Remembering Afghanistan’s National Hero, Ahmad Shah Massoud, the ‘Lion of Panjshir’

August 31, 2021Matt Fratus
Ahmad shah massoud coffee or die

Mujahedeen move on narrow, mountainous paths. Photo courtesy of the Afghan Media Resource Center.

On Sept. 9, 2001, Ahmad Shah Massoud agreed to meet for an interview with two Arab men posing as TV journalists. The Sunday meeting was held in Khawja Bahaouddin (also spelled Khwaja Bahauddin) at one of Massoud’s forts in northeastern Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley. The 48-year-old Afghan mujahedeen commander and Northern Alliance leader had defended the Panjshir Valley, the last bastion of Afghan freedom, against successive invasion forces — the Soviet Union in the 1980s and the Taliban in the 1990s. 

Because of his fierce guerrilla resistance campaign, Massoud acquired the nickname “Lion of Panjshir.” But just two days before the 2001 terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, elements from al Qaeda and the Taliban targeted him for assassination. The two assassins detonated bombs concealed in television cameras. The explosion instantly killed both attackers and Massoud’s young press attache, Asam Suhail. Massoud was fatally wounded and later died.

The brazen, targeted attack was an attempt to cripple the fighting spirit of the Northern Alliance, the resistance force Massoud had commanded. Usama Bin Laden anticipated that the US would enlist the Northern Alliance’s help in conducting a retaliatory military offensive after the 9/11 attacks.

Ahmad shah massoud lion of Panjshir coffee or die
Cmdr. Ahmad Shah Massoud greeting people in Panjshir province. Photo courtesy of the Afghan Media Resource Center.

“More than five years after his assassination Massoud remains a national hero to many Afghans,” Time magazine journalist Peter Bergen wrote in November 2006. “Passengers at Kabul airport are greeted by a mural of him standing several stories high. Massoud’s place in history is assured by the fact that he was arguably the most brilliant practitioner of guerrilla warfare in the late 20th century.”

Massoud’s legend wasn’t established overnight.

Of Tajik heritage, he was born on Sept. 2, 1953, and raised in the village of Jangalak in Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley. One of seven children, Massoud was the son of a prominent Afghan army officer. His father’s status provided him with an excellent education at Kabul Polytechnic Institute for Engineering and Architecture. During his sophomore year, however, Massoud joined the political movement within the Sazman-i Jawanan-i Musalman, a Muslim youth organization, where he was introduced to some of Afghanistan’s future resistance leaders.

From an early age, Massoud adored poetry. After all, Afghanistan is the land of poetry and mysticism. He listened to a young Masood Khalili recite poems on Radio Afghanistan; the two ultimately established a lifelong friendship. Khalili went on to become the Afghan ambassador to Spain, while Massoud entered the military arena. Poetry, though, was always present in Massoud’s life; he typically kept at least one poetry book on his person at all times, and he read poems to his soldiers.

ahmad shah massoud coffee or die
Ahmad Shah Massoud moving with a group of mujahedeen. Photo courtesy of the Afghan Media Resource Center.

Massoud got his first taste for resistance activities in July 1975 under Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s leadership. During that time, Massoud led a revolt against Mohammed Daoud Khan, the Afghan president. Daoud Khan was installed as leader two years earlier following a bloodless coup d’etat that ousted Mohammed Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan. But the revolt against Daoud Khan was unsuccessful, and Massoud and other resistance leaders fled to Pakistan. They resurfaced in the Panjshir Valley in 1979. It was during the following period that Massoud’s fame as the Lion of Panjshir began.

As a battlefield commander, Massoud skillfully planned and executed operations against the Soviet Army, achieving nine victories. He drafted battle plans in his mind without pen and paper. He used binoculars to study battlefields. During a complicated firefight in Kalafgan, Massoud personally coordinated the movements of hundreds of mujahedeen fighters.

Massoud wasn’t an ordinary Afghan commander. He had strategic vision and ancestral knowledge of the territory, and he read myriad books on guerrilla warfare, included information on the American Revolution.

“The basic law of modern guerrilla warfare is that no insurgent movement can survive without a sanctuary for its fighters,” author George Crile wrote in Charlie Wilson’s War. “The Viet Cong depended on Cambodia and North Vietnam. The CIA’s Nicaraguan Contras spent most of their time hovering in camps across the Honduran frontier. No guerrilla force could have survived in Afghanistan itself once the Red Army poured in over 100,000 combat troops backed by satellites and tanks, MiG bombers and helicopter gunships. Without Pakistan, there could not have been a sustained resistance.”

ahmad shah massoud lion of Panjshir coffee or die
Cmdr. Ahmad Shah Massoud sits on the ground in a valley with mujahedeen. Photo courtesy of the Afghan Media Resource Center.

The Afghan mujahedeen headquarters and haven was in Peshawar, Pakistan. In Pakistan, the mujahedeen movement maintained its base camps, received CIA weapons and training, and embarked on cross-border guerrilla operations in Afghanistan.

“[Massoud] made a conscious decision not to go to Peshawar,” photojournalist Anthony Davis said, according to Marcela Grad’s book, Massoud: An Intimate Portrait of the Legendary Afghan Leader.

Davis continued, “He fought a twenty-four-hour war, and that did not give him the time or luxury to take holidays in Pakistan, where he knew he would have to deal with the schemes and manipulations of the Pakistani military intelligence.”

The Soviet-backed Afghan government surrendered the city of Kabul to Massoud’s forces in 1992. Despite the ferocity of Afghanistan’s conflicts, even Massoud’s enemies developed a grudging respect for his battlefield prowess.

“Amidst the wartime hostility, which had no limits, no morals, no ethics, Massoud once had the opportunity to capture Najibullah, who, let us not forget, had been at one time the head of the Secret Service, and who tortured and killed Massoud’s closest friends,” said Humayun Tandar, the chief representative of Afghan resistance in France from 1980 to 1990, according to Grad’s book. “To the contrary, Massoud worked out a budget for the food and well-being of this man.”

Some 20 years after his death, Massoud’s spirit is carried on through the actions of his only son, Ahmad Massoud. Like his father once did, the younger Massoud now leads a resistance movement against the Taliban from the Panjshir Valley.

Read Next: Fighters in Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley Prepared To Go Toe-to-Toe With the Taliban

Matt Fratus
Matt Fratus

Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.

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