The Untold History of Ahmad Shah Massoud

For the last two decades, Ahmad Shah Massoud has been lionised as the national hero of Afghanistan. In this piece, Ahmed-Waleed Kakar sheds light on the dark history of the veteran Afghan warlord before his elevation to sainthood in the popular imagination.

Things change quickly in Afghanistan. The last four decades have seen many an upheaval. Coups, counter coups, failed coups, two foreign invasions that have been followed by lengthy occupation, civil war and insurgencies. In one of the rare continuities, however, Afghanistan will tomorrow commemorate the death of its National Hero Ahmad Shah Massoud.

The veteran Afghan warlord first gained distinction during the Soviet jihad. His guerrilla war, centred in his native Panjsher, gained him the title of the ‘Lion of the Panjsher’. By 2001, Massoud was engaged in a fierce civil war against the Taliban Emirate and its Al-Qaeda allies. The tragic nature of Massoud’s untimely, violent death at the hand of Al-Qaeda operatives two days prior to 9/11 elevated him to almost mythical proportions in the public imagination. What was a struggling, increasingly wrinkled warlord defending his ever-shrinking enclave became a martyr against the Taliban: seen as the brainchild of Pakistan’s sinister military. As such, US involvement was posited as merely the next chapter in the endeavours of the fallen hero. Massoud acted as the poster boy for US military involvement in Afghanistan; the fact he was dead mattered little.

His memory immortalised, Massoud is almost omnipresent. As Afghanistan’s sole ‘National Hero’, there are public places and foundations named in his honour, pictures dotting streets of Afghan cities. Massoud stands in Afghanistan more venerated than Christ in Rome on Christmas: Afghanistan has dedicated an entire week (Hafta ye Shaheed) to his memory. One of the most influential figures in modern Afghan history, the narrative around Massoud’s life rarely goes beyond a sensationalist portrayal that has throttled the discourse on the last forty years. As many of the buzzwords and propaganda lines of the last two decades of Americans occupation fall out of usage, a reassessment of Afghanistan’s National Hero becomes imperative.

The man and the myth

The dawn of Massoud’s political career can be traced to 1975. In opposition to the then virulently anti-Pakistani President Daud Khan, Massoud, alongside other Afghan Islamists, backed by Pakistan, attempted an uprising across different provinces in Afghanistan. The revolt was poorly organised, failing quickly. The revolt, though, was important. Firstly, it was Massoud’s first experience in organising anti-state activity in his native Panjsher. Secondly, it marked a watershed as for Pakistan’s growing involvement in Afghanistan. Massoud later lambasted Pakistan for its undue interference in Afghan affairs via its proxies. The irony was lost on many: Massoud’s very career had been inaugurated by his being a proxy for Islamabad.

Noteworthy too were Massoud’s allies. It was then that the infamous disdain between Hezb Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Massoud began, as reports that Massoud had served as a spy for Daud’s regime embittered the relationship between the two beyond repair (1). Another ally in 1975, Mawlawi Jalal ud-Din Haqqani, who founded what is now the frighteningly elusive Haqqani Network, later joined the Taliban and fought heavily against Massoud. It is no surprise then that Massoud’s amicable association with men now known as radical fundamentalists like Jalal ud-Din, which continued into the early 1990s, is ignored. The unpalatability of his earlier allies is a blemish on Massoud’s carefully cut to size Western-friendly credentials, posthumously thrust upon him.

Soviet Invasion

Massoud’s role during the Soviet occupation need be scrutinised. Panjsher, his base of operations, was assaulted numerous times. It was in resistance to these that Massoud became renowned as a military genius. Beneath the impressive military record, however, was a far more complicated relationship with the Soviets. Based in Panjsher, Massoud threatened the transportation of Soviet convoys through the nearby Salang Tunnel, which he later destroyed strategically as he fled the Taliban in the late 90s. For the Soviets, Salang was of utmost priority, connecting the north of Afghanistan to Kabul. In February 1983, in the backdrop of almost annual offensives on Panjsher and surrounded by rival Mujahideen commanders, Massoud signed a yearlong truce with Soviet forces. The deal included a handsome bribe of $350,000 (2) which Massoud used to rearm his fighters and focus on rivalries with Hekmatyar (3). For the Soviets, Salang was, for the time being, secured, the importance of which cannot be understated. General Gromov, the Commander of the Soviet 40th Army in Afghanistan wrote that “Ahmad Shah could have turned Salang into a Russian graveyard just by throwing rocks.” (4)

Massoud had acted unilaterally and to many, with questionable integrity. With the allegations of his working as a spy for President Daud in 1975, this was further confirmation that Massoud was, indeed, a traitor. In practical terms, the semblance of Mujahideen unity suffered as the Soviets used Salang to transport war materials to continue waging a war of almost genocidal proportions against Massoud’s nominal Mujahideen allies elsewhere in the country. Massoud’s demanding of a $700,000 bribe along with direct access to Soviet officials instead of having to negotiate with Kabul were acceptable conditions for the truce’s prolongation, however it was insisting on his autonomous rule in Panjsher which proved the sticking point preventing the truce’s extension. In April 1984, the Soviets assaulted Panjsher once again.

What was significant, though, were the negotiations between the Soviets and Massoud that materialised in their infamous 1983-1984 truce. In these, Massoud expressed his desire for friendship between the USSR and Afghanistan. Those for whom he categorically had no clemency, however, were the Kabul’s communists. They would have no future in a post-Soviet Afghanistan, he stated firmly (5). Despite this, Massoud later prolonged the very future of those communists whose stake in a future political system he ruled out. Massoud, amongst others, who allied with ex-communist officials and generals after the collapse of Dr. Najib’s government in 1992 in an intra-Mujahideen civil war from which Kabul is yet to recover.

Massoud’s unholy alliances

As Dr. Najib’s government rapidly collapsed, the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif fell under the control of a coalition consisting primarily of the Shia Hezb Wahdat, Massoud’s Shura ye Nezar and the forces of Najib’s former and now renegade commander Abdul Rashid Dostum: not too long ago and amidst much controversy decorated with the title of ‘Marshall’. When Dr. Najib deputed General Nabi Azimi to negotiate with the defectors and their newly found Mujahideen allies, Azimi joined them (6). A conference held in April 1992 declared that the raison d’etre of the takeover from Dr. Najib’s government was to prevent what was perceived as Pashtun predominance, with Dr. Najib, according to Dostum, seeking to replace him with Pashtun commanders from Paktia (7). The rhetoric was divisive and its implications dangerous. How, and under what merit, can Massoud claim nationwide adoration when his ascent to the top was through taking sides in dividing the very nation he is purported to be the hero of? Neither was this the end of his ethnic politicking; he later derided Pashtuns personally, describing them as uncivilised and uncultured. Not only was he playing the divisive politics of ethnicity, but he joined a camp including Azimi and Dostum, hitherto communist commanders. This was a decision rooted purely in ethno-sectarian politics, in the face of the supposed Islamically centred consciousness of his jihad.

Massoud and the Afshar Massacre

Controversy does not elude Massoud’s trail even after his unholy alliances. It was the resultant civil war following Dr. Najib’s ouster in which Massoud’s conduct was starkly unbecoming of a National Hero of Afghanistan: a country whose very identity is predicated heavily on individual notions of chivalry, righteousness, honour, and dignity. The civil war’s timeline makes for a ghastly read of what was essentially an orgy of blood. A cursory look suffices to demonstrate the role Massoud played in facilitating what was nothing short of outright slaughter in Kabul. A grotesque example of this was the Afshar Massacre. In an operation launched against his former allies in Hezb Wahdat, whom he had initially joined in Mazare-e-Sharif to oppose the spectre of Pashtun predominance, Massoud’s forces, now allied with the Pashtun Ustad Abdul Rab Rasool Sayyaf’s Ittihad-e-Islami. Together, they killed and raped their way through Kabul’s primarily Hazara inhabited Afshar district. The massacre shocked not just Kabulis but Afghans across the country, who observed, aghast, as the heroic reputation of the Mujahideen was butchered, defiled and dishonoured along with the Hazara civilians of Afshar. The irony, once again, was that Massoud had now allied with the Pashtun Ustad Sayyaf, to inflict untold miseries on the Hazara minority.

Massoud and the Taliban

Yet it was once again Hekmatyar who served as Massoud’s main nemesis. It was thus in 1994, as the Taliban movement assumed shape around its southern heartlands, that Massoud spotted an unmissable opportunity. Opposed to the discredited, warring Mujahideen factions, the Taliban could serve as a useful ally as they expanded northwards. It would be Hekmatyar they would first engage, whose forces would be compelled to fight a war on two fronts: the nightmare of many a military strategist.

A delegation from Kabul was sent to Girishk in Helmand (8), an area to later gain notoriety as a hotspot in the post 2001 anti-American insurgency. A deal was struck after three days of negotiations in which Mullah Omar, later the Emir of Afghanistan, said virtually nothing. President Rabbani and Massoud would aid the Taliban with money and material to fight Hezb Islami. The plan was a masterstroke as Hekmatyar’s lines either collapsed, or his commanders defected to the zealous religious students from Qandahar. At least in the short term. Before long, the Taliban moved to topple and overthrow the duumvirate in Kabul with Professor Rabbani and Massoud at its helm.

It was in this period that Massoud was portrayed, especially posthumously, as the lone wolf fighting the now hated Taliban and their loathed Pakistani backers. A deeper look, however, reveals otherwise. To stem the tide of a relentless Talib advance, Massoud’s allies were notable: Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Iran, Russia and India. India built Massoud a field hospital in his enclave in Farkhar, to which it also dispatched doctors and nurses, sent high altitude warfare equipment as well as engineers to maintain Massoud’s small airforce. Russia, Massoud’s one-time nemesis with whom he had built a correspondence since the jihad, supplied old Soviet tanks, built trans-Oxus bridges, and cooperated with Massoud in trying to sink the already destroyed Afghan economy by printing counterfeit notes (9). The adage to not let facts ruin a good story was probably remembered when the Washington Post headlined an article “Afghan ‘Lion’ [Massoud] Fights Taliban With Rifle and Fax Machine”.

What now?

We are now in 2020. Nineteen years later, the blatant failure of the US in Afghanistan should also render redundant many narratives. The deification of dead men is not unique to Massoud; it applies to Dr. Najib, Amanullah Khan, and looks to continue into the foreseeable future as more figures fall to the inevitable embrace of death. The imposition of the current narrative by a coalition of Massoud’s allies and enemies, backed by the power of many an American dollar, was the result of a seismic shift in Afghan politics. The effects of this play out today as the post 2001 Islamic Republic bumbles from one crisis to the next.

The sorry state of Kabul today cannot be blamed on Massoud. Massoud was not uniquely evil; he was amongst several significant politicians of the generation, all of whom played varying parts in shaping the country as it is today. At best, he was a hero to a select demographic in Afghanistan. At worst, he was foremost amongst a cohort of national villains. He cannot be considered in any meaningful sense a unifying figure amongst the Afghan mujahideen, in the backdrop of his unilateral deals with the Red Army. Neither can he transcend ethnic barriers which he, through his actions, buttressed. Despite Massoud being famously reported by Robert Kaplan in the Wall Street Journal, as the Afghan who ‘won’ the Cold War, Panjsher was not the centre of the jihad. The war’s largest military operation was launched against the Zhawar camp in Khost (10): the headquarters of Mawlawi Jalal ud-Din Haqqani, then referred to as ‘goodness personified’ by US officials. Most amusingly and relevant to the present day, Massoud was not a lifelong nemesis of the Taliban. Massoud generously and opportunistically helped them; a decision he later undoubtedly rued, and which shapes the Afghan political climate until today.

  1. Chris Sands and Fazelminallah Qazizai. Night Letters: Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Afghan Islamists Who Changed the World. (London: Hurst & Company, 2019), 101.
  2. J. Bruce Amstutz. Afghanistan: The First Five Years of Soviet Occupation Paperback, (Washington D.C: National Defence University, 1986), 292.
  3. Nabi Misdaq. Afghanistan: Political Frailty and External Interference, (Oxford: Routledge; 2006), 212.
  4. “Afghanistan’s ‘Treaty Bands.’” n.d. Middle East Institute.
  5. Rodric Braithwaite. Afgantsy : the Russians in Afghanistan, 1979-89, (New York: Oxford University Press; 2011), 187.
  6. Misdaq. Afghanistan: Political Frailty and External Interference, 171.
  7. Halim M. AFGHANISTAN: History, Diplomacy and Journalism, (Xlibris Corporation; 2013), 634.
  8. Sands and Qazizai. Night Letters, 335.
  9. Withington, Thomas. 2001. “Afghanistan: The Early Anti-Taliban Team.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 57 (6): 13–15.

  10. Brown V, Rassler D. Fountainhead of jihad : the Haqqani Nexus, 1973-2012. (Oxford, New York, Oxford University Press, 2013), 67-68.

Photo by Jim Kelly,

Ahmed-Waleed Kakar
Ahmed-Waleed Kakar
Ahmed-Waleed Kakar is an analyst who focuses on Afghanistan. He attained an MA in World History from King's College London. He also completed a BSc in Politics and History.

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