The legend of Afghanistan's 'Lion of Panjshir' Ahmad Shah Massoud

 | Updated: Jul 11, 2019, 02:10 PM IST

Ahmad Shah Massoud's bearded visage is painted onto blast walls across Kabul, his photo adorns the windscreens of pro-government forces and a central roundabout bears his name.

Legendary fighter

More than 17 years since his assassination, the legendary fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud who battled the Soviets and the Taliban has become something of an Afghan icon.

The feats of the "Lion of Panjshir", named for his home valley north of Kabul, has earned him a devoted following in war-weary Afghanistan.


Afghan 'national hero'

Massoud was killed aged 47 in 2001 by a team of Al-Qaeda bombers posing as journalists.

His death came two days before the September 11 attacks that would precipitate the US-led invasion to oust the Taliban, who had granted Al-Qaeda safe haven.

Massoud has subsequentially been elevated to the rank of Afghan "national hero" by presidential decree.


Unconquerable military prowess

The most famous images of Massoud, with a beige pakol, the traditional Afghan woollen hat perched on his head, can now be found on T-shirts, key rings and even coffee cups in Kabul's markets.

Massoud gained fame for his military prowess, through which he kept Panjshir free even during the bloody Soviet occupation (1979-89) and under the Taliban regime (1996-2001).

"Every country has a national hero, and Massoud is known worldwide as our national hero, that is why you see his pictures all over the country," said Shamsullah Jawid, a former mujahideen fighter who now is a Panjshir prosecutor.


De l'islamisme à la liberté

American historian Michael Barry, an Afghanistan specialist who lived with Massoud and wrote a biography, De l'islamisme à la liberté, about him, said his subject's legacy comes from his struggle against two of the 20th century's most totalitarian regimes.

"He missed Nazism but he fought against the Soviet Union and he fought against what Al-Qaeda came to represent," Barry said.

"With time, the various shifting political strategies that the real Massoud engaged in have become blurred and forgotten behind the iconic image of someone who gave his life for the defence of his country."

Viewed by the West as someone who represented moderate Islam, Massoud was in April 2001 invited to Paris and then the European Parliament in Strasbourg. 


Ahmad Shah Massoud

Massoud's only son, Ahmad, said his father's vision for Afghanistan was a "peaceful country with good relations between all ethnicity and neighbouring countries".

Massoud was the first to approach the Taliban to seek peace, noted Ahmad, 29, who now runs a foundation bearing his father's name.

The United States is currently leading a push to find a peace deal with the insurgents. "Peace has not come and the struggles Afghanistan still face keep piling up," explained Ahmad.

"In this current situation they need a Massoud figure to be again their saviour," he said of the nation's love of his father.


Photographic portraits

In his youth, he studied with the Muslim Brotherhood along with other mujahideen leaders, before cutting ties in 1978.

His troops were accused of massacres and looting during the 1992-1996 civil war, which killed tens of thousands of people and reduced much of Kabul to rubble.

Massoud's legend owes a good amount to a few photographic portraits that capture the aura of the Afghan "lion" and are instantly recognisable, rather like those of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara.


Reza Deghati

The most famous images of Massoud were taken by French-Iranian photographer Reza Deghati, known simply as Reza, or by Hiromi Nagakura of Japan.

"He's the man who best embodies the most important word for Afghans: pride. He is the only person in modern history who represents the Afghan soul," said Reza, who like his subject shares a passion for chess and Persian poetry.