Interview: Zubair Massoud

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Interview: Zubair Massoud

The nephew of the legendary mujahideen fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud on his family’s legacy and Afghan politics today.

Interview: Zubair Massoud
Credit: Zubair Massoud

Zubair Massoud, 25, is the scion of a prestigious political and military family from Afghanistan. He is the grandson of the former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani and nephew of the legendary mujahideen fighter and national hero Ahmad Shah Massoud, also known as the Lion of Panjshir. Ahmad Shah Massoud is renowned for his crucial role in defeating the Soviet army and leading the United Front (Northern Alliance) against the Taliban before the US invasion. Two days before 9/11 Massoud was assassinated – a tragic fate that also awaited Burhanuddin Rabbani ten years later. Zubair Massoud, who is currently working as Advisor to the National Security Council of Afghanistan, spoke with Maija Liuhto about the history of his family and the role of the youth in Afghan politics.

Both your uncle and your father were part of the mujahideen, fighting the Soviet occupation. Can you tell me a little bit about your childhood?

Like millions of other Afghans, my family had moved to Peshawar in Pakistan before I was born. The war in Afghanistan had made it difficult for us to stay there, so we’d had to leave and live in various countries during my childhood. During the 90s, my grandfather Burhanuddin Rabbani had just taken power and had become the president of Afghanistan. We briefly moved to Kabul until the Taliban came to the outskirts of the city. Due to the intense fighting that erupted in 1996 we had to leave again. Later that year the country witnessed a new kind of war, a war that continues today.

How do you remember your uncle? What do you think is his most important legacy? 

My uncle was a revolutionary. When the Red Army had invaded Afghanistan, the world thought it was impossible to defeat such a force, a nuclear power with a force of thousands of troops, attack helicopters and tanks. Yet my uncle, with a very small organized force, which increased in numbers on a day to day basis, inflicted heavy casualties to the Soviet troops and their morale by conducting guerrilla style warfare tactics in which the Red Army was forced to pull out and withdraw from the country in 1989. Later that year, the Soviet Union collapsed as did the Berlin wall. All these events started from Afghanistan, from a group of young men who believed in themselves when the odds were against them. I would say that is my uncle’s most important legacy. I learned not to lose hope even in the hardest of times.

The last memory I have of  my uncle was at our house in Kabul. It was an evening in 1995 in the midst of war, he came for a short period of time, had dinner with the family, spoke with my father and left to return to the battlefield. That was our last and final encounter.

Your grandfather Burhanuddin Rabbani was also an important figure in the history of Afghanistan. What was your grandfather’s vision for the country?

He was a true statesman, an academic and a politician who was always with his people. His vision was a united and free Afghanistan, an Afghanistan without the interference of neighboring countries. He stood against ethnic rivalry, and from the start of his political career he had managed to unite the people of Afghanistan from all different ethnic groups across the country against the Red Army and later on against Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Your family belongs to the Jamiat-e-Islami party, which was founded by your grandfather. The party has often been seen as being moderately Islamist. How would you describe the ideology of the party today?

The Jamiat-e-Islami party is an Islamic party but it has reformed much of its ideology since its formation. Many young people are actively involved in the party and it is they who constantly reform and modernize the party.

Over 60 percent of the Afghan population is under the age of 25. Are young people in Afghanistan interested in politics? What do you think are the main concerns and issues that are affecting them?

The youth of the Afghanistan have a very important role to play in the country. They account for half the population and undoubtedly dominate our economy and armed forces. We saw the interest of the youth in the political arena of Afghanistan in last year’s presidential election, when a large percentage of voters were young men and women. But what is worrisome is the fact that a large margin of our young generation are left without jobs; young men and women who have completed their undergraduate and master’s degrees are left without any work. As the U.S withdrawal went forward, many foreign and domestic companies started to either close down or minimize their staff, leaving thousands of young people unemployed and waiting for job opportunities. I believe if the youth are ignored and left jobless, they will find other means to make a living and this will be one of our biggest national security threats in the future, because young people could easily be influenced by the militants and other extremist groups to join their ranks.

How can young people become more engaged in politics and decision making processes in Afghanistan? Do you think the older parties are at all attractive to the younger generation?

The current government has managed to attract and appoint many younger people in different sectors of the government. Talented young individuals who have studied abroad and inside Afghanistan have been appointed to key positions within the government. This is a sign that the capabilities of the younger generation are very much in need now and in the future.

The youth of Afghanistan needs to gather around a single political body by forming their own political party, and voice their opinions, concerns and plans regarding the domestic and foreign policy of the country. As of now the youth speak through different channels like civil society, organizations, and by being social activists. It is a good step forward but to have a unified approach for or against any government policy in the country, they must form one united political party comprising all ethnic groups, both men and women, and to work among the people in even the most remote locations of Afghanistan. And this can be done if there is a will to work for it.

You have started your own organization called the Zubair Massoud Foundation. Could you tell me a little bit about your work and about what motivates you?

I started work on my foundation last year, as my target was to help and supply IDP’s (Internally Displaced People), the families of our fallen soldiers, and to provide scholarship programs for the youth, especially those less fortunate. I realized the financial situation of our citizens was dire even in the cities let alone in the remote valleys where people have no access to health care. Recently, my foundation collaborated with the Afghan German Hospital to open mobile health clinics in Paryan, Panjshir, a remote mountainous valley in the North of the country. The survey we conducted showed that an alarming 25 percent of villagers had schizophrenia, a serious mental disorder, and 50 percent have Hepatitis B.  Health care is a huge issue in Afghanistan and it is important for us to provide as much help to the people as possible.

There have recently been reports of peace talks taking place between the Taliban and the Afghan government in Pakistan. Both your uncle and your grandfather were assassinated by the group – do you believe in peace talks?

I believe in peace but not peace at any price. Throughout history we’ve seen countries that are fighting conventional wars or insurgencies that have a reconciliation or peace commissions which have representatives speaking on behalf of both parties. Before any reconciliation we first have to see where we stand – are we speaking to the enemy from a dominant position or has the enemy taken the upper hand in the war? Only through military and political pressure will the enemy be fully ready to lay down their arms and that is when the reconciliation process will have results.

What are your plans for the future? Do you see yourself remaining active in politics?

For now I will continue my work in the National Security Council, I want to contribute as much as possible in the security sector before the government’s term ends. I will also continue helping those in need through the Zubair Massoud Foundation. I believe it is the duty of every Afghan to help build this nation, because the country finds itself in a very crucial and historic stage. I do see myself remaining active in politics and working with the people, since politics runs in the family.

Maija Liuhto has previously written for Himal Southasian and the Friday Times.