Son of famed Afghan commander Massoud steps into spotlight
Eighteen years after the assassination of revered anti-Taliban commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, his only son is hoping to continue the mission against the insurgents by jumping into Afghanistan's chaotic political fray.
With America seemingly on the brink of a deal with the Taliban that would see the Pentagon slash its troop presence in Afghanistan, 30-year-old Ahmad Massoud wants to galvanise anti-Taliban groups and stop the emboldened fighters from ushering in a new wave of hardline Islam.
Following in the steps of his father, who rallied various groups under the banner of the United Front – also known as the Northern Alliance – the younger Massoud wants to build a grand coalition of anti-Taliban elements that can oppose the insurgents politically at first and militarily if necessary.
"I really pray and hope that Afghans and Afghanistan never see another bloodshed," Massoud told journalists in an interview at a family home in Kabul. "God forbid. But if it comes, not just myself, but there are... hundreds of thousands of young people who are like me. We are ready to pick up guns."
Massoud plans to officially launch his political movement on 5 September in Panjshir, his family's original home valley north of Kabul that neither the Soviets nor the Taliban ever conquered.
Afghanistan's youth – what future with the Taliban?
Afghanistan's Generation Z has grown up in a 17-year window shadowed by warfare and a heavy international presence, but now faces an uncertain future and the possibility of stark change. By Charlotte Greenfield and Hameed Farzad
"I am optimistic about the Taliban joining the peace process," said Hussain, 19, who like many young Afghans grew up in neighbouring Iran where millions have taken refuge from war. He now works as a hairdresser in Kabul. "It will be an end to the war and conflicts in our country. I want the Taliban to change their policy and not behave like before"
Twenty-five-year-old artist Mahdi Zahak said: "There is hope for peace, but the only way we can have peace is if the Taliban accept the achievements made here in the past 17 years and let everyone enjoy their lives"
Seventeen-year-old Muay Thai athlete Kawsar Sherzad said: "Afghan females have had a lot of achievements in sports, so I am optimistic that the Taliban will accept these achievements"
Sultan Qasim Sayeedi, an 18-year-old model sports a hairstyle with shaven sides and a slicked back front called a "sinpogh", which he says turns heads on Kabul's streets. "We're afraid that if the Taliban come then we will not be able to hold our shows," he said. Despite that wariness, Sultan says it's time the fighting ended. "If American troops go, peace will come. We want peace," he added
Twenty-two-year-old owner of a luxury clothes shop Sohail Ataie said: "We are tired of war. What we want is peace to live a better life"
"The thing I'm most worried about is that if they return, I'll not be able to continue playing music," said Maram Atayee, a 16-year-old pianist who attends music school in Kabul. "It will be great if the government and the Taliban reach a peace deal. Access to music must be guaranteed for everyone and women's rights protected"
Twenty-one-year-old model Omid Arman said: "Everyone in this country desires peace. We've witnessed a lot of conflicts, it's enough, we don't want to witness any more tragedy"
Nineteen-year-old Nadim Quraishi posing outside his game zone shop said: "We want to see an end to the current conflict in the country. We are hoping for a lasting peace between the government and the Taliban"
Twenty-two-year-old Zarghona Haidari, who works at a book store, said: "I'm not very optimistic about peace in this country. I don't think the Taliban will make a deal with the government"
Eighteen-year-old Farzad Aslami said: "We want peace for the sake of our country's welfare. We don't want any more suicide attacks and explosions"
Twenty-two-year-old doctor Mohammad Jawed Momand said: "Peace requires everyone to lay down their arms and think about education and the prosperity of the country"
In a fractious country where a grim gallery of brutal warlords and squabbling grifters is woven into the political tapestry, Afghans still cling to Ahmad Shah Massoud as a unifying figure who could have led the country to a Taliban-free future, were it not for his murder by al-Qaida operatives.
Dubbed the "Lion of Panjshir", the elder Massoud still emblazons billboards, blast walls, car windows and even coffee mugs in the capital and across the country.
"He was a one-of-a-kind character in Afghan history and I don't think anyone can be like him," Massoud said in fluent English, tinged with a slight London accent from seven years in Britain.
But comparisons to the mujahideen commander are inevitable, especially in a country where the baton of power often passes seamlessly from father to son and where unifying political figures are vanishingly rare.
Massoud, who returned to Afghanistan in 2016, also bears more than a passing resemblance to his dad, especially since growing a beard and donning the same sort of beige pakol, or Afghan woollen hat, that his father sported.
The elder Massoud was assassinated aged 48, when his son was 12, two days before the seismic events of 9/11 that would forever shape Afghanistan's history and trigger the U.S.-led invasion to hunt Osama bin Laden and topple his Taliban hosts.
After his father's death, Massoud finished his schooling in Iran then moved to England to train as an officer at the country's Sandhurst military academy – his second choice after failing to get into West Point in New York – before completing two degrees in London.
As Massoud sees it, a planned U.S.-Taliban deal fails to tackle the shortcomings of Afghanistan's political apparatus – a vicious, winner-takes-all system where absolute power is always the goal – and instead rewards an extremist movement for their tenacity.
"Unless we go to a process which distributes power to everyone, which decentralises power in Afghanistan, we cannot solve any problems," he said. "It's going to give a sense of triumph and victory to the Taliban... That's the real fear, that we are legitimising, we are giving hope for the terrorist groups across the world".
Massoud thinks the U.S. has been too quick to grant concessions to the Taliban while excluding other Afghans in the peace talks, leaving the militants poised to expand their influence into any void left by departing American forces.
"It is not an Afghan-led process," Massoud said. "It's something happening between America and the Taliban, between the regional powers and the Taliban. Where (are) the Afghans?"
The U.S. insists the deal with the Taliban is contingent on talks between the insurgents and the Afghan government and that Afghanistan's issues will only be resolved through "intra-Afghan" dialogue.
Massoud warned that a precipitous American troop pull-out could lead to a collapse of Afghanistan's security forces, where corruption and poor leadership remain prevalent. Already, he is seeing various groups and militias in Panjshir and elsewhere re-arm and organise ahead of the U.S. draw-down.
"Unfortunately the government is not capable to continue fighting against the Taliban," Massoud said.
As for any concern he may have for his own safety as he steps into Afghanistan's spotlight, Massoud, who has five sisters, is fatalistic.
"Everything about your death has already been determined by God," he said with a smile. "When the time comes, nothing can protect you." (AFP)