Often compared to the famous Che Guevara of Latin America, Ahmad Shah Massoud was a freedom fighter and national hero of Afghanistan, who fought against first the Soviet invasion of his country before then fighting against the Taliban who attempted, and are still attempting, to control all aspects of Afghanistan.
Massoud was brutally murdered on the 9th of September in 2001, just two days before the September 11 attacks on the United States, by suicide bombers allegedly from Al Qaeda. Although his tragic assassination sent the country into massive shock that is still felt until today, the legacy and strength of Massoud’s character and influence are just as important as ever for not only Afghanistan, but the world at large.
Born in 1953 from a family of Sunni Tajik heritage in the Panjshir Valley, Massoud was one of seven children, and was encouraged from a young age to take his studies and religious faith seriously and with passion. Friends and family of the late Massoud have often recounted his early days when he would patrol their street, encouraging other children to study first and play later.
Massoud would later go on to attend university at the Polytechnical University of Kabul in the 1970s, where he studied engineering. Putting aside engineering, however, Massoud became heavily involved in the anti-communist movement of Afghanistan, and when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Massoud became a powerful mujahadeen leader. During the almost 10-year Soviet-Afghan war of the 1980s, Massoud earned the nickname of the “Lion of Panjshir”, and quickly emerged as both a charismatic and powerful Afghan leader that could bring together the different ethnic groups of the country together under one banner.
Those who fought alongside with him against the Soviets recount stories of his bravery, his passion, his love for the great Persian poets of the past, and his devotion towards future peace in Afghanistan. Often remembered for his quiet and sometimes even shy personality, Massoud gained an almost cult-like following, with many copying the way he wore his now famous hat, tilted to the side, to even the way he tucked in his shirt. His remembrance of Allah, his devotion towards equality for all, and the concept of being free not only politically but religiously made him not only a simple fighter but an almost philosophical leader as well.
After signing the Peshawar Accord in 1992 once the Soviets were defeated and driven from Afghanistan, Massoud agreed to a temporary peace-sharing agreement and was appointed as the Minister of Defense and as Afghanistan’s main military commander. Unfortunately, however, peace would last only briefly, as violent militias led by warlords such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar began bombing the capital of Kabul again. Eventually the Taliban would take over Kabul in 1995 with a prolonged siege and attack, with tens of thousands of innocent civilians killed in the fighting.
With the Taliban taking over large areas of Afghanistan, Massoud was forced to regroup and begin fighting again, this time against the Taliban extremists who called themselves “Islamic” under the banner of foreign-funded motives. Many of his close friends and family during this time in the 90s saw him increasingly frustrated at the lack of peace in the country, and the lack of foreign attention given at the time at the danger of the growing influence of the Taliban. Firmly against the Taliban’s teachings of extremism, Massoud consistently allowed for prisoners from the enemy’s side to join him and his militia, instructing his soldiers to under no circumstance harm prisoners of war in any way.
Becoming the military leader of the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan (more commonly known as the Northern Alliance), Massoud began touring Europe in the late 1990s and early 2000 to meet with high-level European Parliament members and western media outlets to explain the situation in Afghanistan, highlighting the danger of the growing threat of the Taliban. Massoud also asked for humanitarian aid for the people of Afghanistan, who were suffering under the harsh rule of the Taliban in the majority of the country. Massoud’s home province of Panjshir remained free of Taliban control, but that did not stop him from fighting passionately in other provinces against Taliban advances.
In 2000 Massoud signed the Declaration of the Essential Rights of Afghan Women in the capital of Tajikistan, Dushanbe, highlighting his life-long passion towards the education and equal rights of women in Afghanistan. The Taliban’s brutal suppression of women’s rights was something Massoud was especially against, often encouraging villagers in the areas free of the Taliban to send their daughters to school no matter what cultural or societal barriers might have been in place.
While the fate of Afghanistan was still up in the air with the onslaught of Taliban fighting, on September 9th, 2001, two Arab men posed as journalists waited to be seen with Commander Massoud for an interview. The suicide bomb that killed Massoud, although claimed by no specific group, is allegedly said to have been from members of Al Qaeda, who wanted to silence the “Lion of Panjshir” who dared to stand up against Taliban rule.
Ahmad Shah Massoud’s death shocked the entire country, and millions poured out into the streets with hundreds of thousands attempting to pay their last respects during his funeral procession. His untimely death occurred only days before the September 11 attacks on the U.S. by Al Qaeda, and Afghanistan would later see not only the rise of Taliban control but an American invasion as well in the months following September 11th. As Afghanistan continues to fight against extremist foreign influences, many continue to remember Ahmad Shah Massoud as not only of the greatest political and military leaders of the modern age, but a philosophical and religious leader who helped Afghans across the country come together despite differences in language, culture, and sect.
As we remember his untimely death on this day, let us hope that the country he gave his life for will someday see the peace it deserves.