In the heart of Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley, before thousands of devotees of his late father, Ahmad Massoud on Thursday put himself forward as the figure capable of unifying the Afghan people and challenging an ascendent Taliban. 

“At this moment, [the Taliban] are intoxicated. They think they are victorious,” Massoud, 30, told Asia Times ahead of the gathering. 

“Someone needs to detox them to bring them to reality that it is no longer their way, and will never be their way.”

The Taliban, who routed Ahmad Shah Massoud’s government forces in Kabul in 1996, before getting routed themselves in the aftermath of 9/11, appear to be scenting their moment once again.

The US this week said it was on the “threshold” of reaching an accord with the Taliban after nearly two decades of war, even as the extremist group stepped up deadly attacks across the country. 

The deal is expected to see the US launch a staged withdrawal of its nearly 15,000 troops in the country. In return, the Taliban should pledge to prevent Al-Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a base for future attacks against America.

With the Afghan government sidelined from talks and the Taliban poised for a US pullout, Massoud’s entrance into the political arena communicates that “someone” to detox the Taliban could be him. 

Loyalists of the late Afghan commander Ahmad Shah Massoud gather to pledge allegiance to his son, Ahmad Massoud, in the Panjshir Valley of Afghanistan on September 5. Photo courtesy of Ali Nazary.

Asked to lead

Massoud was 12 years old when his father was assassinated on September 9, 2001, by two Tunisians believed to be acting on the orders of Ossama bin Laden.

At the time, his father’s United Islamic Front for Salvation of Afghanistan (the Northern Alliance), a coalition of armed factions opposed to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, was cornered in the northeast of the country.

Even at that young age, Massoud says he was conscious of the faith people had in his father.

He said: “I remember in the valley of Panjshir even when we were surrounded by Taliban and they were just 100 kilometers away, people were very calm. They would say, ‘Thank God commander Massoud is here and he’s alive.’

“They had tremendous trust in him.” 

That trust, he laments, is missing in Afghanistan today.

An upcoming presidential election scheduled for September 28 is in doubt amid threats from the Taliban and a possible pullout from the leading opponent. Previous elections have been marred by reports of vote-rigging and other irregularities, in addition to the security threats faced by voters.

In contrast, the late Ahmad Shah Massoud has attained a cult-like status, his omnipresent image associated with integrity and patriotism.

In this photo taken on May 4, a bodybuilder wears a T-shirt with a portrait of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the late military and political Afghan leader also known as the “Lion of Panjshir,” at a gym in Kabul. Photo: Wakil Kohsar / AFP

It is that national affection for the “Lion of Panjshir,” as he was known, which supporters believe could help his son gain traction in a divided political landscape.

The ultimate sacrifice of his father, Massoud told Asia Times, had a significant impact on his decision to assume the risks of a political gambit. 

“I saw his shattered body after the attack, and I always remember he accepted that death – that way of going from this world – because of the values and beliefs he had. And I share those beliefs,” he told Asia Times.

‘He is prepared’

Asked who his allies are, the young Massoud declines to specify names but says he was approached by a cross-section of influential figures.

“They are very big figures from different ethnicities who have the same mentality and believe that Afghanistan is in a very serious and delicate situation – one that requires a new generation and group of people to heal old wounds,” he said.

Abdullah Anas, a veteran of the Afghan jihad who served for years under the nationalist commander, says the young Massoud faces risks, but also goodwill because of his legacy. 

“Publicly no one can be against him. It’s a political liability to say I’m not with him, because that means you’re not okay with his father,” Anas told Asia Times.

“But the real support, real backing … this will be witnessed in the future.”

While Massoud may seem young, Abdullah points out he is much older than his father was when he began his struggle against the Soviets in the 1970s. 

And this will not be his first time in the spotlight. The young Massoud made his first speech at just 13 years old, on the first anniversary of his father’s death.

He also has experience in the region and in Europe, completing his secondary schooling in Iran and later attending military school at the prestigious Sandhurst Academy in the UK. 

“When his father started he wasn’t aware of what was going on outside Afghanistan. But Ahmad is now starting his movement where he knows Iran, he knows the Arab world, he studied in London, he speaks another language. 

“I think he is prepared,” said Anas.  

Ahmad Shah Massoud (right) is seen on April 5, 2001, in Strasbourg; his son Ahmad Massoud on August 25, 2019, in Kabul. Photos: Wakil Kohsar and Franck Fife / AFP

Winner takes all

As US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad completed his ninth round of talks with the Taliban this week, the group continued claiming deadly attacks in Kabul. A Thursday car bombing in the capital left 10 people dead, most of them Afghans. 

Massoud says the talks, which Khalilzad says are on the cusp of becoming an accord, are not benefiting reconciliation on the domestic level, but rather emboldening the Taliban.

Massoud says the United States, by excluding the Afghan government and other factions, is essentially coronating the group as the de facto authority in the land and skewing the power dynamic of future talks with other Afghan parties.

“It doesn’t matter how many conditions they put on top of the Taliban,” said Massoud. “As soon as a picture of the Taliban and anyone from the American government comes out, the Taliban are the victors, they will call themselves the true mujahideen and the resistance group that won the war.”

That winner-takes-all mentality, he acknowledges, is an old dilemma.

In the memoirs of Abdullah Anas, his father’s loyal comrade, one of the most telling reflections is of the day the Soviet-backed Afghan government submitted itself to the victorious mujahideen, asking only that other political parties be allowed in the new Afghanistan, including the Communists. Massoud brushed off the request. In retrospect, Anas reflected, that was wrong.

The young Massoud is equally critical of the past. 

“When we [the mujahideen] spoke to the Soviets directly, we didn’t care about the government of [Soviet-backed former president] Najibullah, and we didn’t care about any other people – we were the winners and we were victorious.”

The difference between his father’s mujahideen and the Taliban, Massoud argues, is that the Taliban is set on imposing an extremist form of Islam on the country.

Ahmad Massoud addresses supporters of his late father in the Panjshir Valley of Afghanistan on September 5. Photo courtesy of Ali Nazary.

On Thursday in Panjshir, he told the crowd that the biggest problem Afghanistan has faced over the past two centuries has been the centralization of the political system with “where power and wealth rests with one person and city in Afghanistan.”

Decentralization, he believes, can help bring about fairer governance to the country, in addition to an emphasis on moderate Islam and a tolerance for divergent views.

But most of all, he says, Afghans are looking for a unifying figure to offer them hope, irrespective of the outcome of the peace talks.

In the coming period, he hopes to gain their trust.

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