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Afghanistan: One Year After His Death, Massoud Remains Key Figure

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

A year ago, Afghanistan's most celebrated military commander was killed by two suicide bombers with suspected links to Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network. A veteran of the war against the Soviet occupation, Ahmad Shah Massoud was the charismatic leader of the Northern Alliance forces, a loose anti-Taliban coalition that a year ago controlled a mere 10 percent of Afghan territory. Today, Masood's ethnic Tajik kin are back in Kabul, where they hold key ministries in the Transitional Administration of President Hamid Karzai. The anniversary of Massoud's death is being commemorated today in the Afghan capital and in the Panjshir Valley, the former stronghold of the late commander. Could the cult surrounding Massoud help foster national reconciliation, or will it -- to the contrary -- only exacerbate ethnic divisions?

Prague, 9 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan today commemorates the first anniversary of the death of commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, the most celebrated figure in the country's recent history.

On 9 September 2001, Massoud was assassinated in his Panjshir Valley stronghold by two Arab-born suicide bombers with suspected Al-Qaeda links. The bombers were posing as journalists.

Massoud's death was likely meant to mark a turning point in the Taliban militia's seven-year struggle for complete control of Afghanistan.

But the assassination, which became public just hours before the 11 September attacks on the United States, instead coincided with the beginning of the end of the militia's domination. The Taliban and its Al-Qaeda allies, whom the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush holds responsible for the 11 September attacks, have spent the last year on the run from U.S.-led troops across Afghanistan.

The militia has since been replaced by the Transitional Administration run by Hamid Karzai, a U.S.-backed Pashtun tribal leader whose authority beyond the Afghan capital Kabul is tenuous at best.

Despite Washington's efforts, remnants of Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters continue to oppose armed resistance in southern Afghanistan. Although they have not provided any evidence to sustain their claim, Afghan security officials blame the two groups for last week's assassination attempt on Karzai in the Taliban's former southern stronghold of Kandahar. Investigations are continuing into both the attempted murder and a car bombing that killed 26 people in Kabul that same day.

Despite concerns for his security, Karzai went ahead with a planned visit to the Panjshir Valley on 7 September to visit Massoud's grave.

Accompanied by two of the late commander's comrades-in-arms, Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and Defense Minister Mohammad Qassem Fahim, the Afghan leader paid tribute to Massoud, pledging to "continue to fulfill the obligations and desires" of the legendary commander.

Hours before, Karzai inaugurated a two-day seminar in Kabul to mark the anniversary of Massoud's death. The Afghan leader praised the late commander for the role he played in Afghanistan's 22-year struggle for independence, first against the Soviet occupation, then against the Taliban, which many in Afghanistan and abroad consider an offshoot of Pakistani and Saudi secret services.

"Not only did [Massoud] fight the Soviets in his country. He also fought all those foreigners who wanted to dominate and destroy Afghanistan, to eliminate Afghan culture and history. He fought against those who wanted to misuse the religion of Islam and turn Afghanistan into a enslaved country."

If Massoud had already acquired legendary status in life, he has turned into a sort of deity since his death.

Pictures of the man whose military skills had won the nom de guerre of "The Lion of the Panjshir" adorn street corners, shop windows, and private apartments in the Afghan capital -- far outnumbering pictures of Karzai. One of Kabul's main roads has been named after Massoud, whose giant portrait also dominates the city's football stadium where the now toppled Taliban used to carry out public executions.

Some 10,000 people were due to attend a commemorative celebration in the Kabul stadium today, while another 20,000 worshippers were expected to visit Massoud's shrine in the Panjshir Valley.

Yet, one year after his demise, Massoud remains a controversial figure who has still the power to unite or divide Afghans.

For example, the Hazaras -- a 4 million-strong, predominantly Shia Muslim community that lives primarily in Afghanistan's central highlands -- harbor vivid memories of the massacre of hundreds of their ethnic kin in Kabul by Massoud's troops during the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal.

And in southern Afghanistan, frustration is high among Pashtuns, who disapprove of Karzai's latest cabinet configuration, which left most key ministries in the hands of Massoud's ethnic Tajiks from the Panjshir Valley.

Many Pashtuns, who represent the predominant ethnic group in Afghanistan, see Karzai -- himself a Pashtun -- as a traitor or a political hostage of the Panjshir Tajiks.

Afghan tribal chiefs and Western diplomats have expressed disappointment at the personnel policy pursued by Karzai after he was confirmed transitional leader last June by the Loya Jirga assembly of elders. Observers accused Karzai of lacking the political will to distance himself from Massoud's associates.

Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid is a correspondent for the Hong Kong-based "Far Eastern Economic Review" weekly magazine and a leading specialist in Afghan affairs. In an interview with RFE/RL, he said that, although he believes it is legitimate to commemorate Massoud's death, Karzai's administration should be careful not to further antagonize Afghanistan's Pashtun ethnic majority.

"I think these celebrations that are being held these days are important and significant, and certainly should be held because [Massoud] was the man who stood up against the Taliban. [But] at this present time, [these celebrations] are proving to be very divisive because I think there is a lot of resentment amongst the Pashtun population that the Tajiks are controlling the key security ministries in Kabul and there does not seem to be any kind of compromise with the Pashtuns in the south. So, rather than proving to be a commemoration of healing, this appears to be deepening the divisions within Afghan society."

Olivier Roy is an Afghan and Central Asian scholar at France's National Center for Scientific Research, better known under its French acronym of CNRS. Roy, who developed a close relationship with Massoud during the Soviet occupation, tells RFE/RL the late commander is the object of renewed popularity not only among the Afghan leadership, but among Kabul residents as well. But Roy cautions against what he calls the "profound ambiguity" of this posthumous reverence.

"I believe there is a good deal of ambiguity in this renewed popularity. On the one hand, Massoud is naturally very, very popular among Northern Alliance people [in particular] -- and among people from the north [in general] -- because he has, among others, symbolized resistance to the Taliban. But, on the other hand, he is also popular among one group of the [Kabul] population, which sees Massoud as being different from the current team formed by his heirs. These people believe that, if Massoud were still alive, he would have been able to set up a government with a much less distinct ethnic imprint, a government that would have had a much more national character, that would have had a much more political vision [of Afghanistan's future]."

Whether this ambiguity will increase or diminish, Roy says, will very much depend on Karzai's ability to maintain cohesion within his administration.

Many in Afghanistan reproach Karzai for putting too much emphasis on Massoud's memory, thereby sending the wrong signal to the Pashtun community.

Pakistani expert Rashid believes that, however sincere the Afghan leader might be in paying tribute to Massoud, he does not have the political power to do otherwise: "I think that at the moment [Karzai] has very little choice. [He] does not have an army, he does not have a bureaucracy, and he does not have an intelligence service. All these elements are very strongly controlled by the Northern Alliance, in particular by the Panjshir Tajiks [who are] in Kabul at the moment. [Karzai] needs to have a working relationship with the Tajiks. He certainly cannot ignore them, nor can he ignore the role Massoud has played. But at the same time, I think, he should have made, perhaps, some efforts to tone down the message and make [these commemorations] a message of reconciliation, rather than emphasizing one hero."

Roy, however, believes the ongoing commemorations could be seen as part of Karzai's plans to turn Massoud into a national hero that stands above ethnic and clan rivalries in a bid to position himself as a unifying figure: "Karzai himself had good relations with Massoud, and ties between the two men proved that Massoud was indeed seeking political interlocutors among the Pashtun community. This is a first, and important, point. A second point is that when Karzai pays tribute to Massoud, he is trying to deviate from Afghanistan's Pashtun historical tradition by imposing Massoud as a national hero. I believe that Karzai is attempting to transcend Afghanistan's ethnic dimension. Thus, he is trying to promote a national figure so that he himself does not appear as the man of the Pashtuns or that of the Northern Alliance. In other words, he is trying to appear as someone who is above ethnic tensions."

There is an apparent paradox in the fact that the figure of Massoud still serves to accentuate divisions within Afghan society. Although never considered a potential nation-builder, Massoud was said to have gained considerable political maturity toward the end of his life, and took steps toward reconciliation with other ethnic groups.

In Roy's opinion, the risk remains that Northern Alliance leaders may attempt to appropriate the Massoud "legend" to satisfy their short-term political ambitions. "For the time being, the figure of Massoud is hostage to the interfactional struggle going on in Afghanistan today. As is often the case when a nation is being built, heroes are being made or unmade depending on the circumstances." Massoud, Roy concludes, "belongs to history now."

(Radio Free Afghanistan's Ajmal And contributed to this report.)