Book Review of Afghan Napoleon: The Life of Ahmad Shah Massoud, by Sandy Gall

By Kelly Skinner

Sandy Gall’s Afghan Napoleon tells the long-neglected story of Ahmad Shah Massoud, a figure who has loomed large in both the public imaginations of Afghanistan and its neighboring country of Tajikistan. Massoud is best known for his struggle against the Soviet Union as part of the Mujahideen and, later, for facing down the Taliban as they moved to Kabul and gradually took control of Afghanistan in the 1990s. One of Gall’s key arguments is that the history of Afghanistan could have been a very different one had the United States and other world powers supported the democracy-supporting Massoud over other Mujahideen groups.

Gall’s book is fascinating for its ability to draw on never before seen sources such as Massoud’s personal diaries and his own experiences working as a correspondent in Afghanistan. The personal insights about Massoud from Gall’s own interactions with him, words from Massoud’s own diaries, and interviews with friends and family paint an intimate picture of Massoud’s family life and character. Afghan Napoleon does a good job showcasing Massoud’s personal life and inner thoughts in ways that few biographies are able to manage. Additionally, Gall’s experience as a correspondent in Afghanistan attunes him to the situation on the ground as well as realities of international politics and their influence on Massoud’s campaign. Combined, the intimate details of Massouds life and Gall’s attentive eye to global affairs gives the reader extensive personal and global contexts in which to place events.

However, these strengths are sometimes also the book’s shortcomings. Gall has a tendency to over-rely on Massoud’s diary entries throughout the book, often choosing to quote entire pages of his diary with very little commentary on these primary sources. This does not make for the most engaging reading, nor does it provide a critical lens through which to view these diary entries, leaving the reader to take them at face value. 

Additionally, the book shifts back and forth from relating Gall’s personal experiences in the field to rattling off battle information and relating Massoud’s thoughts and feelings as described in his diary. This approach makes it seem as if this book would be more effectively written as two separate ones. Gall’s own story as a witness to Massoud’s military campaigns and his extensive travels across Afghanistan is interesting enough to deserve a book of its own. However, Gall’s story, as woven through this biography of Massoud, feels out of place in a book which has trouble deciding whether it wants to be a travel story or an academic piece of work. 

It also seems that Gall’s closeness to Massoud sometimes prevents him from being able to write a balanced biography. The book is a resounding chorus of praise toward Massoud’s character and actions. While Massoud was certainly an impressive man with many positive traits, Gall’s book makes him out to be a Disney-esque hero without fault. This impression is only strengthened by the inclusion of statements by Massoud’s son and wife, with no mention of the opinions of his detractors. One of the only controversies associated with Massoud, questions over his involvement in massacres that took place in Western Kabul, was easily brushed aside in merely a page or two. According to Gall, not only was Massoud entirely blameless, he also likely prevented a much worse, full-scale ethnic war. While this may be true, the absence of any other flaws or mistakes attributed to Massoud makes pages 208-9 read as Gall relating a convenient narrative to support his argument that Massoud is a great man without fault. 

At several points throughout the book, Gall does not hesitate to opine about what world powers, particularly the US, should have done in Afghanistan. In the epilogue, Gall maps out five things that would not have happened if the United States had backed Massoud. In his mind, these include several atrocities committed by the Taliban, including the murder of several members of the Iranian Embassy increasing tensions between Iran and Afghanistan. Gall even goes as far to assert that the Taliban would not have given asylum to Osama bin Laden had the US given support to Massoud. He then continues to argue that the Taliban’s asylum allowed bin Laden to plot to kill Massoud and engineer the 9/11 attacks, suggesting that the US could have prevented 9/11 by backing Massoud. While historical speculation can be an entertaining game to play, Gall’s confidence about this alternative future is off-putting. In reality, had the US supported Massoud, there is no telling what would have happened. Whether or not that support would have gone as far as to prevent the 9/11 attacks is an unknown that could never be definitively proven. Neglecting to acknowledge this uncertainty, even while arguing his own opinion, is startling.

Lastly, Gall makes some peculiar choices throughout the book by including several generalizing statements about Afghans. These statements are surely meant to be compliments, but still risk coming across as unsubstantiated generalized assertions verging on orientalist. For example, he writes, “Afghans can walk all day– and night if necessary– and show no sign of tiredness…” (Pg. 13). While this does not subscribe to negative Afghan stereotypes, it is still a bizarre generalization to make.Overall, two main themes appear in Afghan Napoleon: praising Massoud and criticizing the United States for not giving him sufficient support. The book, however, struggles to present a balanced account of who Massoud was and is sometimes too speculative about alternative histories. Even so, the book does tell an important story that has not been widely talked about in the West. It is indeed noteworthy that this is the first-ever biography of Massoud written in English. Hopefully, even with its shortcomings, the book will pave the way for more work to come on such an interesting figure who deserves to have his story told to the world outside of Central Asia.

Afghan Napoleon: The Life of Ahmad Shah Massoud. By Sandy Gall. Haus Publishing. 2021. 368pp. £ 25. ISBN-13 9781913368227.

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