Afghan com­man­der has af­ter­life as na­tional hero

Ahmed Shah Mas­soud was killed by Al Qaeda just be­fore 9/11

Los Angeles Times - - The World - Tony Perry re­port­ing from kabul, afghanistan

Be­fore there was 9/11 in Amer­ica, there was 9/9 in Afghanistan.

On the eve of the attacks on New York and the Pen­tagon, as­sas­sins work­ing for Osama bin Laden killed Ahmed Shah Mas­soud, mil­i­tary com­man­der of the an­tiTal­iban force known as the North­ern Al­liance.

Amer­i­can in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials say Bin Laden acted pre­emp­tively to elim­i­nate a nat­u­ral ally of the U.S. if Washington were to in­vade Afghanistan to top­ple the Tal­iban regime that had shel­tered Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda fol­low­ers.

In death, Mas­soud has been turned into a ubiq­ui­tous na­tional sym­bol by the Afghan govern­ment, with the en­cour­age­ment and sup­port of Amer­ica.

Pres­i­dent Hamid Karzai, soon af­ter tak­ing of­fice, pro­claimed Sept. 9 as Mas­soud Day. Com­mem­o­ra­tive cer­e­monies are held each year at Afghan mil­i­tary bases and at the domed mau­soleum over­look­ing the verdant Pan­jshir Val­ley north of Kabul that houses Mas­soud’s tomb.

In Kabul, the cap­i­tal, Mas­soud’s pic­ture is dis­played in the na­tional sta­dium, and the traf­fic round­about near the com­pound that in­cludes the U.S. Em­bassy is named for him.

Banners on busy streets of Kabul read, “Unity is Mas­soud.”

It’s all quite a turn­around for the im­age of the one­time en­gi­neer­ing stu­dent who helped lead the guer­rilla move­ment that ousted the Sovi­ets, served in the postSoviet govern­ment but then wound up a loser when the Tal­iban even­tu­ally took over.

At the time of his death at 48, Mas­soud had re­treated to the Pan­jshir Val­ley and was cut­ting deals with Tehran and Moscow in hopes of con­tin­u­ing his fight against the fun­da­men­tal­ist Mus­lim move­ment. He was killed by Al Qaeda agents pos­ing as tele­vi­sion jour­nal­ists con­duct­ing an in­ter­view.

Many Afghans now say their proud­est moment was fight­ing be­side Mas­soud.

Cab­drivers, farm­ers, shop­keep­ers and pro­vin­cial of­fi­cials will gladly tell re­porters about their re­la­tion­ship with Mas­soud, a for­mer Kabul Uni­ver­sity stu­dent who learned the tac­tics of Mao Tse-tung and Che Gue­vara in de­vel­op­ing a strat­egy to fight the Rus­sian oc­cu­pa­tion forces.

“Mas­soud and I were close,” said Afghan army Sgt. Maj. Barakat­ul­lah Kolis­tani, a leader at the NATO-run army train­ing camp in Kabul. “Once I was sur­rounded by en­emy and he sent a mes­sage, ‘I will res­cue you be­cause I need you. To­gether we will fight.’ ”

In the vil­lage of Nawa in Hel­mand prov­ince, the district gover­nor, Haji Ab­dul Manaf, talks joy­fully of fol­low­ing Mas­soud’s or­ders to am­bush Soviet troops, in­clud­ing send­ing ex­plo­sives­laden don­keys into their bivouacs at night.

“Mas­soud knew how to fight; we all fol­lowed him,” he said.

In his book, “Afghanistan: A Mil­i­tary His­tory from Alexan­der the Great to the War Against the Tal­iban,” Stephen Tan­ner notes that Mas­soud not only was brave, but he was one of the few re­sis­tance lead­ers to use mod­ern tac­tics: “di­vid­ing his men be­tween ag­gres­sive strike forces, troops com­mit­ted to sta­tion­ary de­fense and mo­bile re­serves.”

Mas­soud also in­sisted on unit dis­ci­pline, trained his men in ad­vanced weaponry and tried to in­stall civil­ian rule in ar­eas he con­trolled, writes Tan­ner, whose book has a pic­ture of a wist­ful Mas­soud, clutch­ing an AK-47, on the cover.

A fuller story con­tains mixed el­e­ments.

Like so much else in Afghanistan, the li­on­iz­ing of Mas­soud breaks down along eth­nic lines. Among Pash­tuns, the largest eth­nic group (and the one from which the Tal­iban move­ment is largely drawn), Mas­soud, a Ta­jik, is far from a revered fig­ure; in­deed, many Pash­tuns re­call him with out­right loathing.

The cult of Mas­soud is also a fre­quent source of ten­sion in the eth­ni­cally frac­tured ranks of the Afghan se­cu­rity forces. That is par­tic­u­larly true in the south, where Ta­jik sol­diers and po­lice of­fi­cers wind up deal­ing with a mainly Pash­tun pop­u­la­tion that re­gards them as be­ing nearly as alien as the Western forces in their midst.

Ques­tions re­main, as well, about civil­ian ca­su­al­ties in­flicted by his troops and deals he made, in­clud­ing with the Sovi­ets, dur­ing the decade-long oc­cu­pa­tion.

Dur­ing the fight against the Sovi­ets, the CIA pro­vided only min­i­mal as­sis­tance to Mas­soud, pre­fer­ring in­stead to back a re­sis­tance leader fa­vored by Pak­istani in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials, a fel­low Pash­tun. Mas­soud was deeply sus­pi­cious of the Pak­ista­nis and their sym­pa­thy for the Tal­iban and Bin Laden.

Al­though Karzai has paid trib­ute to Mas­soud, the pres­i­dent’s bit­ter ri­val, Ab­dul­lah Ab­dul­lah, at­tempted to po­si­tion him­self as Mas­soud’s right­ful heir dur­ing the dis­puted elec­tion last year. A close ad­vi­sor of Mas­soud, Ab­dul­lah com­pared Mas­soud’s rep­u­ta­tion for per­sonal in­cor­rupt­ibil­ity with Karzai’s more mixed his­tory.

The U.S. has en­cour­aged the el­e­va­tion of Mas­soud to na­tional hero sta­tus in hopes that his me­mory will serve as a ral­ly­ing cry against the resur­gent Tal­iban.

At a ded­i­ca­tion cer­e­mony in 2007 at the Mas­soud mau­soleum, a Ma­rine Corps gen­eral, James N. Mat­tis, told the hushed gath­er­ing that think­ing of Mas­soud gave him “some of the same emo­tions I felt when I vis­ited the grave of Ge­orge Washington, the fa­ther of our coun­try.”

The Pan­jshir Val­ley has a Bri­gadoon-ish qual­ity. Ac­ces­si­ble through a tight moun­tain pass, the val­ley opens up with ter­raced fields, a stream and tidy homes. The Sovi­ets launched mul­ti­ple air-and-land as­saults on the val­ley, only to be re­pulsed by Mas­soud’s troops.

Two weeks ago, Afghan mil­i­tary lead­ers and U.S. civil­ian and mil­i­tary of­fi­cials gath­ered to lay a wreath at the mau­soleum and cel­e­brate the me­mory of the man known as the “Lion of Pan­jshir.”

“Mas­soud was a sol­dier’s sol­dier,” said Army Lt. Col. James Briggs, com­man­der of the Pan­jshir Pro­vin­cial Re­con­struc­tion Team. “It was an honor to march along­side our Afghan mil­i­tary broth­ers dur­ing the re­mem­brance cer­e­mony. We were march­ing as one, in uni­son, in honor of Mas­soud.” Times staff writer Laura King in Kabul con­trib­uted to this re­port.

Musadeq Sadeq

REVERED: An Afghan ges­tures in front of an im­age of Ahmed Shah Mas­soud at a cer­e­mony this month in Kabul mark­ing the an­niver­sary of his as­sas­si­na­tion.

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