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Afghanistan: Kabul Commemorates Late Hero Massoud

  • Charles Recknagel

As delegates in Bonn today reached an agreement on an interim administration for Afghanistan, the government in Kabul held a memorial service for the assassinated anti-Taliban commander Ahmed Shah Massoud. The services illustrated that while most Afghan leaders remain controversial for the population, Kabul has found at least one hero in the deceased ethnic Tajik commander.

Kabul, 5 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Afghan leaders may be working out the details of who will administer Afghanistan, but the most revered leader in Kabul today is a man who is now some three months dead.

Pictures of that man, ethnic Tajik commander Ahmed Shah Massoud, are everywhere in the Afghan capital. Far fewer are the posters of the city's current de facto leader, President Burhanuddin Rabbani. UN-sponsored peace talks in Bonn decided today that ethnic Pashtun leader Hamid Karzai will lead Afghanistan's new six-month interim government, due to take power 22 December.

The pictures of Massoud, assassinated on 9 September by suspected agents of Osama bin Laden, not only cover the windshields of trucks, taxis, and the windows of barber shops. They even dignify slogans intended to help rebuild the country. One picture of Massoud, prominently displayed at a central traffic circle, bears the words, "Drug abuse is foreign to Islam."

The Northern Alliance, which controls Kabul, today conducted a memorial service for Massoud, the first in the capital since he was killed three months ago in the northern Takhar Province. The memorial, held in several mosques around the city, brought out hundreds for prayer services and speeches by top government officials remembering the battlefield commander.

Mohammed Zubair was among the mourners who gathered at the Park Karade Parvan mosque for one memorial service. He said he has been a supporter of Massoud for many years. He said, "Massoud started fighting 20 years ago, and from that time we were with him. Now we want to take part in his funeral service, and our families are also taking part. Twenty years ago I was a young man and even then I honored him. He was a great hero."

Massoud, who was 48 at the time of his death, is a popular figure in Kabul -- particularly among Dari speakers like Zubair -- because of his role as the preeminent military leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. The alliance, composed largely of Afghanistan's ethnic minority Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks, evicted the largely Pashtun Taliban from Kabul early last month. But Afghans of all ethnic groups also recognize Massoud for his years as one of the most successful mujahedin commanders in the Soviet-Afghan war of 1979 to 1989.

The Northern Alliance, which formed close ties with Moscow to battle the Taliban, today underplays Massoud's anti-Soviet role. A common poster of Massoud in Kabul hails him as a hero who battled terrorism and fought to liberate Afghanistan for 23 years. But the poster stops short of mentioning the mujahedin commander's Soviet enemy by name. Still, ordinary Afghans often refer to his successes against Moscow when speaking of him.

Mohammed Asef, a middle-aged man from a village north of Kabul, says he came to the memorial services because, of Afghanistan's leaders, Massoud alone retains his respect. He explains, "Massoud was exactly what a 'mujahid' should be. He never left the country. The other leaders left, but he continued to fight, even with an empty stomach and among the stones of the Panjsher Valley. Now we feel sorry that he is martyred and we wish that he were here now."

Massoud was often seen as a politically divisive figure who could be ruthless with rival groups. But he is also remembered for once saying that even if he still held a piece of Afghanistan no larger than his hat, he would continue to defend it. At the lowest point in the Northern Alliance's fortunes, the loose anti-Taliban coalition retained control of only some 5 percent of the country. Other commanders at times sought refuge in other countries following their setbacks. Ethnic Uzbek General Abdul Rashid Dostum spent some time in Turkey, and Dari-speaking warlords retreated at times to Iran. But Massoud is remembered for not making his first trip abroad until shortly before his death, when he sought to build international support against the Taliban on a visit to Europe.

The respect accorded here to the late Massoud also may reflect the extent to which many of Afghanistan's living political and military leaders remain highly controversial. Rabbani, who attended one of the memorial services today, is widely blamed for the violent excesses of his rule from 1992 until 1996, when the Taliban forced him from the city. Another warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, is best remembered for his siege on Kabul in 1993, which destroyed a large part of the city center in rocket attacks.

The challenge for Afghanistan's newly announced interim administration will be to introduce some living figures into the country's very small pantheon of popular heroes. The administration is to award its key ministries -- of foreign affairs, defense, and interior -- to the Northern Alliance, and will grant two government posts to women. But its success may well depend on its ability to bring fresh faces into power to signal a clear break from Afghanistan's recent warlord-dominated past.

Part of that credibility could also depend on what role is played by Afghanistan's only other widely popular figure these days, former king Zahir Shah. The king, whose picture is rare today in Kabul's streets, is considered a unifying figure by many Afghans who remember his 40-year rule -- which ended in 1973 -- as a golden time. But so far, the future role of the now 87-year-old king remains unclear, although a relative said today Zahir Shah would return to Kabul early next year. The former king, however, has said that he is not interested in reclaiming the throne.