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Ahmad Shah Massoud

Ahmad Shah Massoud (2 September 1953 – 9 September 2001) was a Tajik Kabul University engineering student turned military leader who played a leading role in driving the Soviet army out of Afghanistan, earning him the nickname "Lion of Panjshir". Many Afghans call him "Amer Sahib e Shaheed," translating to "(Our) Martyred Commander." Massoud was the most pro-Western and popular of the anti-Soviet resistance leaders.

He became Defense Minister of Afghanistan in 1992 under President Burhanuddin Rabbani. Following the collapse of Rabbani's government and the rise of the Taliban regime, Massoud became the military leader of the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan.

In September 2001 Ahmad Shah Massoud was assassinated by alleged al-Qaeda agents, allegedly with the complicity of Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, and the following year he was named "National Hero" by the order of Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai. September 9th, the date of his death is observed as a national holiday, and known as Massoud Day in Afghanistan.

Early life

Ahmad Shah Massoud,the son of police commander Dost Mohammad and an ethnic Tajik , was born on 2 September 1953 in Jangalak, Panjshir Valley. At the age of five, he started grammar school in Bazarak and stayed there until second grade. Since his father was promoted to be police chief of Herat, he attended 3rd and 4th grade at the Mowaffaq School in Herat. He also received a religious education at the "Masjed-e Jame" mosque in Herat. Later his father was moved to Kabul so he attended intermediate and senior grades at the French Lycee of Al Istiqlal in Kabul. Since his childhood, he was considered exceedingly talented; from 10th grade on, his school acknowledged him as a particularly gifted student. His native tongue was Persian (Dari), but he was also fluent in French, Pashto, Hindi, and Urdu. Furthermore, he had a good working knowledge of Arabic.

When studying at Kabul, in 1972, he became involved with the sazman-i jawanan-i musulman ("organization of Muslim youth"), the student branch of the Jamiat Islami ("islamic society"), whose chairman was professor Burhanuddin Rabbani. This islamist organization opposed the rising communist influence that became especially evident after the coup d'état that brought Mohammed Daoud Khan to power in 1973: the coup was orchestrated by the Parcham faction of the PDPA, the Afghan communist party.

As soon as Daoud came to power, he began a crackdown against the Islamist movements, forcing those who were not arrested to flee to Pakistan. From here they organized the resistance movement, aided by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who feared Daoud's revival of the Pashtunistan issue.

In July 1975, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, then a Jamiat member, organized an uprising against Daoud's government. Massoud was in charge of stirring up the Panjshir, and had some success in this area, but the revolt was a failure, due to lack of support among the people and Gulbuddin's inability to entice officers of the Afghan army to join the rebels. The ensuing repression greatly weakened the islamist movement, and forced the surviving militants back to Pakistan.

In 1976, the movement split between the supporters of Rabbani, who led the Jamiat, and the more fundamentalists of Hekmatyar, who founded the Hezbi Islami. Massoud, who blamed the failure of the insurrection on Hekmatyar, joined Rabbani's faction.

The Soviet war

The 1978 uprising

When, in 1978, the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan came to power, they began to reform the Afghan society along Marxist lines. These reforms met with an important resistance, especially as the government attempted to enforce them by arresting or simply executing those who resisted. The next result was to plunge large parts of the country, especially the rural areas, into open revolt. Islamist intellectuals such as Massoud became natural leaders for these uprisings.

The first instance of open rebellion occurred in Nuristan, in July 1978. Massoud joined the rebels, and was present when they wiped out an armoured battalion sent by the PDPA to suppress the revolt.

Having ascertained that an uprising against the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan would be backed by the people, Massoud made his way to the Panjshir, and started a new insurrection on July 6, 1979. The fight lasted 40 days, during which the whole Panjshir, Salang, and Bola Ghain were in open revolt against Kabul. After these 40 days Massoud's leg was injured and the troops under his command had no more weapons and ammunition. Despite 600 relief fighters from Nuristan, the government troops finally defeated them. Drawing the lessons from this failure, Massoud decided to avoid direct confrontation with the enemy and to wage a guerrilla war. He set about creating bases and giving his men adequate training.

The Soviet intervention

Massoud devised a strategic plan for expelling the invaders and overthrowing the communist regime: The first phase, or "starting point", consisted in the establishment of a guerilla force, supported by the people. The second phase would be one of "active defense" of the Panjshir stronghold, while carrying out irregular warfare. The third phase, the "strategic offensive", would see Massoud's forces taking control of large parts of Northern Afghanistan. The fourth phase was the "general application" of Massoud's principles to the whole country, and the final demise of the Afghan communist government.

From the start of the war Massoud's mujahideen proved to be a thorn in the side for the occupying Soviet forces, by ambushing Soviet and Afghan convoys travelling through the Salang pass, causing fuel shortages in Kabul. To relieve the pressure on their supply lines the Soviets were forced to mount a series of offensives against the Panjshir. Between 1980 and 1985, these offensives were conducted twice a year, yet despite engaging more men and hardware on each occasion, the Soviets were not able to defeat Massoud's forces. When, in 1982, the Soviets began deploying major combat units in the Panjshir numbering up to 12,000 men, Massoud pulled his troops back into subsidiary valleys, where they occupied fortified positions. When the Soviet columns advanced onto these positions they fell into ambushes and suffered heavy casualties. When the Soviets withdrew, they handed over their positions to Afghan army garrisons, that the Mujahideen attacked and recaptured one by one.

In 1983, the Soviets offered Massoud a truce, which he accepted. He put this respite to good use, extending his influence to areas outside Panjshir, mostly in Takhar and Baghlan Provinces.

This expansion prompted Babrak Karmal to demand that the Red Army resume their offensives, in order to crush the Panjshir groups definitively. However, Massoud had received advanced warning of the attack through his agents in the DRA government, and he evacuated all 30,000 inhabitants out of the valley, leaving the Soviet bombings to fall on empty ground. Eventually, after 1985, no more offensives were carried out against the Panjshir.

With the end of the Soviet-Afghan attacks, Massoud was able to carry out the next phase of his strategic plan: to expand the resistance movement and liberate the northern provinces of Afghanistan. In August 1986 he captured Farkhar in Takhar Province, and in November, his forces overran the headquarters of the DRA 20th division at Nahrin in Baghlan province, scoring an important victory for the resistance. This expansion was also carried out through diplomatic means, as more mujahideen commanders were persuaded to adopt the Panjshir military system.

The Soviet army and the Afghan Army were defeated in numerous small engagements between 1984 and 1988, but many of them remain either undocumented or unknown to outside sources. However, the strength of the Afghan resistance caused the last Soviet soldier to leave Afghanistan on February 15th, 1989 after Mikhail Gorbachev decided to put an end to the Soviet military presence.

Guerrilla Warfare

Despite almost constant attacks by the Red army and the Afghan army, Massoud was able to increase his military strength. Starting in 1980 with a force of less than 1,000 ill-equipped guerillas, the Panjshir valley mujahideen grew to a 5,000-strong force by 1984. After expanding his influence outside the valley, Massoud led some 13,000 fighters in 1989. These forces were divided into different types of units: the locals (mahalli) were tasked with static defense of villages and fortified positions. The best of the mahalli were formed into units called grup-i zarbati (shock troops), semi-mobile groups that acted as reserve forces for the defense of several strongholds.

A different type of unit was the mobile group (grup-i-mutaharek), a lightly equipped commando-like formation numbering 33 men, whose mission was to carry out hit-and-run attacks outside the Panjshir, sometimes as far as 100 km from their base. These men were professional soldiers, well-paid and trained, and, from 1983, they could provide an effective strike force to attack government outposts. Uniquely among the mujahideen, these groups wore uniforms, and their use of the pakul made this headwear emblematic of the Afghan resistance.

Massoud's military organization was an effective compromise between the traditional Afghan method of warfare and the modern principles of guerilla warfare that he had learned from the works of Mao Zedong and Che Guevara. It was considered as the most effective of all the resistance movements.

In July 1983, Massoud created the Shura-ye-nazar (council of supervision), a military council that would eventually coordinate the actions of 130 mujahideen commanders from seven provinces of northern Afghanistan: Parwan, Laghman, Kapisa, Kunar, Badakshan, Takhar, Baghlan and Kunduz . This council existed outside the fold of the Peshawar parties that were prone to internecine rivalry and bickering, and served to smooth out differences between resistance groups, due to political and ethnic divisions. It was the predecessor of the future "Northern Alliance". Relations with the party headquarters in Peshawar were often strained, as Rabbani insisted on giving Massoud no more weapons and supplies than to other Jamiat commanders, even those who fought little. To compensate for this deficiency, Massoud could rely on the revenue drawn from exports of emeralds and lapis lazuli, that are traditionally exploited in Northern Afghanistan.

To organize the support for the mujahideen, he established an administrative system that enforced law and order(nazm) in areas under his control. The Panjshir was divided into 22 bases(qarargah) that were governed by a military commander and a civilian administrator and each had a judge, a prosecutor and a public defender. Massouds policies were implemented by different committees: an economic committee was charged with funding the war effort. The health committee provided health services, assisted by volunteers from foreign humanitarian non-governmental organizations, such as Aide médicale internationale. An education committee was charged with the training of the military and administrative cadre. A culture and propaganda committee and a judiciary committee were also created.

The Fall of Kabul, April 1992

After the departure of Soviet troops in 1989, the PDPA regime now headed by Mohammad Najibullah, proved unexpectedly capable holding its own against the mujahideen. Backed by a massive influx of weapons from the Soviet Union, the Afghan armed forces reached a level of performance they had never reached under direct Soviet tutelage, and were able to prevent all major cities from falling.

By 1992 however, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the regime began to crumble. Food and fuel shortages undermined the capacities of the Army, and a resurgence of factionalism split the regime between Khalq and Parcham supporters.

A few days after it was clear that Najibullah had lost control, his army commanders and governors arranged to turn over authority to resistance commanders and local notables throughout the country. Joint councils or shuras were immediately established for local government in which civil and military officials of the former government were usually included. In many cases prior arrangements for transferring regional and local authority had been made between foes.

Collusions between military leaders quickly brought down the Kabul government. In mid-January 1992, within three weeks of the demise of the Soviet Union, Massoud was aware of conflict within the government's northern command. General Abdul Momim, in charge of the Hairatan border crossing at the northern end of Kabul's supply highway, and other non-Pashtun generals based in Mazari Sharif feared removal by Najibullah and replacement by Pashtun officers. The generals rebelled and the situation was taken over by Abdul Rashid Dostum, who held general rank as head of the Jowzjani militia, also based in Mazari Sharif. He and Massoud reached a political agreement, together with another major militia leader, Sayyed Mansour, of the Ismaili community based in Baghlan Province. These northern allies consolidated their position in Mazar-i-Sharif on March 21. Their coalition covered nine provinces in the north and northeast. As turmoil developed within the government in Kabul, there was no government force standing between the northern allies and the major air force base at Bagram, some seventy kilometers north of Kabul. By mid-April the air force command at Bagram had capitulated to Massoud. Kabul was defenseless, its army no longer reliable.

On March 18, Najibullah announced his willingness to resign, and on April 17, as his government fell apart, he tried to escape but was stopped at Kabul Airport by Dostum' forces. He then took refuge at the United Nations mission, where he remained until 1995. A group of Parchami generals and officials declared themselves an interim government for the purpose of handing over power to the mujahideen.

For more than a week Massoud remained poised to move his forces into the capital. He was awaiting the arrival of political leadership from Peshawar. The parties suddenly had sovereign power in their grasp, but no plan for executing it. With his principal commander prepared to occupy Kabul, Rabbani was positioned to prevail by default. Meanwhile UN mediators tried to find a political solution that would assure a transfer of power acceptable to all sides.

Civil war

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar placed Kabul under intensive rocket bombardment in February 1993. Some sources cite up to 3,000 rockets were fired on Kabul daily and killed many civilians. After a series of negotiations in Kabul and in Peshawar, arranged by the power players of the Afghan Civil War - Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran - the warring factions failed to find a peaceful solution. Massoud was one of the most important figures in the Afghan Civil War.

Massoud ordered a retreat from Kabul on April 7th, 1996 after another round of intense bombardment from the Taliban and its Pakistani supporters in the ISI.

Resistance against the Taliban

As the Taliban took control of around 90% of Afghanistan, the warring factions had no choice but to form an alliance called the 'United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan'. Because most factions were from the north of Afghanistan, the Western media called them the 'Northern Alliance'. The alliance consisted of warlords and tribal leaders like Haji Rahim, Commander Piram Qol, Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, General Dostum, Qazi Kabir Marzban, Commander Ata Mohammad and General Malik. From the east were Haji Abdul Qadir, Commander Hazrat Ali, Commander Jaan Daad Khan and Abdullah Wahedi. From the northeast areas, Commander Qatrah and Commander Najmuddin participated. From the southern provinces, there were Commander Qari Baba, Noorzai, and Hotak. From the western and southwest provinces came General Ismail Khan, Doctor Ibrahim, and Fazlkarim Aimaq. From central Afghanistan Commander Anwari, Said Hussein Aalemi Balkhi, Said Mustafa Kazemi, Akbari, Mohammad Ali Jawed, Karim Khaili, Commander Sher Alam, and Abdur Rassul Sayyaf were members of this union. The alliance consisted of warlords who had been ousted by the locals from all regions of Afghanistan. The alliance was supported by India because of their rivalry with Pakistan, Iran because of their opposition to a strong Sunni Taliban government, Russia and Tajikistan because of the growing Islamic movements in Chechnya and Central Asia..

In April 2001, Nicole Fontaine invited Massoud to address the European Parliament. In his speech, he warned that the Taliban had connections with Al-Qaeda, and that an important terrorist attack was imminent.


Massoud was the target of a suicide attack which occurred at Khwaja Bahauddin on 9 September 2001. The attackers were two Arabs, Dahmane Abd al-Sattar and Bouraoui el-Ouaer, who claimed to be Belgians originally from Morocco. However, their passports turned out to be stolen and their nationality Tunisian. The assassins claimed to want to interview Massoud and set off a bomb in a belt worn by the cameraman while asking Massoud questions. The explosion also killed Mohammed Asim Suhail, a Northern Alliance official, while Mohammad Fahim Dashty and Massoud Khalili were injured. The assassins may have intended to attack several Northern Alliance council members simultaneously. Bouraoui was killed by the explosion and Dahmane was captured and shot while trying to escape. Massoud was rushed after the attack to the Indian Military hospital at Farkhor, Tajikistan which is now Farkhor Air Base. The news of Massoud's death was reported almost immediately, appearing in BBC, European and North American newspapers on 10 September 2001. It was quickly overshadowed by the September 11, 2001 attacks, which proved to be the terrorist attack that Massoud had warned against.

The timing of the assassination, two days before the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, is considered significant by commentators who believe Osama bin Laden ordered the assassination to help his Taliban protectors and ensure he would have their protection and cooperation in Afghanistan. The assassins are also reported to have shown support for bin Laden in their questioning of Massoud. The Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Mujahideen leader Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, an Afghan Wahhabi Islamist, have also been mentioned as a possible organizers or assisters of the assassins. Massoud was a strong opponent of Pakistani involvement in Afghanistan. The assassins are said to have entered Northern Alliance territory under the auspices of the Abdul Rasul Sayyaf and had his assistance in bypassing "normal security procedures."

The French secret service revealed on 16 October 2003 that the camera used by Massoud's assassins had been stolen in December 2000 in Grenoble, France from a photojournalist, Jean-Pierre Vincendet, who was then working on a story on that city's Christmas store window displays. By tracing the camera's serial number, the FBI was able to determine that Vincendet was its original owner. The French secret service and the FBI then began working on tracing the route the camera took between the time it was taken from Vincendet and the Massoud assassination.

After death

In 2001, the Afghan Interim Government under president Hamid Karzai awarded him the title of "Hero of the Afghan Nation". Massoud is the subject of Ken Follett's Lie Down With Lions, a novel about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Many documentaries, books and movies have been made about Ahmad Shah Massoud. One of the most notable is Fire by Sebastian Junger. In this book, there is a chapter named "The Lion in Winter" in which Junger interviews Massoud. Junger was one of the last Western journalists to interview Massoud in depth. The bulk of this interview was first published in March of 2001 for National Geographic's Adventure Magazine along with photographs by the renowned Iranian photographer Reza Deghati.

The well known French musician-songwriter-author Damien Saez wrote a song called "Massoud" in 2002.

Massoud was married with four daughters and a son, and the family has a great deal of prestige in the politics of Afghanistan. Of his six brothers, Ahmad Zia Massoud is the current vice-president of Afghanistan and Ahmad Wali Massoud is the ambassador to the United Kingdom.

A bigger mausoleum is being built in Panjsher to replace the smaller one.

The myth of a lion

Massoud's nickname, the "Lion of Panjshir" is a rhyme and play on words in Persian, which alludes to the strength of his resistance against the Soviet Union, the mythological exaltation of the lion in Persian literature, and finally, the place name of the Panjshir Valley, where Massoud was born. The place name of "Panjshir" Valley in Persian means (Valley of the) Five Lions. Thus, the phrase "Lion of Panjshir" which in Persian is "Shir-e-Panjshir," is a rhyming play on words.

See also

Further reading

External links

Notes and references

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