I'd wanted to meet Massoud for years, ever since I'd first heard of his remarkable defense of Afghanistan against the Soviets in the 1980s. A brilliant strategist and an uncompromising fighter, Massoud had been the bane of the Soviet Army's existence and had been largely responsible for finally driving them out of the country. He was fiercely independent, accepting little, if any, direction from Pakistan, which controlled the flow of American arms to the mujahidin. His independence made it impossible for the CIA to trust him, but agency officials grudgingly admitted that he was an almost mythological figure among many Afghans. He was a native of the Panjshir Valley, north of Kabul, the third of six sons born to an ethnic Tajik army officer. In 1974, he went to college to study engineering, but he dropped out in his first year to join a student resistance movement. After a crackdown on dissidents, Massoud fled to Pakistan, where he underwent military training. By 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to prop up the teetering Communist government, Massoud had already collected a small band of resistance fighters in the Panjshir Valley.
As a guerrilla base the Panjshir couldn't have been better. Protected by the mountain ranges of the Hindu Kush and blocked at the entrance by a narrow gorge named Dalan Sang, the seventy mile long valley was the perfect staging area for raids against a highway that supplied the Soviet bases around Kabul, Afghanistan's capital. Massoud quickly organized his Panjshiri fighters, rumored to number as few as three thousand men, into defense groups comprising four or five villages each.
The groups were self sufficient and could call in mobile units if they were threatened with being overrun. Whenever a Soviet convoy rumbled up the highway, the mujahidin would mine the road, then wait in ambush. Most of the fighters would provide covering fire while a few insanely brave men worked their way in close to the convoy and tried to take out the first and last vehicles with rocket propelled grenades. With the convoy pinned down, the rest of the unit would pepper it with gunfire and then retreat. They rarely stood and fought, and the Soviets rarely pursued them beyond the protection of their armored vehicles. It was classic guerrilla warfare, and if anything, Massoud was amazed at how easy it was. For his defense of the valley, Massoud became known as the Lion of Panjshir.
Very quickly, the Soviets understood that there was no way to control Afghanistan without controlling the Panjshir Valley, and they started attacking it with forces of up to fifteen thousand men, backed by tanks, artillery, and massive air support. Massoud knew that he couldn't stop them, and he didn't even try. He would evacuate as many civilians as possible and then retreat to the surrounding peaks of the Hindu Kush; when the Soviets entered the Panjshir, they would find it completely deserted. That was when the real fighting began. Massoud and his men slept in caves and prayed to Allah and lived on nothing but bread and dried mulberries; they killed Russians with guns taken from other dead Russians and they fought and fought and fought, until the Soviets simply couldn't afford to fight anymore. Then the Soviets would pull back, and the whole cycle would start all over again.