Reflecting On Sept. 11, 2001
1:19 pm
Fri September 9, 2011

In Afghanistan, Assessing A Rebel Leader's Legacy

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 9:26 am

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.

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.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: And I'm Robert Siegel. Ten years ago today, a team of al-Qaida agents carried out a shocking assassination in the north of Afghanistan. It soon became clear that the killing formed part of their September 11th plan. Suicide bombers posing as journalists killed Ahmad Shah Massoud. He was the most famous Afghan resistance leader during the Soviet occupation and he later fought the Taliban.

These days, posters of Massoud still adorn shops in northern Afghanistan and today his admirers held a huge commemoration, but as NPR's Quil Lawrence reports, Massoud's legacy has not lived up to the legend.

QUIL LAWRENCE: If the people of the Panjshir River Valley are the proudest in Afghanistan, it's because of Ahmad Shah Massoud, who defended their region over three decades of war. They called him the Lion of the Panjshir.

SAID AKBAR: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: Soviet forces never managed to hold this place during their 10 year occupation of Afghanistan and the Taliban never made it here either, says Said Akbar, who fought for Massoud in the in the 1990s. He's picnicking up a narrow terrace in the shadow of the cliffs that vault up from the Panjshir River, part of the natural defenses that made the valley impossible to conquer.

His companion, Malik Jan, says 10 years ago, rumors spread that Commander Massoud had been wounded in an al-Qaida attack.

MALIK JAN: (Through Translator) As soon as I heard that he was injured, I knew he'd been killed because all the trees were all of a sudden - they looked very sad. The mountains, the rocks, everything was crying. There was a black cloud over the mountains for a couple of days.

LAWRENCE: 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 September 11th attacks and that allowed some to hope that the Taliban's days were numbered.

Up the valley, a windy hilltop mausoleum commands a view over the Panjshir. Every weekend, Afghans come to visit Massoud's white marble tomb. Women, men and children come and not just from Massoud's Tajik ethnic group.

AMRULLAH SALEH: Commander Massoud was fighting for a pluralistic Afghanistan.

LAWRENCE: Amrullah Saleh was a close advisor to Massoud and later served as the Afghan government's intelligence chief. He believes if Massoud had lived he would have united the country and Afghanistan would look much different now.

SALEH: 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. It is blurred by the wrong policies of President Karzai. There is confusion, massive confusion.

LAWRENCE: But some of Massoud's critics say he might have only added to that confusion, just like in 1991 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.

ALI MAHMAD: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: Ali Mahmad says he was a young boy when the warlords, Massoud among them, fought over Kabul with no regard for civilians. Mahmad's father didn't come home one day. He was an ethnic Hazara, and bystanders say he was shot after passing a Tajik checkpoint on his bicycle.

Mahmad says Ahmad Shah Massoud was a warlord just like all the others.

MAHMAD: (Through Translator) I hate all of them because they have never done anything for the national interest. They've always looked, you know, to fill their own pockets.

LAWRENCE: Critics say Massoud's lieutenants have not measured up, either. In the aftermath of the American invasion, many of them appropriated land and houses and soaked up massive profits from the continuing occupation.

That's a sore point with former foot soldiers like Said Akbar, who points up the Panjshir River to where Massoud's modest house still stands.

AKBAR: (Through Translator) Massoud's home is just only two blocks away from here. You saw that it's not a fancy house. Look at his friends today. Those who fought with him have now hundreds of homes in Kabul, making money. It's become a money-making business for them.

LAWRENCE: 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.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Kabul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.