A Visit to the Shrine of Afghanistan’s National Hero

Nine years after his death, Ahmad Shah Massoud is everywhere.

Read Slate’s complete coverage of the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

BAZARAK, Afghanistan—I have seen Ahmad Shah Massoud’s snow globe. He had two, actually, identical except for some sort of algae that has muddied the water in one of them. I’ve also seen the man’s plastic staple remover. You can see it, too, at the National Hero’s Tomb, Afghanistan’s top tourist destination, which is currently under construction, growing from a simple grave site to a shrine, amphitheater, museum, and gift shop.

Sept. 9 is Massoud Day, and nine years after his assassination, people around Afghanistan will remember the national hero, the Lion of the Panshjir, Chief of Martyrdom Hill, the most beatified mujahideen. He was the leader of the resistance to the Taliban before anyone knew who the Taliban were, and he is probably one of the warlords the CIA and the U.S. government most deeply regret supporting only halfheartedly. In a precursor to the 9/11 attacks, two Tunisian al-Qaida operatives posing as Belgian journalists killed him in a suicide mission.

Al-Qaida’s aim was to decapitate the Northern Alliance, because Osama Bin Laden correctly predicted a major U.S. military response to the 9/11 attacks. Without Massoud, the U.S. efforts would be less effective. Washington made do with Hamid Karzai. Nine years on, it is clear that Karzai lacks Massoud’s charisma and strategic wherewithal. He isn’t the same kind of leader. He never was.

But Massoud lives on. Today he is everywhere. He is shown at prayer on billboards on the side of the road and on signs nestled in cliffs in his native Panshjir Valley. His portrait hangs on buildings, it is posted in offices alongside President Hamid Karzai’s, and it is taped to dashboards and hung from rearview mirrors. Call it mujahideen kitsch: His visage appears on carpets, and his face is superimposed on parliamentary candidates’ campaign posters.

Here in villages lining the rugged Panjshir Valley, you can’t go more than a few feet without seeing a poster weathered by sun and rain. Often there is Massoud the thinker, his brow deeply furrowed. There is the beneficent, smiling Massoud. There is Massoud looking through long-range binoculars. He always wears his pakol, the soft woolen hat shaped like a pie. And for good reason! The hat, worn at a jaunty angle, made him sexy, and he made it sexy, too.

Massoud was a darling of the West, particularly of the French, who even put him on a postage stamp. He was born in the Panshjir Valley, attended a French lycée in Kabul, and picked up Persian and Hindi, as well as conversational Arabic and English. At university in Kabul, he joined the student branch of the Jamiat-e Islami, an Afghan organization along the lines of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Comparatively speaking, he was the most moderate of the Islamists. He talked about women’s rights.

His tomb is just a few hours’ drive north of Kabul. It used to be an hour and a half, but in today’s traffic, it takes twice as long, particularly if you are caught behind the military vehicles heading to Bagram Airfield. (Do not try to overtake.) Driving north, you pass fields of Soviet tanks lined up as if in parking lots. The valley narrows into a gorge, with a sparkling green river rushing through vertical cliffs. This is Massoud’s territory, populated by Tajiks, one of the four main ethnic groups in the country. It is easy to see how Massoud’s guerrillas descended from the rocks to ambush the Soviet tanks that repeatedly failed to conquer the area. Sometimes Massoud’s men raped the Russian POWs. The tanks and other Soviet vehicles are rusting along the roadside and in the river. They are flipped over and left next to the slides in the playground.

“You’re an infidel,” one of the kids playing in the street tells me when we stop to buy a pakol. Then, wide-eyed, he clamps his hand over his mouth, checking for my reaction. It’s just a joke. Another boy grabs the blue accordion fabric of a burqa that is for sale and pushes it toward me, commanding me to put it on. All the women I see walking around in the valley are in burqas—though the Taliban were never here, this was always a conservative rural area. It’s hard enough for me to keep my headscarf from getting caught in car doors, the impaired vision of the burqa would be another level of hazard altogether. My comeback, “No, you wear it,” sends the boys into shrieks.

Massoud’s birthplace is one of the friendliest and safest parts of the country for foreigners. But the Panjshiris are fiercely independent. Twenty years ago, Massoud’s mujahideen warriors were the best-trained in Afghanistan, if not the most brutal. (That distinction belongs to Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s army after the Soviet Union’s puppet government was vanquished and the country descended into civil war in the 1990s.)

Fighting alongside Hekmatyar and then against him. Ambushing the Soviets, then receiving support from Russia. These were just a few of Massoud’s shifting alliances. Even his legacy is tricky. When asked who is funding Massoud’s shrine and memorial complex, one of the guys at the grounds said it was the Iranians. (Massoud’s widow and family now live in Iran, a Shiite neighbor that was Massoud’s surest ally against the Sunni Taliban.) But at Massoud Foundation headquarters in Kabul, the deputy CEO went on the defensive. “There are some contracts with engineers from Iran,” Shafiq Shahim told me. “Iranians know how to build minarets. Iranians and the Iranian government don’t support it [financially].”

But one nation always remained an enemy, the animosity spelled out in clear black lettering and white paint outside a medical clinic in the Panshjir Valley. A message on the side of an ambulance reads, “Donated by the Islamic Republic of” with the name of the donor country literally painted over. Pakistan, which supported the Taliban then and maybe now, was Massoud’s worst enemy. The southern neighbor triumphed in the fight for America’s affection after Pakistan demanded that all arms and financial support for the Afghan resistance to the Soviets must pass through its own intelligence service, the ISI. In the 1990s, when Massoud asked the CIA for support to stave off the Taliban, the CIA gave him the military equivalent of pocket change.

The U.S. alliances in the region are just as confusing. The relationship between Massoud and the CIA was complicated by Massoud’s other pragmatic alliances with Iran and Russia and against Pakistan. Unfortunately, the friend of our friend was our enemy—Iran. That cost Massoud and the United States. The U.S. government ignored his request for support before the Taliban swept north in 1996 “like a storm,” one Tajik told me. They ignored him until it was too late. At first, Washington took the Taliban for just another post-mujahideen group.

Some Afghans get misty-eyed talking about him. “A man like him only comes around once in a century and disappears,” said one man who knew Massoud. “He wasn’t into land, women, money.” Muhammad Qasim, the supervisor of a health clinic in Bazarak, said, “He loved Afghanistan. He loved his people. We can’t find anyone like him anymore. He’s always in our minds.”

Massoud is a hero now. But a few ironies complicate his legacy: The CIA originally supplied mujahideen with arms such as Stinger missiles to take out Soviet helicopters as revenge for Vietnam. The aim was to bleed the Soviets in the way that the Vietnam War had bled America. Once the Soviet Union faded, America practically abandoned Massoud. After the Taliban took over the country, America allied with Russia to support his resistance. But in the years since his assassination, America has been waging a war with many parallels to the Soviet efforts, backing a government that can’t stand on its own but isn’t a puppet; getting ambushed by guerrillas, despite possessing the finest war-fighting technology.

Despite his ubiquity, Massoud is not popular with everyone. “He killed too many people,” one Pashtun told me. Another man, a Hazara, felt the same way. (Armies under the command of Massoud and another warlord massacred up to 1,000 Hazara villagers in 1993, beheading even the elderly and their pets.) “You’re not supposed to say this out loud, but I don’t like him,” said a third.

He was no saint, though he is beatified here. He was a warlord, he was responsible for the deaths of many civilians, and he left swaths of Kabul in ruins. But as mujahideen go, he was a good one. And he had only one wife.

Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.