Prague, 8 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A personality cult has developed around Ahmad Shah Mas'ud since his assassination by suspected Al-Qaeda operatives just two days before the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States.
Large photographs of the Northern Alliance commander from the Panjsher Valley are posted in vehicles, in store fronts and on billboards across Kabul. The photos usually depict Mas'ud with a pensive or compassionate expression. They rarely show him carrying the weapons that had been such an integral part of his life as he battled Soviet troops, rival Afghan militia groups, and the Taliban. Graffiti often declares Mas'ud as "the engineer of the downfall of the Taliban and the Soviet occupation."
Anatol Levin is an expert on Afghanistan at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He told RFE/RL that it is no surprise that Mas'ud's name is now being invoked by several leading Afghan presidential candidates. "Like many dead political figures with a great name, Mas'ud's name is being fought over by different individuals and groups [in Afghanistan] for their own purposes," he said. "His leadership of the Panjshiris and of the wider forces allied with the Panjshiris [against the Soviets and the Taliban] has turned him into a legendary figure with tremendous loyalty -- [not only] in the Panjsher [Valley], but also more widely among groups allied to the Panjshiris."
Some 20,000 Afghans gathered at the Olympic Stadium in Kabul today to commemorate Mas'ud's death. Afghan interim leader and presidential candidate Hamid Karzai was one of many government officials to address the crowd. "The martyred Mas'ud, the national hero of Afghanistan, is one of the most glittering and luminous figures of the jihad and resistance," Karzai said. "He struggled with valor against invading forces for more than two decades."
"It's very important for Karzai to reach out to the Panjshiris -- to try to persuade them that he's not a Pashtun representative out to reduce their power. So he has to woo the Panjshiris and woo Panjshiri leaders."
Levin explained that as an ethnic Pashtun from southern Afghanistan, Karzai needs an association with Mas'ud to increase his support from voters of other ethnicities in the north. "It's very important for Karzai to reach out to the Panjshiris -- to try to persuade them that he's not a Pashtun representative out to reduce their power," he said. "So he has to woo the Panjshiris and woo Panjshiri leaders. And one way of doing that is, of course, to invoke the name of Ahmad Shah Mas'ud to suggest that he -- Karzai -- also embodies Mas'ud's legacy. And he's done that by trying to make Mas'ud's brother [Ahmad Zia Mas'ud] his vice president -- turning him into his running mate."
But Levin said the strategy is complicated because Karzai also can't appear to be too close to militia commanders in northern Afghanistan, whose forces have committed atrocities against ethnic Pashtuns. "Although the Panjshiri soldiers under Mas'ud's command fought very well, they also committed numerous abuses against members of other ethnic groups," he said. "That history has also made [Mas'ud] an extremely controversial figure for some other ethnic groups in Afghanistan -- particularly for the Pashtuns."
Karzai's chief rival, former Education and Interior Minister Yunos Qanuni, has substantial support within the Panjsher Valley. Like Ahmad Shah Mas'ud, Qanuni is an ethnic Tajik Panjshiri. He fought beside Mas'ud against both the Soviets and the Taliban. He also served as Mas'ud's personal spokesman, as well as one of his senior military and political advisers.
Qanuni is campaigning as the candidate of Nahzat-e Melli-ye Afghanistan, the National Movement of Afghanistan. That political group is headed by Mas'ud's brother Ahmad Wali Mas'ud.
But Karzai's running mate -- Ahmad Zia Mas'ud -- also is a member of Nahzat-e Melli-ye. He said Qanuni has no right to run under the party banner.
Analysts say that argument is just one sign of a rift within the group. Another is a declaration by party leader Ahmad Wali Mas'ud that no candidate should use photos of his slain brother as part of their campaign. Qanuni's campaign has been doing just that by placing his posters next to Mas'ud's image.
Meanwhile, an ethnic Tajik religious hard-liner named Abdul Hafiz Mansur claims he is the only presidential candidate who represents Mas'ud's true legacy.
Mansur was the first director of Afghan state TV and radio after the collapse of the Taliban regime. His conservative Islamic views gained international attention -- and ultimately resulted in his sacking -- when he issued orders that banned television broadcasts of women singing.