The first sign of officialdom you see when you drive from the Kabul airport car park is a government billboard looming above a traffic jam. It is the size of a highway billboard in the United States, but closer to the ground, so that you can make out every nuance of the faces on it. Those faces belong to, on the right of the coat of arms of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai, and on the left, slain Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Masoud, dead some 11 years.
With Karzai, you note those tired eyes and that child’s chin, unaided by a trimmed grey beard. Masoud comes off vastly more dashing. He appears to be in conference with the paradises: The eyes smoulder from within, the strong chin and bushy goatee angle out like a divining rod. A pakol, the traditional hat of the Hindu Kush, sits like a column capital on his head.
The billboard calls to mind a prizefight poster, and the champ is obvious. It also happens to capture the attitude of many Afghans and foreigners working here.
In the years since Masoud was assassinated by Al Qaida, just two days before 9/11, and Karzai installed as Afghanistan’s interim president the following summer, their reputations have moved in inverse proportion.
Karzai’s popularity has steadily contracted, while Masoud’s legend in Afghanistan has grown. As though he had just been killed last week, Afghans still talk about what a great president the guerrilla leader would have made.
The implicit slight on Karzai, once dismissed as merely ineffectual and now as ineffectual, corrupt and deluded, is obvious. Abroad, after years of worshipful portrayals of him by foreign reporters and historians, Masoud has become the Che Guevara of Central Asia.
A young Norwegian woman staying in the same guest house as me here in Kabul went weak in the knees when she learnt the house’s driver fought under Masoud. “I want to meet him,” she breathed, referring to the driver, but really meaning the Lion of Panjshir.
Oddly, the billboard captures at least some portion of Afghan officialdom’s attitude, too. Lately, no one has promoted the cult of Masoud as much as Karzai’s government.
In October, a month after the 11th anniversary of his death, the barrier walls of ministry buildings and the homes of officials were covered with Masoud’s stoic visage, as were awnings, shop windows, street-food carts, car windshields and so on.
Wherever possible, as at the airport, Karzai is placed alongside Masoud, as though they were running mates in the 2014 election — an election for which Karzai is ineligible to run, though there is talk that he may be so oblivious to his unpopularity he will attempt to amend the constitution to allow himself a third term. (“Sure, if he wants to be killed,” one Kabuli friend responded when I asked if he thought Karzai might try it.)
In fact, Masoud has been a kind of unwelcome spectral running mate to Karzai all along, a Kalashnikov-slung Banquo, against whom, by comparison, the president is always falling short.
Karzai’s inability or unwillingness to rein in graft, his failure to halt the Taliban, his perceived timidity and indecision — Masoud’s ubiquitous image is a rebuke to all of it. His years spent fighting the Soviet invaders and then the Taliban from within Afghanistan contrast with the years Karzai spent safely in exile in Pakistan.
The exception is in the department of political survival, where Karzai is at least Masoud’s match, maybe his better. The president may venerate Masoud’s memory or he may not, but he knows he must appear to do so to keep ex-Mujahideen and ethnic hostilities in check.
In an Afghanistan largely managed by foreign governments and defined by internal division — most importantly the rivalry between the powerful Tajik minority, among whom Masoud is the favourite son, and the Pashtun majority, among whom Karzai is among the least favourite sons — Masoud is, regrettably, the closest thing Afghans have to a national hero.
I say regrettably, because, while many Afghans venerate him, many others see Masoud as a false idol — as just one in a rogue’s gallery of militia commanders, living and dead, with their own personal fan clubs. His legacy is a matter of bitter divisiveness. His most ardent admirers are confined largely to Tajik strongholds in the north and west and in the capital.
Recently, I visited Herat, Afghanistan’s second-largest city, and saw only a few Masoud photos around. That the Taliban had just staged a firing-squad execution of accused kidnappers outside the city was not, I was assured, the reason for this.
In many Pashtun-dominated areas in the south and east, and not just those where the Taliban is gaining control, Masoud is more of a national anti-hero. As one friend put it to me, “You can’t say in the north that he’s not a hero. People will kill you. And you can’t say in the south that he’s a hero. People will kill you.”
But even in Tajik-heavy Kabul, you need only to start speaking to residents to find that Masoud is a touchy matter. Part of this is opposition to his political party, Jamiat-e Islami, and part suspicion of foreign intelligence services with a history of designs on Afghanistan — Masoud took money from all of them, from the CIA, MI6 and Pakistan’s Inter-Intelligence Service (ISI), from the French, probably the KGB and even the Chinese.
Part is class resentment — Marxism has never entirely left Afghanistan. Masoud, whose father was a general in King Zahir Shah’s army, was raised in upper middle-class wealth and attended a lycée. There is a feeling, even among other Tajiks, that Tajiks from the Panshjir Valley, where Masoud is from, are an arrogant bunch.
When I asked him what he thought of Masoud, a Tajik taxi driver and former army officer when Masoud was defence minister, said “Panjshiris, they ...” and instead of finding an adjective, he hunched up his shoulders, puckered his face and snorted haughtily.
“They like British.” (That is an insult in Afghanistan.) The real scepticism about Masoud, though, arises from the facts of his life and what he eventually did to the city and people of Kabul.
Afghans of a certain age and education know, for instance, that far from starting out the conciliator he would later become, Masoud began his political career as an Islamist radical agitator at Kabul’s Polytechnic College.
He fled to Pakistan in 1975 with the Muslim Youth Organisation, years before the communist coup and Soviet invasion made this exodus a tragic necessity for millions of other Afghans.
There he didn’t teach himself to be a soldier, as the story goes, but rather was taught to be one by the ISI. It was under the direction of Ali Bhutto, who created Pakistan’s covert war in Afghanistan, and was, many would argue, the progenitor of the Taliban.
If there is anyone Afghan Pashtuns and Tajiks distrust more than one another, it is a Pakistani, and particularly a Bhutto. Afghans up on their history know, too, that Masoud began his fighting career as a failed agent provocateur — he was drafted by the ISI and its despised Afghan satrap, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, to start an uprising against the Afghan government in the Panjshir.
It didn’t work. According to some KGB memoirists, Masoud may have gone on to receive training from that agency in Lebanon. If that is true, it comes as little surprise that from the moment he became a Mujahid and began to do battle with Soviet soldiers, after they invaded Afghanistan in 1979, making his legend, Masoud was also bargaining with the Soviet authorities.
He made a series of truces with them in the early 1980s. This duplicity is now explained away as a typically shrewd move by Masoud — whose courage and battlefield brilliance cannot be questioned — to win respite for his weary troops and recruit more support.
No doubt it was. Nonetheless, the deals also helped bring the Soviet side hammer down on less-equipped Mujahideen, and provided Masoud the opportunity to pursue a private war with Hekmatyar in the 1990s. (By that point, Hekmatyar was using many of his American-taxpayer-bought weapons to try to kill his old protégé).
Talking to Kabulis who don’t buy into the hype, you learn that this is what what galls them the most about Masoud: the personal feud that played out in the streets of this city and caused incalculable destruction and loss of life.
Hekmatyar and his Uzbek sometime-helpmeet, Abdul Rashid Dostum, were the more wanton combatants, certainly, but Masoud brought his fair share of ruin, levelling whole districts of Kabul.
“Masoud is responsible for half the atrocities of this country,” said a prominent Afghan intellectual who did not want to named. Nor did the ruin end when he was elevated to defence minister in 1992.
Many members of Afghanistan’s second-largest ethnic minority, the Hazaras, will never forgive him for massacring Hazaras in south Kabul the next year. Masoud’s men abused residents and looted shops. In part for that reason, many Kabulis welcomed the Taliban takeover three years later.
“It’s a very difficult legacy,” the prominent Afghan said, because of “his stubbornness, his lack of will to dispense with remote political masters, and his lack of willingness to resolve the issue of division of power peacefully”.
Over a cup of coffee at Kabul University, a friend whose family stayed in Kabul through the Soviet occupation, civil wars, and Taliban years, explained to me there are three Masouds.
There is the Masoud who fought the Russians. Everybody loves him. There is the Masoud who fought the Taliban and held together the Northern Alliance. Many love him. “Then there is the Masoud who came to Kabul and lost control. No one loves that Masoud,” he said.
But when they compare him with the other brigands who built militias and made Afghanistan’s cities and villages their battlegrounds, he comes out the best of a bad lot. “That’s why a lot of people can use his name to be in power.”
Masoud learnt insurgent tradecraft not just from the enemies of Afghanistan, but from Mao and Che, whose books he toted from camp to camp and often quoted. The comparison to the Argentine revolutionary is apt: as with Che, the whitewashed legacy and the bloody reality overlap only in convenient corners.
Afghans have their own reasons for perpetuating the myth. Retirees from intelligence services and diplomat corps, now watching the United States and Nato flounder about in the provinces, regret not having backed him against the Taliban; for them, Masoud is a kind of tragic noble savage.
For the rest, cult membership comes with a predictable Byronic sentimentality. Not just Norwegian co-eds are susceptible. An American woman I know who has lived in Kabul since Masoud was a boy insisted to me, with a sigh, that he was “the only real patriot” among the civil war commanders.
When I pointed out that we happened to be near a neighbourhood Masoud destroyed, she said “War is a nasty business. They were all killers.” Indeed, they were. No one knows this better than Karzai, whose government is stocked with those killers — the “warlords,” as they’re now collectively known. Some took control of ministries after the Taliban’s fall, others he installed.
Opinions differ as to who is the keenest to use Masoud for propaganda purposes. Some say it is certain ministers, some Karzai. His picture hangs outside the ministries and the presidential palace. Some suggest officials put up portraits of Masoud precisely in order to humiliate Karzai.
Then there are Masoud’s five surviving brothers, a not-terribly accomplished crew but a rising political force. They nearly got the family name inserted into the national constitution. Whoever it is, their reasoning is sound: Every regime needs a hero, and if it doesn’t have one among its own ranks, it must pluck one from history.
Masoud’s image is an encouragement to the untold numbers of ex-Mujahideen and their families still living in poverty. It also serves as a sop to Tajiks, who feel more and more threatened as the Pashtun-dominated Taliban reasserts control around the country.
This imperative is forcing Karzai into awkward positions. Ahead of the 2009 elections, he named the Tajik commander Mohammad Fahim vice-president — after Washington had convinced Karzai to remove Fahim, who is accused of human rights abuses and whom Karzai is known to distrust, from his cabinet. Fahim replaced Ahmad Zia Masoud — Masoud’s younger brother.
Whatever his own feelings about Masoud, Karzai at times seems to try to govern like the Lion at his worst: that is, as an embattled, self-regarding, and capricious general. He is ever more prey to paranoia and delusion, we are told, and increasingly given to outbursts against his foreign protectors, as in the recent flap over the Bagram prison.
One can’t help but wonder how much the burden of Masoud’s memory has driven him to this point. A shame, because Karzai has managed to do the one thing Masoud never could: He has stitched together Afghanistan’s ethnic threads into some semblance of a fabric.
Of course, he has done this in part by bringing a cast of unsavoury characters into the fold, creating a shaky coalition that has come at the cost of Augean corruption.
Ironically, that is one area where he really could use Masoud’s help. For all his opportunism, the Lion never cared about personal enrichment, unlike the other warlords. He was happiest on the front lines with his troops, on a cot in a cave reading a book.
Masoud didn’t make much of a politician, and probably wouldn’t have done much better than Karzai as a president. In fact, every Afghan I have spoken with about Masoud, including his most ardent admirers, agree that he probably couldn’t have been elected had he lived, even if he does look fantastic on a billboard. But he might have proved an exemplary Treasury secretary.
James Verini is a Foreign Policy contributor based in Nairobi.