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The son of the lion: Afghan resistance leader Ahmad Massoud follows into his father’s footsteps in fighting the Taliban

Uprooting the Taliban is the guiding principle of the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, a military alliance of former Northern Alliance members and other anti-Taliban fighters formed in the wake of the 2021 Taliban offensive. The group is led by vice president Amrullah Saleh and Afghan politician and military leader Ahmad Massoud, the 32-year-old son of the celebrated mujahedeen commander Ahmad Shah Massoud.

As fates would have it, Massoud found himself eerily at the same crossroads as his father did more than two decades ago. He needed to figure out whether to surrender to the Taliban and accept their supremacy or mount a resistance to reclaim his country. And expectedly, Massoud made the same choice his father did and picked up his tenacious fight against the Taliban.

Just days after the Taliban stormed Kabul and toppled the US-backed Ashraf Ghani government in a swift offensive on August 15, Massoud and Saleh retreated to Panjshir, a narrow mountainous valley province 70km north of Kabul, which has a storied history of never succumbing to invaders and whose residence swore allegiance to the legendary Massoud name.

It was the Panjshir valley from where the revered Afghan fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud controlled his anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban campaigns in the 1980s and 90s respectively. Now, as the Taliban once again threatens to establish its hegemony, Massoud’s son has aped his father and mobilised armed militias to launch the resistance movement against the fundamentalist group.

Who is Ahmad Massoud?

Ahmad Massoud was born in July 1989 in the Warsaj district of Afghanistan. He is the only son and the oldest of Ahmad Shah Massoud’s six children.

With Afghanistan remaining perpetually in flux, Massoud was sent to neighbouring Iran where he completed his secondary education. He then spent a year studying a military course at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in the UK.

In 2012, he began pursuing an undergraduate course in War Studies at King’s College London and obtained his bachelor’s degree three years later, in 2015. He also completed his master’s degree in International Politics from City, the University of London in 2016. Interestingly, his topic of dissertation in both undergraduate and postgraduate courses was the Taliban.

As Massoud was occupied with his intellectual pursuits, the condition back in Afghanistan deteriorated sharply, with the Taliban making significant gains amidst a rudderless US-led NATO campaign. After completing his master’s degree, Massoud returned to Afghanistan to mobilise resistance against the Taliban.

On August 18, three days after the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan, Massoud penned a poignant opinion piece in the Washington Post, describing his opinions on the protracted struggle that lies ahead of him and his fellow resistance members.

“I write from the Panjshir Valley today, ready to follow in my father’s footsteps, with mujahideen fighters who are prepared to once again take on the Taliban. We have stores of ammunition and arms that we have patiently collected since my father’s time because we knew this day might come,” Massoud wrote, highlighting the inevitable that lays ahead.

Massoud also cautioned the west on leaving Afghanistan in the lurch, asserting that such an ill-thought strategy could haunt the countries for years to come as it would provide a breeding ground not just to the Taliban, but also to the forces inimical to democracies around the world and spawn a new wave of radical Islamist terrorism.

“The Taliban is not a problem for the Afghan people alone. Under Taliban control, Afghanistan will, without doubt, become ground zero of radical Islamist terrorism; plots against democracies will be hatched here once again,” Massoud wrote.

Massoud is currently in Panjshir and raising an armed militia to confront the Taliban. In his interaction with French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, Massoud harked back to the harangue his father delivered to his soldiers in a cave in Panjshir in 1998. “When you fight for your freedom, you fight also for our freedom,” Massoud told Levy he heard his father saying it to a gathering of soldiers.

Inviting all anti-Taliban forces to combine their efforts against the Taliban, Massoud told Levy that the “resistance has just begun” as “surrender is not a part of his vocabulary”.

Invoking this belief, Massoud, in his opinion write-up, sought help from the West, saying, “We have fought for so long to have an open society, one where girls could become doctors, our press could report freely, our young people could dance and listen to music or attend soccer matches in the stadiums that were once used by the Taliban for public executions — and may soon be again.”

Regardless of whether the West throws its weight behind Massoud or not, several reports say he has already attracted thousands of soldiers to the valley, including remnants of the Afghan Army’s special forces and some of Ahmad Shah Massoud’s experienced guerrilla commanders, who see in Massoud not only a striking resemblance to his father but also a reflection of his grit and determination.

The legacy of Ahmad Shah Massoud

Ahmad Shah Massoud is a legendary figure in Afghanistan, hailed by his followers as a revolutionary hero. He was born in 1953 in Bazarak in the Panjshir Valley to a well-to-do family native to the Panjshir valley. While he was born in Panjshir, he spent most of his time in Kabul after his family shifted from the valley to Herat and then finally to the Afghan capital.

Massoud, the father, was a Francophile who was educated in the lycée in Kabul. His birth name was Ahmad Shah but he embraced the name “Massoud” as nom de guerre when he went into the resistance movement in 1974. But he rose to prominence as an ethnic Tajik mujahideen commander after joining the rebel forces against the Soviets in the 1980s and the Taliban in the 1990s.

Massoud earned the sobriquet of “Lion of Panjshir” among his followers for his role as a powerful insurgent leader of the Afghan mujahideen after he successfully repelled the Soviets from capturing the Panjshir Valley. In the late 1990s, he redirected his armed rebellion against the Taliban, rejecting their puritanic interpretation of Islam. He was pushed back to Tajikistan for anti-Taliban activities, following which he became the military and political leader of the Northern Alliance, which by 2000 controlled only between 5 and 10 per cent of the country.

Lion of Panjshir Ahmad Shah Massoud

Then in April 2001, Massoud travelled to Strasbourg to forewarn the European Parliament about Afghanistan being used as a base for the terror by Osama bin Laden. In the same year on September 9, two days before the 9/11 attacks, Massoud was killed in a bomb attack by Al-Qaeda. The assassination was said to have been a gift by Laden to the Taliban that reportedly won him protection from the group. The 9/11 attacks ultimately resulted in NATO allying with the Northern Alliance and deposing the Taliban from power in December 2001.

The Taliban steps up attacks to bring Panjshir Valley under control

With the Panjshir Valley being Afghanistan’s only remaining holdout, the Taliban has intensified its offensive to bring the last independent enclave under its control. It has laid siege to the region and called upon the National Resistance Front (NRF) to lay down its arms.

The development came after negotiation talks between the Taliban and the NRF that took place on Wednesday failed to yield any result. The resistance force said it will continue its campaign against the Taliban. 13 members of the Taliban were killed in an ambush by National resistance in the Chikrinow district of Panjshir province, and one of their tanks was destroyed.

As the resistance force girds for the impending clashes with the Taliban, it remains to be seen whether Ahmad Massoud and Amrullah Saleh succeed in preserving the valley’s reputation as the deathbed of invaders or does the Taliban trounces the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan to consolidate their grip over the country.

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Jinit Jain
Engineer. Writer. Learner.

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