In Afghanistan, Assessing A Rebel Leader's Legacy

  • On Sept. 9, 2001, al-Qaida agents assassinated Afghan resistance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, the opening gambit in the terrorist group's Sept. 11 plan. Ten years later, on the anniversary of Massoud's death, a man carries a photo of Massoud after visiting his tomb and shrine in Afghanistan's Panjshir Valley.
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    On Sept. 9, 2001, al-Qaida agents assassinated Afghan resistance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, the opening gambit in the terrorist group's Sept. 11 plan. Ten years later, on the anniversary of Massoud's death, a man carries a photo of Massoud after visiting his tomb and shrine in Afghanistan's Panjshir Valley.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Afghans pray at Massoud's tomb. Known as the" Lion of the Panjshir," Massoud was a key figure in helping defeat the Soviet army in Afghanistan and leading the resistance against Taliban rule.
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    Afghans pray at Massoud's tomb. Known as the" Lion of the Panjshir," Massoud was a key figure in helping defeat the Soviet army in Afghanistan and leading the resistance against Taliban rule.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • An Afghan man prays over Massoud's grave. Even today, posters of Massoud still adorn shops in the country's north.
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    An Afghan man prays over Massoud's grave. Even today, posters of Massoud still adorn shops in the country's north.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Afghans near the tomb. Massoud supporters say he would have been able to provide much-needed leadership in Afghanistan today. But critics say the selfish and corrupt behavior of some of his followers has tarnished his reputation.
    Hide caption
    Afghans near the tomb. Massoud supporters say he would have been able to provide much-needed leadership in Afghanistan today. But critics say the selfish and corrupt behavior of some of his followers has tarnished his reputation.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Afghan boys play on an old Soviet artillery gun outside the shrine.
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    Afghan boys play on an old Soviet artillery gun outside the shrine.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • An Afghan youth prays over Massoud's grave.
    Hide caption
    An Afghan youth prays over Massoud's grave.
    David Gilkey/NPR

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Ten years ago Friday, a team of al-Qaida agents carried out an assassination that was the first step in their plan leading to the Sept. 11 attacks. In the north of Afghanistan, suicide bombers posing as journalists killed Ahmad Shah Massoud, the most famous leader of Afghan resistance against Taliban rule.

Today, posters of Massoud still adorn shops around northern Afghanistan, and admirers held a huge commemoration of him Friday near his home.

But 10 years after his death, Massoud's legacy has been overshadowed by a grueling war that grinds on with no end in sight.

Shown here in 1997, the "Lion of the Panjshir," Ahmad Shah Massoud (left), fought against the Soviets in the 1980s, was a central figure in the Afghan civil war of the '90s and led the resistance against the Taliban until his death on Sept. 9, 2001, the victim of al-Qaida suicide bombers. i i

Shown here in 1997, the "Lion of the Panjshir," Ahmad Shah Massoud (left), fought against the Soviets in the 1980s, was a central figure in the Afghan civil war of the '90s and led the resistance against the Taliban until his death on Sept. 9, 2001, the victim of al-Qaida suicide bombers. Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
Shown here in 1997, the "Lion of the Panjshir," Ahmad Shah Massoud (left), fought against the Soviets in the 1980s, was a central figure in the Afghan civil war of the '90s and led the resistance against the Taliban until his death on Sept. 9, 2001, the victim of al-Qaida suicide bombers.

Shown here in 1997, the "Lion of the Panjshir," Ahmad Shah Massoud (left), fought against the Soviets in the 1980s, was a central figure in the Afghan civil war of the '90s and led the resistance against the Taliban until his death on Sept. 9, 2001, the victim of al-Qaida suicide bombers.

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Sorrow In The Valley

If the people of the Panjshir River Valley are the proudest in Afghanistan, it's because of Massoud, known as the "Lion of the Panjshir."

He first made his name as a rebel fighter against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. After the Soviets pulled out, he was a central figure in the Afghan civil war that pitted the rival factions against one another in the 1990s. And then he led the resistance against the Taliban until his death.

"Soviet forces never held this place, and the Taliban never made it here either," says Said Akbar, who fought for Massoud in the 1990s.

Akbar is picnicking on a narrow terrace in the shadow of cliffs that vault up from the Panjshir River, part of the natural defenses that made the valley impossible to conquer. Akbar also credits Massoud's leadership and guerrilla genius.

Ten years ago, after the al-Qaida hit squad detonated a bomb it had concealed in a TV camera, rumors spread down the valley.

Malik Jan is another former Massoud follower.

"As soon as I heard that he was injured I knew he was killed," Jan says. "All the trees looked sad, the mountains, the rocks, everything was crying, there was a black could over the mountains for a couple of days."

Jan says tens of thousands of people turned out for the funeral a week after his death. They were afraid of facing the Taliban without Massoud to lead them, but news had begun to reach Afghanistan of the Sept. 11 attacks, and that allowed some to hope that the Taliban's days were numbered.

This weekend, thousands again made the pilgrimage up the Panjshir, to a windy hilltop mausoleum that commands a view over the valley. Women, men and children came, and not just from Massoud's Tajik ethnic group.

"Commander Massoud was fighting for a pluralistic Afghanistan," says Amrullah Saleh, a close adviser to Massoud who later served as the Afghan government's intelligence chief. Saleh believes that Massoud possessed the kind of leadership that is sorely lacking in Kabul today.

"He would have articulated a vision for Afghanistan so the people would have understood the direction of the country. That narrative is no longer, now, in the country. ... It is blurred by the wrong policies of President Karzai. There is confusion, massive confusion," says Saleh.

A Trail Of Blood, Corruption

But some of Massoud's critics say he might have only added to that confusion — as in 1992 when he and other resistance leaders fought a civil war after driving out the Soviet-sponsored government. The criticism of Massoud gets more pointed if you ask around the west Kabul neighborhoods that saw the fury of Massoud's Tajik troops during the civil war.

"Massoud is responsible for the killing here. He did fight the Taliban, but for us his hands are bloody," says Ali Mahmad, who was a young boy when rival ethnic warlords, Massoud among them, fought over Kabul with no regard for civilians.

Mahmad says his father — an ethnic Hazara — didn't come home one day, and bystanders say he was shot after passing a Tajik checkpoint on his bicycle. His family was forced to sell their grocery store to survive. Mahmad is now jobless, while he sees the same warlords from the civil war in positions of wealth and power.

"I hate all of them, because they've never done anything for the national interest, only fill their own pockets," he says.

Massoud's lieutenants have not measured up either, according to Said Akbar, the former foot soldier in Panjshir. In the aftermath of the American invasion, many leaders of Massoud's Northern Alliance appropriated land and houses, and they still retain influence over the army and many government ministries. In particular, current Vice President Muhammad Qasim Fahim became one of the richest, most powerful men in Afghanistan.

"Massoud's home is two blocks away from here," says Akbar, pointing up the winding road along the Panjshir River. "It's not a fancy house. Look at his friends today. Those who fought with him have hundreds of homes in Kabul. It's become a moneymaking business for them."

Akbar is now a captain in the new Afghan army, and he's been fighting the insurgents down in the troubled south — something he sees as a much better way to carry on the legacy of Massoud.

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