Young lion of Panjshir fights Afghanistan’s 'epic prison'

Ahmad Massoud tells The National he is trying to convince the West that his people need support to defy Taliban rule

National Resistance Front leader Ahmad Massoud calls for freedom and justice in Afghanistan

National Resistance Front leader Ahmad Massoud calls for freedom and justice in Afghanistan
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Ahmad Massoud was only 12 when his father, one of Afghanistan’s greatest leaders, was assassinated by Al Qaeda suicide bombers.

Since then the Taliban has been banished, followed by 20 years of democracy only to be demolished by the extremists’ resurgence in 2021.

But during that time the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud gained military experience at Britain’s Sandhurst military academy and studied for a master's degree in international politics.

His aura of authority was evident when, as the youngest person on the platform of a conference on Afghanistan in Vienna, it appeared that he had inherited his father’s stature to lead.

Asked in an interview with The National for his thoughts on western overtures to the Taliban, Mr Massoud, now 33, offered a resigned smile, one perhaps reserved for admonishing a child.

“You cannot wash dirt with dirt,” he suggested to emphasise that if the international community thought it co-opt the Taliban with money and hints of diplomatic ties to resist forces like ISIS, it was gravely mistaken.

The extremists who seized Afghanistan 20 months ago are deeply attached to a brutal autocratic government that uses hard drugs for income and harbours a number of terrorist groups yet to be unleashed on the wider world.

Until now there has been little internal opposition to their harsh rule. But the capable Mr Massoud has managed to pull together a diverse coalition of Afghans that represent a more palatable alternative government.

That unity was demonstrated in Vienna this week when Tajiks shared a platform with Pashtuns, Uzbeks and Hazaris at a three-day conference on Afghanistan.

As leader of the National Resistance Front (NRF), Mr Massoud — sometimes referred to as the “Young Lion of Panjshir” — leads the largest group that is showing signs of forming a resilient military and political opposition.

With its attention diverted by Ukraine and still humiliated by defeat in Afghanistan, he warned the West it must not ignore Afghanistan's plight.

“Afghanistan has become an epic prison for its people and a safe haven for terrorist groups” and was also a country that could also revisit the “catastrophic” events of the past, he said.

Son of Panjshir

When the Taliban crushed government forces in 2021 they swept through the formerly impregnable Panjshir valley. That aura of invincibility was born under the enigmatic leadership of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the “Lion of Panjshir”, who had defeated the Soviets and repulsed the first Taliban regime.

Sharing the same looks as his father and the recognisable brown woollen pakol headdress, Mr Massoud possesses a sharp intelligence and polite charisma.

During his interview at a large Austrian town house, where armed police stood guard outside, he said he was not embittered by the West’s lack of interest in the Taliban's opposition but added that the US and its allies should pay heed.

Therefore, did it surprise him that no agencies from any western powers had been in contact?

“Of course it is a surprise because if they think that they can trust the Taliban over the democratic forces," he said.

“It's like cleaning ISIS with the Taliban, then what are you going to do with the Taliban? It’s the same ideology and the same problem. It’s not going to work and will demoralise all our democratic forces who will then lose respect to the West.”

Cash for autocrats

There are deep fears that the Taliban will persuade western powers to recognise it as a legitimate government and form diplomatic ties.

Already Kabul is receiving $40 million a week in aid, much of it indirectly from the West, including the US, whereas the NRF “do not have any support from anywhere”.

The Taliban also have an income from an “enormous share in the drug trade”, widespread extortion, and as Mr Massoud suggests darkly, money from “intelligence links” for various reasons, including from Pakistan’s ISI agency.

In addition, they have an estimated $7 billion worth of equipment seized from the Afghan army, including rifles, thermal scopes, night-vision goggles and Humvee vehicles.

“We do not have any support from outside and are operating based on the generosity of Afghan people but we are very confident because we do not have a manpower issue, we possess that massively,” Mr Massoud said.

With just “minimal support in resources”, he argues that the NRF would be able to “liberate a portion of the country”.

“We would implement a system to truly protect the values of Afghanistan, including democracy, tranquillity and diversity — things that attract the whole nation.”

That vision was endorsed in the Vienna conference where parties and groupings, including women’s rights supporters, came together.

Seize a province

If that unity strengthens and grows then perhaps the outside world will take note. But as the NRF leader confirmed, there has been no official contact with the US, Britain or Europe.

However, that might change if the NRF retakes a northern province forming an alternative foothold and government that the West could recognise and provide with resource.

But without money, weapons and substantial equipment today, that could prove insurmountable, Mr Massoud admits.

“Our fighters are using the guerrilla warfare tactics just as we used against the Soviets but while we are able to capture a district we do not have the resources to hold it.”

A force of about 2,000 NRF fighters has spent winter in the high, cold mountains of the Hindu Kush. Last summer it grew to an army of 5,000 and may well do so again, although Mr Massoud states the exact numbers are “classified” and avoids answering if any offensive might occur during the traditional summer fighting season.

“We want to be more prepared to defend our people because they are living under gender apartheid, farmers cannot go to the farms, miners cannot mine, women are treated as non-humans. The Taliban are killing and murdering people with no reason. The people are living in a hostile prison.”

Taliban friends

There is a suggestion that the US and others are willing to turn a blind eye to Taliban excesses and brutality on the basis that the regime keeps foreign fighters on a tight leash.

That, Mr Massoud argues, is a misplaced policy. “Always when the attention of the world has been diverted from Afghanistan that has been catastrophic.

“We hear about them engaging with the Taliban but that is not what the people of Afghanistan want. They want the international community to help them decide their own future.”

Foreign terrorist groups are being extensively trained and recruited in Afghanistan with the active collaboration of the Taliban. If a major attack is mounted in Europe and elsewhere, it is inevitable a response will be required and the West will almost certainly call on the NRF for assistance.

Before then, the resistance leader hopes the West will finally replicate the support they gave to his father,

Although Ahmad Shah Massoud’s death robbed him of a father and Afghanistan of one of its most charismatic leaders, it has not taken away memories of an adoring parent.

“The best memories I have are of any son for his father,” Ms Massoud said, beaming. "It is a memory of freedom and a memory of love and of reading."

Updated: April 28, 2023, 11:07 AM