan conflict. He defeated a series of ferocious Soviet attacks on his stronghold in the Panjshir Valley between 1979 and 1989. He captured Kabul from the communist government of President Najibullah in