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What If Ahmad Shah Masud, Afghanistan's 'Lion Of Panjshir,' Hadn't Been Killed?

A worker cleans a picture on a monument built in memory of Afghan rebel leader Ahmad Shah Masud in Kabul. (file photo)
A worker cleans a picture on a monument built in memory of Afghan rebel leader Ahmad Shah Masud in Kabul. (file photo)
Just before Al-Qaeda achieved its defining moment with the terror attacks against the United States in 2001, it was in a gift-giving mood in Afghanistan.

On September 9, the terrorist organization paid back its Afghan hosts by taking out the Taliban regime's most powerful enemy -- Ahmad Shah Masud.

Before his assassination at the hands of two Al-Qaeda operatives posing as television journalists, Masud, an ethnic Tajik, enjoyed a reputation as a warrior, earning him the moniker "The Lion of Panjshir." He was as polarizing as he was charismatic, having earned as many friends as enemies while establishing himself as a successful mujahedin commander during the Soviet invasion and later as the leader of the Northern Alliance, which was taking on the fledgling Taliban.

By 2001, Masud was considered the last bulwark against the Taliban. From Afghanistan's northeastern provinces, including his stronghold in the Panjshir Valley, Masud commanded an estimated 12,000 troops and controlled between 5 to 10 percent of the country.

Masud's assassination ushered in dramatic changes for Afghanistan.

Within two days, Al-Qaeda would carry out the terrorist attacks against the United States, prompting Washington to begin the so-called "war on terror" whose centerpiece was the invasion of Afghanistan and the overthrow of the Taliban regime in Kabul.

Ten years later, peace has yet to come to Afghanistan. Taliban militants are still engaged in fighting against Afghan government forces. Tens of thousands of Western coalition troops remain on Afghan soil.

This week's anniversary of the 9/11 attacks has many pondering how their lives have changed in the last decade. Taking things one step further, one can ask many more questions:

How would the world look today had Masud not been killed?

Would Al-Qaeda have given the green light to its September 11 plans if he had lived?

Would Masud have regained the upper hand against the Taliban on his own?

Might Masud have emerged as the man to lead the country, instead of Hamid Karzai, following the Taliban's overthrow?

Different Opinions

Ahmad Sayeedi, a former Afghan diplomat, considers the possibilities and concludes, "I believe Masud would not have resisted the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan. Like other mujahedin leaders who received assistance from other countries. Masud, too, knew how to deal with foreign powers.

"America is a superpower, and I don’t believe Masud would have fought against the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. He would cooperate with them with understanding. After all, his closest friends -- Yunis Qanooni, Muhammad Fahim, and Abdullah Abdullah -- are today among those who support pro-U.S. policies."

Sayeedi says some of Masud's allies in the Northern Alliance went on to occupy high posts in post-Taliban Afghanistan, but tarnished their reputations by getting involved in corruption, misuse of public office, and criminal activities.

Sayeedi suggests things might have been different had Masud lived.

"I believe Masud would not do the same," he says. "But would he be able to stop his supporters from going off-track? A lot would depend on that."

Boys paste a poster of national hero Ahmad Shah Masud on a wall in Panjshir Province earlier this month.

For many Afghans, Masud, who died at the age of 48, is known as a war hero and military commander, but not as a political leader. Would he, like many of his fellow mujahedin warriors, have involved himself in government and politics?

Siddiqullah Tawhidi, an Afghan journalist and Masud's friend, says he believes Masud's heart was elsewhere.

"Masud would dream of returning to civilian life," Tawhidi says. "But there are many people who would have wanted to see him in the highest post in this country.

"He used to say during interviews that once peace was restored, he would go back to the polytechnic university to complete his studies. And he wanted to work as a civilian engineer. It was his private dream. But I think he would be worthy of the presidency."

Born to the family of a colonel in the town of Bazarak in the Panjshir Valley, Masud grew up in Kabul, where his father had been given a post. After graduating from the French school of Al-Istiqlal in Kabul, Masud went to study at Kabul Polytechnic University. He joined the Muslim Youth League during his student years and subsequently became a guerrilla fighter.

He returned to Kabul in 1992 after the communist regime of President Najibullah was overthrown by mujahedin forces. Masud was appointed defense minister, but infighting would doom the mujahedin government.

Masud withdrew to the northeast in 1996, as the Taliban rapidly advanced toward the capital. Soon, the Panjshir Valley became one of the last remaining pockets of resistance.

The Legend Lives On

Masud's status in post-Taliban Afghanistan was officially cemented in 2002 when President Hamid Karzai named him a "national hero." But his legend lives strongest at the local level, in his birthplace, the Panjshir Valley, and in neighboring areas in the northeast.

There, posters of Masud -- wearing his trademark woolen hat, the pakol -- still hang along the streets and on the walls of teahouses, schools, and shops.

Masud has become a popular name for boys, says Maryam Panjshiri, a women's right activist and resident of Panjshir.

"People here always remember him and pay tribute to him. We don't need an anniversary to remember Masud," she says. Panjshiri believes Masud would have continued to play a crucial role in determining Afghanistan's fate if he hadn't been killed.

"Today, it feels like Afghanistan has no owner," Panjshiri says. "There is no peace in this country. When one part of Afghanistan becomes peaceful, a conflict arises in its other part. All kinds of foreigners interfere in our affairs. I don't think Masud would let that happen if he were alive today."

A monument to Ahmad Shah Masud along a road in Panjshir Province

Opinions about Masud and of his role differ sharply. There are people who still worship him as a one-of-a-kind hero who fought for Afghanistan's freedom. Critics remember difficult days when mujahedin fighters, including Masud's Jamiat-i-Islami, launched rocket attacks on Kabul in the early 1990s, killing scores of civilians.

"For me, he is one of the mujahedin commanders who bombarded my city," says Shukriya Barekzai, an Afghan journalist and politician. "I lived in Kabul in those days and I have bitter memories. Ordinary people were killed. Mothers lost their children. We were exhausted from moving from one place to another trying to escape the fighting and bloodshed.

"I hold all mujahedin commanders and leaders accountable for that, and Masud was one of them."

As for what role Masud would have played today had he not been killed, Barekzai says, "Masud was a skilled military commander, but when the war is over, it is important what a leader can do to maintain lasting peace, to rebuild the war-ravaged country. I don't know what Masud would have done in that direction."

Some in Afghanistan say Masud's legend will always live on, killed as he was in his prime, at the peak of his struggle to save his country from a hard-line force that was dragging its people backward.

"He is a hero frozen in time and will always be remembered as a handsome and charming warrior who fought for peace," says his friend Tawhidi.
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.