The Lion of Panjshir

in homistan

There were times when “freedom fighter” had a romantic tinge to it. Ahmad Shah Massoud also known as “Amer Sahib” or “The Lion of Panjshir” was a “freedom fighter” in those times. He defended his home, the Panjshir Valley, from the Red Army and from the Taliban. Like Che, he became an icon and a warrior for the Afghan struggle against the USSR and, later, the Taliban. He was assassinated two days before Sep 11, 2001. Today, he is on a French stamp (these french are a romantic lot, aren’t they?), in an excellent documentary, a symphony, on the new Afghani coin, in marketplace posters, poems, remembrances. He is a national hero in Karzai’s Afghanistan and a hated figure by the Taliban and Pashtun clans.

Ahmad Shah Massoud was a Tajik, from the valley of Panjshir. The valley is a narrow pass needed by the Red Army for their supply convoys. They invaded it with division strengths seven times. Each time, Massoud’s men retreated to the mountains and passes and sniped the Russians moving in and stopped them. Massoud’s heroic tale was bought to the West by French Doctors Without Borders and he became the symbol of Afghan resistance to the world – clutching his AK-47. He was the subject of Ken Follett’s Lie Down With Lions – which I read as a youth and found it terribly exciting.
After the Soviet withdrawal, Massoud’s group, Jamiat-i Islami [Islamic Society] defeated the Soviet-left regime in 1992 and was the first group to enter Kabul. Massoud became the vice-president of the Islamic State of Afghanistan led by the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan (or the Northern Alliance). However, the pashtun-Taliban militia came sweeping into Kabul in 1996 and Massoud retreated back to Panjshir. From there, Massoud held the Taliban off again, much as he had done against the Communists. His ideals were still intact, as he railed against Taliban’s religious extremism and their oppression of women in particular.

Of course, the Taliban and parties vested with the pashtun-Taliban opposed Massoud with wild abandon. Especially the ISI. Charlie Wilson’s War had this joke attributed to the ISI: “When a Pashtun wants to make love to a woman, his first choice is a Tajik man”. There were more serious allegations against him. They say he cut deals with the Red Army and stopped attacking them, prolonging the invasion and allowing them to launch offensive in other areas. Charlie Wilson’s War disputes much of that and blames the ISI and the CIA for the times during which Massoud was unable to continue his resistance against the Red Army.

On Sep 9, 2001, two journalists came to interview him. They were suicide bombers. Massoud did not survive the attempt although the news of his death did not emerge until after 9/11. Much speculation has been done on whether al-Qaeda was behind this attack and whether this was a pre-emptive strike on a singularly important ally against the Taliban.

Ahmad Shah Massoud lives on as only genuine heroes do. He has captured the imagination of a war-torn Afghan nation. I wish someone would compile poetry written about him in Dari. I remember reading a beautiful poem send to me last year but I cannot locate it in my emails. There is one here. His legacy lives on in the political realm as well. His friend, Younis Qanuni is running against Karzai in the October election. And just from using Google to write this entry, I can see that his popularity shows no sign of abating.

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