When Lieutenant General Mohammad Zahir Aghbar was part of a resistance force involved in anti-Russian operations in Afghanistan, he was perhaps the only commander who could pursue a sport. That was a perk extended to the former intelligence chief who was part of the inner circle of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the military commander who led the fight against the Russians and later the Taliban.
“I have been in many a battle while fighting for Massoud. I was also an intelligence chief, so I was very close to him. Personally, I have headed operations during which our forces killed Russians and the Taliban,” says the one-time handball centre forward, known for his goal-scoring knack, recalling days when he lived at the vortex of mortars and gunfire in a deadly war for survival, battling an occupation force.
Today, he leads a considerably more relaxed life, watching over the Afghanistan contingent at the South Asian Games, accompanying the 182-strong squad as president of the Afghanistan National Olympic Committee. From planning battlefield strikes, these days he deals with the logistical and sporting problems of his squad.
Aghbar says he was allowed to pursue his love for handball even during the resistance because Massoud too loved football and chess. But on one occasion, he was chided for clandestinely transporting sports equipment in an aircraft, which was carrying other “vital equipment”.
His phone has a folder with photographs of him and Massoud at different locations. He prefers not to give names to places where has been photographed with the Lion of Panjshir but zooms into one picture — both are in battle fatigues, inspecting a rocket launcher. Today, Aghbar is still waging a war against those he calls “elements who don’t want to see sports progress”.
The Afghanistan contingent would have missed the 12th South Asian Games due to lack of funds. They could make the trip only because the Indian government funded it.
“Our national Olympic association is short of funds because our government has to spend a lot of money on trying to keep the country safe. Our people are constantly under attack. Sport has always had to live in the shadow of war. Our athletes are under constant threat because stadiums are a prime target too,” Aghbar said.
“We want sport to turn into a platform for unity, and for moving ahead. But there are many barriers. Our athletes don’t have the kind of facilities which most countries have. But the fact that we have a two-time Olympic medalist in taekwondo (Rohullah Nikpai) proves that we have the mettle to win against the best in the world,” he said.
The Afghanistan squad here has its largest ever contingent of women athletes — 30 in all. With Aghbar is Robina Jalali, the two-time Olympian sprinter who is now vice-president of the National Olympic Committee.
“Afghanistan women are as strong as men. Years of war has made them fearless. They just need the opportunity to play and compete with freedom,” Jalali, who is also an athletics coach, said.
Aghbar makes special mention of the women’s basketball team and the cycling team. But the cycling squad could not make the trip because of visa-related issues.
“If Massoud was still alive, perhaps things would have been different for Afghanistan and its sportspersons. I was with him when he was assassinated. It remains a dark day for me. But as his trusted commander, I am doing what he would have done. That is fighting without fear of failure.”