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Afghan hero's legend grows, reveals schism



JANGALAK, Afghanistan » Each September, thousands of people flock to this tiny village along the rushing waters of the Panjshir River like pilgrims to a holy shrine, coming to commemorate the death of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the most celebrated hero of the Afghan resistance.

Aging men with war-gnarled limbs march with grandsons in tow up a winding path lined with placards bearing Massoud's portrait: a time-softened image with the beatific quality of a shepherd cradling a lamb. They recite prayers at his black-marble tomb and circle back down in a flowing parade of adoration.

Younger men — too young to have fought alongside him but who grew up on tales of his tactical genius against the Russians and later the Taliban government — spill out of pickup trucks waving black flags and whooping as if they had won all those battles themselves.

"He was a hero, 100 percent," said Mohammad Aslam, 68, a former mujahedeen fighter, who was among an estimated 50,000 devotees who trekked here for Saturday's event, part of a weeklong series of festivities across parts of the country marking the 10th anniversary of the death of the man they knew as the Lion of Panjshir.

As Americans observe the day 10 years ago when terrorists in hijacked planes attacked New York and the Pentagon, the people of northern Afghanistan remember what for them was a greater tragedy two days earlier on Sept. 9, 2001. It was then that two agents of al-Qaida posing as journalists detonated a bomb hidden in a television camera during an interview with Massoud, killing him instantly.

For his closest aides, who first tried to keep his death a secret, fearing that the truth would sink the besieged Northern Alliance for good, the collapse of the World Trade Center towers was a sign of hope. They instinctively saw a nexus in the two acts — though one has never been proved — and knew that the Americans would soon be on their way.

"I sort of woke up out of this shock I had been in since Sept. 9," Abdullah Abdullah, the Northern Alliance's former foreign minister, recalled about hearing the news of the attacks in New York. "It automatically came to my mind that out of this tragedy, there might be an opening."

A decade later,B millions more children, including girls, go to school;B access to health care has expanded;B roads in many places, including leading up to this valley, are better.B But amid the signs of progress there are also growing concerns as foreign forcesB set the stage for withdrawal. The Taliban continue to assert themselves with suicide attacks — the latest was Saturday, in an attack on a NATO combat outpost in Wardak province that killed two civilians, the Associated Press reported. Confidence in President Hamid Karzai's corruption-addled government is faltering on multiple fronts.

Many of Massoud's former allies in the north, some of whom have profited mightily in the land grabs and cash giveaways that followed the U.S. invasion, have signaled resistance to Karzai's efforts to negotiate a peace settlement with the Taliban.

"Dig the trenches, bring out the ammunition and let's get ready for the next civil war," one senior Western diplomat said recently, only half in jest.

In the ceaseless turmoil, Massoud's legend has only grown, fostering imaginings of what could have been, if only he had lived.

"The reason I loved him was because he knew how to relate to the people," said Aslam, the former fighter. "If he were still alive, this would be a strong country now."

But like so much else in Afghanistan, memories of Massoud are tempered by ethnic and geographical divisions. He was declared a national hero in 2002, and Sept. 9 is a national holiday. But his posters, so present in the north, are nowhere to be found in the south.

An ethnic Tajik, Massoud is remembered by many in the Pashtun-dominated south for his days after the Soviet retreat, when he and the Tajik-centric government failed to unify the tempestuous mujahedeen factions that fractured before they could even celebrate their victory over the Communist-backed government of President Mohammad Najibullah.

With Massoud as defense minister and Burhanuddin Rabbani as president, Kabul became the center of a civil war, as formerly united rebel commanders, each with his own militia, shelled one another and battled it out on the streets. In 1993 alone, an estimated 10,000 civilians died, compared with 2,777 last year, the most since U.S. troops arrived in 2001.

The chaos gave rise to the Taliban in the south, who by September 1996 had marched into Kabul, forcing Massoud and his forces to flee back to the Panjshir Valley, the same isolated redoubt high in the Hindu Kush mountains where he had held off the Russians time and again.

"We know that Massoud was a great man," said Hajji Ahmad Khan Muslim, a political analyst and tribal elder in the southern city of Kandahar. "But we have numbers of national heroes in the south. It's not fair that only one person should emerge as a hero."

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