In Kabul, it is hard to miss the late Ahmad Shah Massoud. His bearded visage is painted onto blast walls across the city, his photo adorns the windscreens of pro-government forces. And a central roundabout bears his name.
More than 17 years since his assassination, the legendary fighter 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.
The most famous images of Massoud, with a beige pakol—the traditional Afghan woolen 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.
Massoud’s only son, Ahmad, said his father’s vision for Afghanistan was a “peaceful country with good relations between all ethnicities and neighboring 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 savior,” he said of the nation’s love of his father.
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 U.S.-led invasion to oust the Taliban, who had granted Al Qaeda safe haven.
Massoud has subsequently been elevated to the rank of Afghan “national hero” by presidential decree.
American historian Michael Barry, an Afghanistan specialist who lived with Massoud and wrote a biography 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 the passage of 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 defense 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.
But his story is not without controversy. 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 recognizable, rather like those of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara.
Yousuf Jannesar, an Afghan photographer, says he has “never met anyone so photogenic.”
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.
But Massoud left nothing to chance with his image. “Whenever he would receive guests, his troops would come to pick me up so I could perfect his look, and when I would cut his hair he always insisted on being well presented,” said Malekdad, Massoud’s former hairdresser.
Every Sept. 9, the anniversary of his death, crowds of pakol-wearing admirers, as well as politicians and a few diplomats, go to Panjshir to pay homage. In Kabul, followers shoot weapons in the air to honor his memory, an event that invariably results in locals getting wounded.
His likeness is emblazoned on goods in a small gift shop beside his burial ground and memorial in Panjshir—something that Massoud may not have approved of.
“If he were alive, he would never like his pictures to be misused and hung on walls by people,” said Faizullah Saifi, Massoud’s former driver.
His son is also dubious about the growing Massoud iconography. We should celebrate “the values that we fought for … not the photos,” he said.