Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Lion of Panjshir

We've all had the conversation, "Where were you on September 11th?"  Throughout the Western World, people remember where they were, what they were doing, how they reacted and how, in many ways, the world changed that day.  I am fairly certain that most Afghans do not recall what they were doing on September 11th, 2001.  Little did they know that events happening a world away from them would soon have a direct effect on their daily lives.  The day that Afghanistan remembers and mourns is September 9th, 2001.  I don't remember what I was doing on 9/9/2001.

On September 9th, 2001, Ahmad Shah Massoud was assassinated in Northern Afghanistan.  I don't expect many of my readers to be familiar with who Massoud was.  I wasn't before I took an active interest in understanding Afghanistan and its people.  I'll assume since you are reading this, you have a similar interest.

If you ever have the time and a hankering to study an interesting and often overlooked person, start with this guy.  He spoke five languages fluently (including French) and had a working knowledge of even more.  He was devoted to the arts and stated in an interview that one of his biggest regrets was not doing more to protect the priceless treasures and artifacts that were destroyed by the war and Taliban or went missing (Side note: some of these treasures have resurfaced in the last years after being hidden away and protected by the Afghan National Museum.  A large collection is currently on display at the National Museum of Art in Washington, DC).   All of this contributes to the importance of Massoud, but for time and post length sensitivities I'll focus on his importance as a public figure.

From Mazar-a-Sharif

Ahmad Shah Massoud was a fiercely loyal Afghan.  He spent the majority of his adult life fighting the different forces that occupied his country.  He fought the Russians and was considered instrumental in the constant barrage of guerilla warfare that eventually caused the Soviets to leave.  During the civil war he acted as the Defense Minister and sought to unite the warring factions vying for power.  He is also known for his stark resistance to the Taliban invasion.  

While the Taliban controlled 70% of the country, Massoud and the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan controlled a small portion of the country in the North (hence the more Western friendly name "The Northern Alliance").  The Northern Alliance was comprised of various warlords and tribal leaders, often at odds with each other.  Massoud was able to unite them against a common enemy.   He became the rallying point of the movement  and an international spokesman for the cause of Afghanistan.  He traveled to the EU and wrote letters to the US, pleading for the world to turn their eyes to this little country in Central Asia.  He called for the international community to support the Northern Alliance, not with guns and bullets or money.  He called for increased diplomatic pressure on countries supporting the Taliban.  In an interview with Newsweek two weeks before his assassination, he stated, "We hope that the future policy of the U.S. will exert pressure on Pakistan and also help Afghanistan achieve peace.  That would be much more effective than giving [us] weapons or ammunition."

He dreamed of a free, peaceful and democratic Afghanistan.  He sought peaceful coexistence between his country and the rest of the world.  In a letter to the American people he called for assistance to ". . . overcome the obstacles that exist on the path to freedom, peace, peace, stability and prosperity."  Massoud openly denounces and fought against the harboring of terrorist groups in Afghanistan.  He feared that if the world did not help him in his stand against the Taliban, the world would feel the effects.  While addressing the European Union in April 2001, Massoud was asked if he had any words for President Bush, "My message to President Bush is the following: If he isn't interested in the peace in Afghanistan, if he doesn't help the Afghan people arrive at their objective of peace, the Americans and the rest of the world will have to face the problems.  If President Bush doesn't help us, these terrorists will damage the US and Europe very soon."  

We all know exactly where we were when Massoud's prediction came to pass.  Two days before September 11th, Al Qaeda dealt a first staggering blow to the world and to Afghanistan.  Always a lover and supporter of freedom of the press, Massoud was known for granting interviews to journalists from all over the world.  On September 9th, two Belgian journalists of Moroccan origin were granted an interview.  Some reports say that Massoud knew something was wrong the second the interview began.  Others say that the interview lasted for several minutes before one of the journalist detonated the bomb in his belt.  Massoud was rushed to a military hospital in neighboring Tajikistan where he was pronounced dead.  One of the assassins was killed by the detonation of his bomb, the other killed trying to escape the compound.  It was later found that the men had stolen their equipment from a French journalist almost a year earlier and were both Al Qaeda operatives originally from Tunisia.

Some commentators have said that the assassination of Massoud was the last necessary piece for the 9/11 attacks.  In taking care of Massoud, Osama Bin Ladin removed his Taliban host's greatest enemy and helped insure his protected status.  The Northern Alliance lost its rallying point and unifier.  Whatever happened post 9/11 would be much more difficult with Massoud gone.

Ahmad Shah Massoud was known as the Lion of Panjshir (the Northern valley that he continually held and protected) during his lifetime.  After his death he was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize and given the title of "Our National Hero" by the new Afghan government.  He has gained almost a mythical standing in hearts of the Afghan people.  His picture hangs from buildings and decorates walls throughout the country and especially in the north.  On September 8th, Afghans mourn the loss of their Amer Sahib e Shaheed (Martyred Commander).

We cannot know what Afghanistan would look like today had Massoud not died 7 years ago.  It might not look much different than it currently does.  Perhaps the fight for Afghanistan would still be happening.  But we can know that Massoud would continue to fight for his dream of a peaceful and democratic Afghanistan.

"I am ready to serve the people of Afghanistan especially for [the cause of] peace.  I am ready for any mission at the service of my people."  Ahmad Shah Massoud


Me said...

Fantastic post - glad to know about him.

Dara said...

I learn so much from you!

Dawn said...

that was very interesting...i didn't know anything about that. thanks :)