Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

The Lion’s Grave

Dispatches from Afghanistan

by Jon Lee Anderson

“Vital, eminently readable. . . . Anderson is a good, plain writer with an eye for detail.” –Wally Hammond, Time Out London (UK)

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 256
  • Publication Date September 17, 2003
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4025-8
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $15.00

About The Book

Jon Lee Anderson arrived in Afghanistan ten days before U.S. bombers began pounding Al Qaeda and Taliban forces. He followed the fighting and reported the peace–or what passed for it–as The New Yorker‘s only correspondent on the ground. Anderson witnessed the fall of Kunduz, one of the Taliban’s last bastions, and made a hair-raising trip across the Hindu Kush to Kabul, where the interim government was clumsily taking power. In Kandahar, he found that the Taliban were not simply the austere, self-abnegating men they claimed to be. His reports include portraits of warlords, crafty politicians, fighters who have a distinctly non-Western view of loyalty, and an American soldier of fortune. Anderson’s report on the search for Osama bin Laden in the caves of Tora Bora is published here for the first time. In the final dispatch, he investigates the assassination of the charismatic Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud–the Lion of the Panjshir–who was murdered by Al Qaeda agents two days before the attacks of September 11th in New York and Washington. Massoud’s death haunts all of Anderson’s stories about what happened in Afghanistan in the months that followed.

Anderson had covered the mujahideen’s war against the communist-backed government in Kabul over a decade earlier, but even seasoned reporters had a rough time moving around Afghanistan now. Most of the country had no electricity or phone service, and Anderson communicated with The New Yorker via e-mail over a satellite phone powered by a gasoline generator. He and his traveling companion, the young German photographer Thomas Dworzak, whose photographs accompany the dispatches here, fought their own battles with sandstorms, bandits, recalcitrant equipment, and officialdom. A selection of Anderson’s e-mails to the magazine frame the dispatches in The Lion’s Grave, providing an intimate narrative of what it was like to report a high-technology conflict in feudal terrain.

Jon Lee Anderson’s astutely observed accounts, in the distinguished tradition of New Yorker war reporting, illuminate a complex conflict in a society to which we will be inextricably bound for some time to come.


“Anderson is a war correspondent’s journalist. . . . [The Lion’s Grave] is an insightful book of dispatches that are different in focus from, but reminiscent, in their on-the-ground style, of the late Ernie Pyle’s reporting from North Africa durning World War II. . . . The strength of The Lion’s Grave goes beyond its character profiles to its effective navigation of the crisscrossing lines of Afghan politics. . . . [It] captures a time and place that no one who reads it will forget. . . . For anyone tired of instant journalism, this book reflects an older art.” –Frank Smyth, The Washington Post Book World

“Anderson sketches the topography and the personalities of Afghanistan with equal effectiveness. . . . These pieces will survive as a lucid account of the last days of the Taliban. . . . Anderson deserves a wide readership among those who want to review why America is engaged in an ongoing war on terrorism and reflect on the sacrifices some journalists make to cover wars and conflict.” –Michael Hedges, Houston Chronicle

“Paints a vivid portrait of a wasteland of a country, ravaged by decades of warfare and warlords. . . . The writing is smooth, at times even lyrical, and in a bit of smart storytelling, Anderson has framed chapters with e-mails he exchanged–via laptop and satellite phone–with his editor in New York.” –Neena Pellegrini, The Seattle Times/Post Intelligencer

“What Jon Lee Anderson delivers here is nothing short of miraculous: raw combat reportage composed with such grace that it’s easy to miss the bullets whizzing by. . . . Like Ryszard Kapuscinski before him, [Anderson’s reports] are as much literary travelogues as news dispatches. . . . [The Lion’s Grave is] an on-the-fly portrait of rough geography and shifting alliances.” –Bruce Barcott, Outside Magazine

“[Anderson’s] manner is refreshingly understated and [his] temper is mild; his powers of observation and his knack for first accessing tough stories and then conveying them are second to none.” –Austin Chronicle

“Journalist Jon Lee Anderson’s 2003 collection sets a new standard for war correspondence.” –Outside

“Jon Lee Anderson did more than any other reporter on the scene to lighten the murk of Afghanistan and help us come to terms with Taliban culture. But getting there was more than half the fun. Anderson’s reports to his editors at The New Yorker of his on-the-road travails, reprinted here, are as inside as it gets. His ability to get where he needed to be is, in itself, a compelling story.” –Seymour M. Hersh, author of The Dark Side of Camelot and The Samson Option

“Jon Lee Anderson is the real thing. In an age of celebrity journalists playing foreign correspondent on TV, and expert commentators who safely dissect wars from thousands of miles away, Anderson is on the front lines. He is a fearless, smart, dedicated, and trenchant reporter, whose careful writing does what the best journalism always does: it changes the way we see.” –Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down and Killing Pablo

“There were the seasoned war reporters who sneaked into places where few sane people dared to go. That’s what Anderson did in order to capture–better than television could–the nuances of a land ruled by gun-hugging tribal chiefs, ruthless warlords and gangs of renegade Taliban fighters. . . . This compelling book supports the widely held notion that no job in journalism is harder than the foreign correspondent’s. To understand September 11, we have to understand Afghanistan–and that’s what Anderson bravely helps us do.” –Alan Prince, Bookpage

“Intense, immediate reporting from the front lines in Afghanistan . . . The essays . . . offer snapshots of the war’s progress as Anderson chews over the progression of events with local Northern Alliance leaders, pokes around an abandoned bin Laden compound, interviews the occasional Afghan woman . . . and casts an eye over Kabul after the fall of the Taliban. . . . An important and eminently readable account from the heart of chaos.” –Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“A riveting account of developments in Afghanistan since September 11, 2001. The author’s reporting reflects an astute understanding of the constellation of sociopolitical forces in today’s Afghanistan. Anderson’s penetrating observations and his ability to bring life to his subject–the fall of Kandahar and Kunduz, the dangerous search of the Tora Bora caves–are admirable. Highly recommended.” –Nader Entessar, Library Journal

“A compelling look at the war and politics of an international hot spot. . . . In this graphic account, which includes his diary entries, Anderson recounts the arduous task of developing sources and reporting on the complexities of a nation caught up in its own ethnic and religious conflicts and its place in the new war on terrorism.” –Vanessa Bush, Booklist

“Vital, eminently readable. . . . Anderson is a good, plain writer with an eye for detail.” –Wally Hammond, Time Out London (UK)


From: Jon Lee 9/11/2001

Sharon, I am guessing you never made it to the office. I hope everyone at the New Yorker is OK. I have to say that Sri Lanka seems very small, remote, and entirely irrelevant. I feel like I should be heading for Afghanistan, which I fully expect to be flattened any day now. Is the magazine planning any special coverage? Is there something I can do to help?

From: Jon Lee 9/12/2001

I’ve reached my friend Peter, who is in Islamabad. He says that British Airways has cancelled flights to Pakistan but that the Emirates is still flying. As for visas from the Taliban to get into Afghanistan, this must be worked through their embassy in Islamabad. Peter says that journos, mostly TV crews, have already begun to swarm, but the Talib are being noncommittal and taking applications and telling people to come back in 15 days. He is working a connection inside the embassy whom he thinks is bribeable. (It might be possible to get a visa this way.) If the shit really hits the fan, of course, no visas would be needed.

One can always find a way to get smuggled in, as I did before, during Najibullah’s day.

There are two ways to proceed. One: forget going to Kabul and get into Northern Alliance territory through Tajikistan. (Wali Massoud, the brother of the wounded/dead? leader of the Northern Alliance, is their charg” d’affaires in London.) Or, two, take my chances with the Taliban out of Islamabad and then if that fails get myself up to the north.

If I want to keep my options open it would be good to get a second U.S. passport in London. The Talib won’t like it if they see a Northern Alliance visa, and vice versa.

From: Jon Lee 9/12/2001

I’ve talked with Wali Massoud. He says “no problem” but that the Tajiks can drag their heels about visas. I guess he will wait until I am in London to spell things out more clearly. Says his brother is not dead, and recuperating.

From: Jon Lee 9/15/2001

Am now in England. Everybody is saying that Massoud died yesterday.

A Lion’s Death

I met Wali Massoud a little over ten years ago, at a friend’s house in Wimbledon. He was in his mid-twenties, a slight, amiable man with black hair and a mustache. Wali was the youngest son of an ethnic Tajik officer in the Afghan army and had come to Britain to study international relations. He had a famous older brother, Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Lion of Panjshir, who led a band of mujahideen that fought off seven major offensives by Soviet forces in the great mountain valley of Panjshir, in northern Afghanistan, during the nineteen-eighties. In 1992, three years after the Soviets withdrew from the country, Massoud’s forces–the Jamiat-i-Islami (Society of Islam), a moderately conservative group composed mostly of ethnic Tajiks and led by the Islamic scholar Burhanuddin Rabbani–defeated the brutish regime the Soviets had left in power. Ahmed Shah Massoud became the defense minister and, later, vice president of the new Islamic State of Afghanistan.

In 1996, when the Taliban militia gained control of Kabul, the capital city, and most of the rest of the country, Massoud and Rabbani returned to the mountains in the north. With limited backing from Iran, Russia, and India, they fought off the Taliban and managed to hold on to somewhere between five and twenty percent of the country. Massoud led a motley coalition of tribal-based guerrilla forces that are usually referred to as the Northern Alliance but are officially called the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan.

Wali Massoud stayed in London. He got married, had two daughters, and earned an M.A. in diplomacy. He is now the charg” d’affaires at the Afghan embassy to the Court of St. James’s. The Northern Alliance controls Afghanistan’s UN seat and all of its forty-odd embassies, except for the one in Pakistan, which is run by the Taliban. The Taliban is officially recognized only by Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, and Osama bin Laden’s homeland, Saudi Arabia.

The London embassy is a cream-colored early-Victorian building across the street from Hyde Park in Knightsbridge. I met Wali Massoud there at 11 a.m. on Friday, September 14, while Londoners were standing for three minutes of silence in memory of the victims of the attack on the World Trade Center. Wali, who is just as thin and amiable as he was a decade ago, wore a gray pin-striped double-breasted suit and held a cell phone, which rang again and again, and which Wali answered each time, with an apology to me. The previous Sunday, his brother had been attacked at his headquarters while giving an interview to two Arabs carrying Belgian passports. They were posing as television journalists and carrying a bomb. When it went off, it killed one of the “journalists” and one of Massoud’s men and wounded Massoud and several other people. The second attacker tried to flee but was killed.

The suicide bombers had come into Northern Alliance territory from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, across the front lines, which was an unusual breach of security and has thus far not been explained. “They arranged this with someone at headquarters,” a Northern Alliance official in London told me. “We are investigating.” He said that the men are believed to have been either Moroccan or Algerian, and that they travelled from London to Pakistan before reaching Afghanistan. They are suspected of having links to an extremist group, the Islamic Observation Centre, in London.

Initial press reports said that Massoud had died in the attack, but all week Wali had been telling me that his brother was recovering. He was about to leave for Afghanistan, he said, to be with him. Wali was concerned about the stability of the coalition. Massoud was an extraordinarily gifted military tactician and was revered by his people. “The opposition can continue to function,” Wali said, “but not the same as before.” Then the phone rang again, and this time, as he listened, Wali hunched forward in his chair, holding his knees tightly together. He repeated the Farsi word bale–”yes”–and his voice became barely audible. He seemed about to weep.

Later that evening, the BBC confirmed Massoud’s death. After the attack, he had been taken to a hospital in Tajikistan by helicopter. On Saturday, September 15th, his body was brought back to his hometown, the mountain village of Basarak, where he was buried. His thirteen-year-old son, Ahmed, spoke. “I want to be my father’s successor,” he said. While Massoud’s bereaved relatives and thousands of followers were observing a period of mourning, the Taliban launched a large-scale military offensive against the Northern Alliance.

The timing and circumstances of the attack on Massoud, which came just two days before the strike on the United States, do not appear to be coincidental. Anyone who knew that the United States was going to be attacked and that Osama bin Laden and the Taliban would be blamed would also have known that Massoud would suddenly become an important ally for the West. “Without very good intelligence in Afghanistan, you can’t do anything,” an Afghan living in London said to me. “Bin Laden has a thousand caves to hide in.” Ahmed Shah Massoud had been waging war in Afghanistan for more than twenty years, and he knew most of its hiding places.

Excerpted from The Lion’s Grave: Dispatches from Afghanistan

©2002 by Jon Lee Anderson. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.