The forgotten hero of Afghanistan: The Lion of Panjshir

11 Mins read

Afghanistan’s conflict over the past few decades has been nothing less than a tumultuous, turbulent set of events. Think of Afghanistan and the words ‘9/11’ and ‘Osama Bin Laden’ immediately spring to mind.

Events prior to these events are of much greater importance in a bid to develop an understanding of what seems like a never-ending war in Afghanistan.

A country that has much more to offer than just terrorists has its beauty overlooked and forgotten about.

Until one day, when a man found himself on a mission to stand up against the odds and battle oppression and intolerance throughout Afghanistan.

Despite being outnumbered, outgunned and receiving little to no international support, this man soon went on to become the greatest national hero the country had ever seen.

The legendary guerrilla fighter is remembered as the greatest military strategists and the most charismatic leader of the 20th Century.

One of the few leaders with a heart of gold, he strived for an independent and secure Afghanistan. He was the brain behind the resistance movement against the Soviet occupation between 1979 and 1989. He was, Ahmad Shah Massoud.

Photo credit: Timor

Ahmad Shah Massoud in the mountains of Afghanistan [Timor]

Massoud was born in the Panjshir Valley of northern Afghanistan in 1953. One could always find him in the mountains of Karte Parwan where his family home was located, going around exploring the mountainous landscape of Afghanistan.

He was considered a gifted, intelligent and well-educated young man since his childhood: he went to school in France and later attended Kabul University as an engineering student and learnt to speak four languages fluently throughout his studies.

Massoud developed an interest in the military at an early stage of his life, which was a move greatly influenced by his army officer father.

Like many contemporary Afghan households, Massoud’s father had regular visits from his friends who would gather to discuss national and international politics.

Together, they formed a group of intelligent men with a good understanding of the political climate in their country.

Massoud was one who always vehemently disapproved of terrorist activities and ardently opposed autocracy.

With the war in its first stages and attacks being carried out by communists, he tried to counteract the sudden inundation of communists by standing up to the Red Army – he organised a resistance movement that accumulated a large number of supporters over the country.

While the Pakistani ISI [Intelligence Services] and other forces set out on a deadly battle to capture Jalalabad from the Afghan communist regime, Massoud was making steady progress and gathered support from Afghans throughout his journey.

Massoud went on to become the dominant military force in the country, and eventually the Soviets capitulated to them.

His genuine and open-minded character made him popular not only amongst locals, but a natural leader amongst his friends.

Timor was one of the fighters in the Mujahideen who witnessed Massoud’s tactical excellence first-hand: ”Massoud was an extraordinary character”, he told Artefact.

“On a personal, moral, ethical and professional level: he was the only army commander during that war that remained alongside his group and lead the resistance whilst being present, unlike other leaders who steered their party from a safe haven abroad.

“He had become an incredibly popular figure amongst the Afghans, including me, as we were all feeling hopeful again for our country. We were feeling optimistic about  having a defence minister with such exceptional knowledge and army skills.

“I remember meeting him for the first time. It was this one day when he had asked me to go somewhere with him, I accepted the offer whilst maintaining a formal attitude, al though I was extremely excited,” Timor said.

“We stepped in the car and made our way to a pick nick. There was a huge spread full of kebab and salads and he invited me to sit around the cloth. I wasn’t feeling too well that particular day so I had no appetite.

As true Afghans do, Amer Saheb [a respectful name for Ahmad Shah Massoud] kept on insisting I would eat so I grabbed a skewer of kebab just so the next time he looked in my direction it would look as if I was eating.”

Photo credit: Timor

Timor (right corner) holding his skewer of kebab alongside Ahmad Shah Massoud [Timor]

His humanitarian character was part of the reason he gathered a huge number of supporters amongst Afghan locals. But the love many felt for him extended to much wider perimeters, with even some of his Russian prisoners falling for his generosity.

The Afghan guerrilla fighter accumulated a large number of Soviet prisoners whom he later set free, even though they had tried to assassinate him many times. Massoud was one of the few leaders who believed in giving prisoners a chance to live.

“He was incredibly friendly with his prisoners”, recalls Timor. “He still granted them their human rights and treated them like human beings. They experienced his mannerism and hospitality to such an extent that they didn’t even feel like prisoners.

“Massoud would allow some to head back to their country as long as they would refrain from coming back to Afghanistan, but some decided to remain with him out of choice and went on to become his guard.”

Massoud went on to succeed with his mission when his forces seized power of Kabul. Many countries followed Massoud’s tactics closely and felt threatened by his success.

He had a particular way of fighting a war: his strategy wasn’t to engage in an open conflict with the enemy, but rather to weaken his nemesis by attacking their weak points and growing the resistance against the Soviets.

He wasn’t one to use women and children as slaves or suicide bombers and didn’t believe in the killing of innocent civilians.

He fully supported women’s rights, the right to free education and was opposed to repression, terrorism and foreign influence; he was fighting solely to serve the Afghan people, to achieve his goal of an independent, democratic Afghanistan.

“The future government should be formed through elections held by the people, in which both men and women should take part. The only form of government that can balance the different ethnicities is democracy”, said Massoud.

Massoud’s gathering of public support amongst citizens and winning over the hearts of the locals were important factors that contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union.

“The most important trait found in a leader is honesty towards his people, which was one of the many virtuous attributes Massoud possessed” said Timor.

Photo credit: Timor

Timor (middle) and his good friend and commander Massoud (left) [Timor]

The one person publicly opposing Massoud’s efforts was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who felt intimidated by his efforts to make Afghanistan an independent country.

He ordered frequent attacks on the opposition and had a tendency for internecine vying in order to remain Prime Minister of Afghanistan, despite having the Mujahedeen fight against his radical tendencies.

The leaders failed to reach an agreement and Massoud felt obliged to stand up for his people as a protector, getting his army ready for Hekmatyar’s imminent attack.

“Our policy is to always have good and friendly relations with everyone on good terms. But we never accepted being oppressed and we will never accept it, he said in a conference addressing the nation and Hekmatyar.

“We will never be a pawn in someone else’s game; we will always be Afghanistan,” Timor said.

It was then when within weeks that the showdown between Massoud’s trained fighters and the Soviets kicked off – Massoud’s army handed out fatal blows to the once invincible and overwhelmingly powerful Soviet army; the Mujahideen became serious political opponents.

The Mujahideen’s tactics were some that the Russians had never experienced before; they would confront Russian fighters and run back to the hills of rural Afghanistan immediately after defeating them.

Much to the world’s surprise, Massoud became the man responsible for transforming mulberry-eating absconders into an indomitable army responsible for the demise of the Soviet Union.

The unforeseen victory by the Mujahideen saw Russian troops withdraw from Afghanistan, after having wiped out the majority of the Red Army there.

This defeat was not only a defeat for Afghanistan, it also led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and was followed by the liberation of central Asian and Eastern European countries, who all suffered under Moscow’s control.

Massoud’s genius and devoted support of his people enabled him to be dubbed ‘the Afghan who won the Cold War’ by the Wall Street Journal.

Despite a lack of international support and insufficient equipment, he managed to win over the people’s hearts and free Kabul as a result of his moderate politics, he managed to pursue an independent Afghanistan that was far away from being inspired by fundamentalism.

His goals for Afghanistan were evident, but he was more than just a war fighter. He had many goals he wanted to pursue after securing an independent Afghanistan.

In a TV interview he discussed his wish to finalise his engineering degree and try his hand at business.

Timor was sitting opposite Amer Saheb at that moment in time: “I asked him, but what if you make a loss? He answered jokingly “don’t worry about that, rather think about whether they’ll let me survive!”

Photo credit: Timor

Despite being the most powerful army commander in the country, Massoud loved poetry and always used to play volleyball with his friends [Timor]

Massoud’s goals were not personal achievements, all he wanted was for the Afghan people to be free and independent.

“The title ‘hero’ wasn’t given to him by officials, it was given by the Afghan people who decided he was Afghanistan’s hero” Timor said.

“He knew Afghanistan inside, out, and spent majority of his time mapping out routes and exploring mine-free paths”.

Throughout his journey as an army commander, he touched locals’ heart but he also captured the hearts from people abroad.

One of the those people was Marcello Grad.

Photo from Marcela Grad's book cover

Marcela Grad’s book on Ahmad Shah Massoud

She was so touched she went around seeking to people who had once worked with him and turned the anecdotes into a book.

One of her friends suggested she would watch a video on Ahmad Shah Massoud, which subsequently awakened this inner urge that made her travel from Los Angeles to other places in the world on a quest to find out about Massoud.

She found out that Massoud’s army would spend most of their time in the mountains of Afghanistan, which made food sparsely available.

Even in such circumstances he would tell his army the Mujahideen to “feed the precarious first, and themselves later”.

His goal was not to kill, but to liberate his country. “He said he was nothing. Not a politician, not a poet, not a doctor, not an engineer, I am not a very good speaker; I am nothing. But I am one thing, and I feel one thing; I love my country and I love God.”

He faced attacks from many meddling countries, but his people never his side.

Massoud was not one to rule the people by fear; he would never threaten with incarceration or execution if people did not obey. In one occasion he announced the opposition were planning an attack on Pansjir. Everybody evacuated the city subsequently, as they placed complete trust in him and his decision.

“He fought without the desire of wanting war. He solely fought for the people, he fought out of the love and desire he had for his people and his fatherland. Massoud had a pure heart, he never let the poison of war get to him. This is what made him such an extraordinary leader and extremely popular amongst the locals.”

Massoud reached the people and maintained that same level of loyalty amongst the Afghans throughout the Soviet invasion up until the start of the 21st Century, when he was killed.

He was a military man who had been at war for 25 years and is remembered by others as a calm, peaceful individual. Many of the villagers would confide in him and tell him their stories.

Jamshid, Massoud’s brother in law, spent 24 hours with him during the last five years of his life. He remembers the extraordinary character of the main resistance leader in Afghanistan as if it was yesterday.

“His relationship with his prisoners was astounding, something that strikes me even until today. I remember when he ordered clothing for the Russian prisoners. He felt the fabric of his Pirhan Tumban [traditional Afghan clothing] and showed it to a dressmaker. He requested him to make more pieces, identical to the ones he was wearing, but for the prisoners.”

Massoud was popular amongst the Afghan people

Massoud was popular amongst the Afghan people [Timor]

Having fought off and ended the Soviet invasion, Massoud’s next challenge was looming around the corner.

He continuously pleaded with the West for help in his efforts to capture leading Taliban and Al-Qaida commanders, but he was left alone.

He addressed the world in a conference one year before the attack on the World Trade Center.

He warned president Bush, saying: “If we don’t make peacekeeping measures, I can guarantee that the war will take itself abroad and the Taliban will not only be a problem for Afghanistan, but it will become a danger for the world.”

Still, no one helped him on his quest to liberate Afghanistan from intolerance by extremist groups who invaded the country.

Massoud’s military success exposed him to many assassination attempts, but his tendency to keep plans to himself proved beneficial in the prevention of future attempts.

“Al though he had a lot of faith in his colleagues, he would never tell anyone about his plans; only he knew where he was going next. This was a time when Afghanistan was in incredible turmoil, everyone could attack anyone”, said Timor. “Even with journalists, he always made time to speak to them and treated them with upmost respect.”

But his humble attitude ultimately resulted in his death, as he was approached by members of terror group Al-Qaida who were disguised as journalists.

The survivors remember the tense atmosphere that day. “There were these journalists who had been waiting for three weeks to interview Ameer Saib, so he finally sat down for the session.

“The ‘crew’ were setting up their equipment and sat unusually close to Ameer Saib. At one point, even he wondered, “why are they pointing the camera so close to my face?”, recalls Jamshid.

Photo by Flickr User 9/11 Photos

The attack on the twin towers on 9/11, two days after Massoud’s death [9/11 Photos via Flickr CC]

The undercover men had planted a bomb in the camera that was suddenly detonated whilst the other set off his suicide belt.

Ahmad Shah Massoud, having survived as an army commander during the Soviet Invasion, was killed in an assassination attempt set up by two Arab men.

Two days later, the world witnessed an immense terrorist attack on the West when two planes hit the Twin Towers on the morning of 9/11.

This later proved to be first in the series of many attacks that hit the West in years to come.

Many people continue to idolise Massoud to this day, with annual memorials held in Saricha in Panjshir, where he is buried.

Massoud’s legacy still carries on in Afghanistan and in other countries, with France printing stamps with Ahmad Shah Massoud’s photo, India naming a road after the national hero and schools being built in his name all over the world.

Ahmad Shah Massoud was the one person who stood up against the invasion of Afghanistan and fought for the country: there’s no Afghan that has had so many foreigners write about about him, other than Ahmad Shah Massoud.

He played a huge part in securing an independent Afghanistan, a notion that is still proving a problem in the country.

If it wasn’t for him, Afghanistan would be an unknown country, with half of the country belonging to Pakistan and other parts to its neighbouring countries.

Although the current threat looming in Afghanistan is said to be bigger than the threat of the Soviets, Massoud was well on his way to see his vision of Afghanistan come to life.

There is no doubt that Ahmad Shah Massoud has won over the hearts of the people of Afghanistan.

His legacy will continue to live on and inspire the next generation of young Afghans, just the way he has inspired people all over the world.



Featured image by Timur

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