Afghanistan hopes for a hero but Massoud is gone
Those who recognise the name Ahmad Shah Massoud beyond his native Afghanistan are likely to know far more about how he died than how he lived. Indeed, his assassination two days before the September 11 attacks by suspected members of Al Qa'eda posing as journalists was a portend of horrors to come. The absence of Massoud's leadership served to make them more severe. His emergence as a national hero has less to do with his death than his life-long refusal to allow power or his own ethnic allegiance to corrupt his attempt to forge a greater Afghanistan. The university student who became a military leader was able to pit the interests of superpowers against one another without becoming dependant on any outside influence. In Massoud, the people of Afghanistan have a hero who possesses precisely the characteristics they believe to be most lacking among their leaders today.
There are many stories about Massoud's life that now serve as parables. One in particular, perhaps apocryphal, relates to an incident in northern Afghanistan in the late 1990s when a jeep with him and four Panshiri mujahideen drove into an unexpected Taliban roadblock. Outnumbered and outgunned, Massoud's men feared the worst.Massoud, however, simply exited the jeep,strode up to the roadblock and demanded to see whoever was in charge. The stunned Talib fighters fetched their commander, who sat and had tea with Massoud before they exchanged pleasantries and bade each other farewell.
When Afghans tell you that story it is not to illustrate the fact that the Talib fighters could sometimes be human, it's to paint a picture of Massoud as the great Afghan, someone who even the Taliban respected and feared. Along with many of the stories about the "Lion of Panjshir" it is to be taken with a pinch of salt. But the continued veneration of Massoud - and not just by his fellow Panjshiris - illustrates the deepening disenchantment of ordinary Afghans with their leaders.
The recent elections were a depressing spectacle for many in the country, with corruption and vote rigging believed to be widespread. "If only Massoud were alive," a man at the Landmine Museum in Kabul told me, "Kabul would be stable." This desire to live in the past - no matter how bleak - is a curious Afghan trait, particularly given Massoud's less than perfect performance in government following the Communist downfall in 1992. To be fair, Massoud had an almost impossible task. He had to keep a fragile Islamic coalition together and contain the ambitions of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran. There is a sense that Massoud was always more comfortable close to his hometown of Jangalak, a picturesque hamlet nestling on the western bank of the Panjshir River.
It was from Jangalak that Massoud, by the age of 30, had fought off six assaults by the largest conventional army in the world. Among the jagged cliffs and fast-flowing Panjshir River his legend was born. Rusting Russian tanks serve as a reminder of Massoud's tactical brilliance - the Taliban too failed to capture the Panshir, it being the only province out of 34 that their government didn't rule over.
This is how Afghans prefer to remember him - as the brave, whip-smart guerrilla leader that he was. The images of him that dot doors, windows and flags in many parts of Afghanistan are all taken from his years in the mountains. At his newly constructed tomb overlooking Jangalak, a teenager from Baghram had tears in his eyes as he described why Massoud is still thought of as a hero. "He cared about Afghanistan, not just his tribe - Pashtun, Tajik, Hazari; it did not matter, we were all Afghans to him."
Further south at one of the narrowest parts of the valley barely 50 metres wide, an armed checkpoint is manned by former Massoud fighters who now work for the Afghan National Army. Their fatigues are ragged, and there is no Afghan flag in sight. If the Panshir is the safest part of Afghanistan, then these are the men that ensure it stays that way. An older man talks of fighting the Taliban in order to secure a mountain a few miles from where he stands. "We fought for six hours, we had to get to the top and their [the Taliban] bodies would come right past us as they fell down the mountain. We lost many men," he says through a translator. He claims to be 58 but looks at least 70.
For his part, Massoud never ages; in death he is timeless and as his country deteriorates, his legend grows. For the West, Massoud was always seen as a moderniser; under the areas he controlled during the Taliban rule, women were free to go to school and forced marriages were frowned upon. He was also pragmatic, working with whoever would help his cause, but showing none of the bloodthirstiness of his fellow warlords.
Back in Kabul and the ISAF base is a respite from the choking traffic of the city, the only noise being the sound of Bob Marley blasting from a stereo. Soldiers from around the world play Texas Hold 'em poker and sip cans of Coke. The smell of barbequed meat wafts through the air. This could be anywhere - and that's the point. Behind 20 ft high blast walls men and women from more than 50 nations can pretend they are not in Afghanistan, for a few hours at least.
But even here, Massoud's memory endures. "He was straightforward and completely incorrupt ... And he cut across ethnic lines - no one in Afghan politics does that now," says one contractor. Another aid worker is more blunt. "While Karzai's family were serving hamburgers in the US, Massoud was beating the Russians." No one can mention Massoud in the positive without referring to Mr Karzai in the negative.
Even the pictures of him that plaster some of the buildings in central Kabul don't do Afghanistan's president any favours. He looks pale and ill at ease, his attempts at a regal bearing only inviting scorn. Massoud on the other hand is lean and handsome - he looks like a guerrilla leader should, dressed in fatigues and with a trimmed beard. The West may have invented political advertising, but Massoud's supporters have learned the trade well.
Mr Karzai's reaction on hearing of Massoud's assassination two days before September 11 is well documented: "What an unlucky country." As Mr Karzai's star dims, it may not be long before his luck runs out as well.
Conor Purcell is a writer based in Dubai
Updated: October 5, 2010 04:00 AM