Kabul, Afghanistan – A week-long commemoration is underway in Afghanistan marking the life of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Tajik guerrilla leader who led a poorly equipped force that helped humble a superpower.
Known as the “Lion of Panjshir” due to his fierce resistance to Soviet attacks, Massoud was killed 11 years ago on September 9 by al-Qaeda assassins posing as journalists.
In his mid-20s when Red Army marched into Afghanistan, Massoud organised resistance from the northern Panjshir Valley, and relentlessly attacked the Soviets’ vital supply line along the Salang Pass.
He quickly became a thorn in the Russians’ side, and they retaliated with large-scale offensives. But his outnumbered and outgunned fighters repeatedly repulsed the onslaughts.
After helping defeat the Soviets, Massoud fought against the Taliban and al-Qaeda as the leader of the Northern Alliance, cementing his reputation as a deft military strategist.
Today, his image inundates the Afghan capital: A billboard atop a mountain overlooks Kabul, in a square at one of its busiest intersections, and a giant portrait graces the exterior of Kabul airport’s arrivals terminal. Countless Massoud photographs are found in the cars, homes and businesses of the city’s residents.
President Hamid Karzai has deemed Massoud a “national hero of Afghanistan”, and the anniversary of his death has become known as “Martyr’s Week”.
Omar Samad, an Afghanistan expert at the US Institute of Peace, said the pervasiveness of Massoud’s image is in contradiction to the humility he exhibited in life.
“Ironically, as a modest person … he did not like to be called a ‘hero’ or even have his pictures displayed,” Samad told Al Jazeera.
Not a saint
Massoud’s heroic status, however, is as much a government orchestration as it is popular sentiment, and rivals challenge his reputation as Afghanistan’s best-known mujahidin fighter.
The Hezb-e-Islami group is led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, another mujahidin leader who fought the Soviets. Hekmatyar’s faction was the chief rival of Massoud’s Jamiat-e-Islami group.
“He is a hero who led a clear struggle for the values of the people. Even more than billboards here and there, he is in the hearts of people “
– Abdullah Abdullah, former Afghan foreign minister
An ex-commander of Hezb-e-Islami praised Massoud’s military prowess, but said he also had blood on his hands. “He was a good strategist,” Islamuddin, who goes by one name, told Al Jazeera.
But it was Massoud’s strategic competence that led to many deaths in Kabul, Islamuddin said, as his forces fought rival factions in the 1990s for power after the 1989 Soviet withdrawal.
“If Massoud was a good person, then who killed thousands of Pashtuns, Hazaras and Uzbeks?” Islamuddin asked of the Tajik leader’s legacy. “We fought. We killed. But it was all because of Massoud.”
He accused Massoud of taking over Kabul in the early ’90s, but not affording people the “respect and roles they deserved”.
Criticism of Massoud is not limited to political enemies who fought against him during the civil war between 1992 and 1995.
Haroon, a 32-year-old ethnic Pashtun, is a lifelong resident of the western Kabul neighbourhood of Karteh Seh. He said Massoud’s forces targeted the area with constant fire. “For five years, anything that moved would be shot at,” said Haroon, who like many Afghans also goes by one name.
Two men who knew Massoud well remembered a conversation he had with his rival Hekmatyar, prior to the battle over Kabul.
Abdullah Abdullah, the former foreign minister and Massoud ally, recalled to Al Jazeera the 10-minute conversation in which Massoud, “begs Hekmatyar not to send troops into Kabul, to instead find a political solution”.
But, Hekmatyar “insisted on entering Kabul”, said Fahim Dashty, an Afghan journalist, politician and analyst.
Dashty was in the room in 2001 when the two Arabs pretending to be journalists detonated their camera and killed Massoud. He suffered burns to two-thirds of his body.
Different than the others
Massoud was not an ordinary Afghan guerrilla. He spoke fluent French and – in between coordinating attacks against the Red Army – was known to recite poetry and play football with his fighters.
To his supporters, Massoud was a humble and astute leader who devoted 30 of his 48 years to defending Afghanistan.
But some question why Massoud is glorified, and other mujahidin who helped oust the Soviets are not.
“Did you see television today? It’s all about him,” said a former high-ranking official who asked not to be identified. “What did he do that we didn’t? It wasn’t just him. Who here isn’t a martyr in some way?”
But Abdullah said Massoud’s character was different from other guerrilla leaders.
A medical doctor by trade, Abdullah said he often heard stories of Massoud while working at a refugee hospital in the Pakistani border city of Peshawar in 1983. Massoud quickly gained a reputation for selflessness among refugees and mujahidin alike, he said.
“He is a hero who led a clear struggle for the values of the people,” said Abdullah. “Even more than billboards here and there, he is in the hearts of people.”