Forgotten Heroes: Ahmad Shah Massoud

As long as this man is alive, there is no victory- Osama Bin Laden

Shashank Reddy

In the early 1990s, as the Cold War drew to a close, the influential American newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, chose to remember one man above all the others who had a part to play in that epic drama that lasted for over four decades. That man, relatively unknown across much of the world, was Ahmad Shah Massoud, an Afghan warlord to whom The Wall Street Journal chose to bestow the title of ‘The Afghan Who Won The Cold War.’ To his own people, Massoud was the ‘Lion of Panjshir’, the warlord who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize and the symbol of an Afghanistan that could have been.

Born into an Afghan-Tajik family in the province of Panjshir in Northern Afghanistan, Massoud went on to study engineering in Kabul University and there became a part of the Jamait-i-Islami, led by Rabbani, a students’ organization that opposed the growing Soviet influence in Afghanistan. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Massoud made his way back to Panjshir to start an insurgency movement and soon became one of the most charismatic and respected leaders of the ‘Mujaheedin’. With the withdrawal of the Soviet troops and the fall of the communist regime, Massoud became the Defence Minister in the early 1990s of the newly established Islamic State of Afghanistan, a position he used to try and unite the warring Afghan factions and warlords. It was the rise of the Taliban in 1996 that pushed Massoud back into the mountains, to start another war against a regime and an ideology that he despised. Massoud was a product of the Sufi strain of Islam that is prevalent through much of South Asia and to him, the hardcore extremist ideology of the Taliban was revolting and was against the very strains of Islam that he professed. Massoud went on to establish the Northern Alliance to fight the Taliban and by the time of his death in 2001, a few days before 9/11 and blown to bits by two suicide bombers, he was the only warlord left opposing the Taliban.

Massoud was famously progressive by any standard, advocating for women’s rights, especially to education, ensuring that the North eastern part of Afghanistan that was under his control had basic levels of development, fighting against child marriage and slavery. During the brutal years of the Taliban’s reign, Massoud was the one hope of the Afghans for a better life, with hundreds of thousands of people migrating to the areas under his control to escape the government in Kabul. Massoud would also smuggle in humanitarian aid wherever it was necessary and set about establishing democratically elected local self governments. The Human Rights Watch noted that there very absolutely no human rights violations by militias and troops under Massoud’s control from the time the Taliban took over till his death. Massoud also practiced that brand of secularism unique to the South Asian region, exemplified by one incident, where he routinely asked Christians or Jews to lead the meal time prayers in his council, which was dominated by Muslims. To the multitude of people who met Massoud over the years, he cut a solitary figure, a Che Guevara style revolutionary.

With all the stuff that one reads about this man, one cannot help but wonder how Afghanistan would have turned out if he had managed to defeat the Taliban during the siege of Kabul in 1996, or if he had been alive today. It is necessary to remember men like Ahmad Shah Massoud, not only for what they did but also for what they stood for. It is necessary to remember them most importantly for the view of Islam that they showcase that is a world apart from the unfortunate view of Islam that has become prevalent outside the Islamic world. Ahmad Shah Massoud, Lion of Panjshir, Amir Sahib-e-Shahid, National Hero of Afghanistan and a man worth remembering.


3 thoughts on “Forgotten Heroes: Ahmad Shah Massoud

  1. Thank you for this article, Shashank. I had no idea about this man and I’m glad you brought it people’s notice because like you said, we as a society have a rather unfortunate and negative view of Islam, particularly in context of states like Afghanistan. So, to read about such good-willed men is an amazingly enlightening experience.
    And I hate to be that person, but I couldn’t help noticing a typo, again. Sorry about that but in para three, it says, “where he asked routinely asked”. I think you need to delete one of the “asked”s.
    Wonderful article, nonetheless! 🙂

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