Ahmed Shah Massoud: A Decade After His Murder, Would Afghanistan Be Different Were He Alive?

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An Afghan policeman walks past a billboard of slain Afghan leader Ahmed Shah Massoud on September 8, 2011 in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Photo by John Moore /Getty Images)

Ten years ago today, the assassination of a militia leader holed up in the north-east corner of Afghanistan garnered little international attention, except perhaps for the Hollywood-worthy way in which he was killed: two suicide terrorists, posing as Belgian documentary journalists, detonated their explosives-packed video camera just as the interview started. It was only in the light of the subsequent terror attacks on the United States two days later that the assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud ceased to be seen as a random event and was instead linked indelibly to the larger plot. Evidence linking the attack to al-Qaeda is circumstantial (one of the attackers’ widow, Belgian Malika el Aroud, was an active propagandist for al-Qaeda in Europe before her arrest in 2008), though it seems likely that the attack was planned by Osama bin Laden, either in anticipation of a retaliatory attack on the Taliban regime by the US, or as a favor to his Afghan host, Mullah Omar. Massoud, a celebrated Mujahidin leader from the anti-Soviet resistance, had been waging a war against Taliban forces for nearly five years.

A French-speaking poet-warrior, known as much for his grasp of military tactics as his ability to quote Sufi-inspired couplets, Massoud was a favorite of Western supporters of the anti-Soviet Jihad. His signature attire—fringed scarf and a beret-like pakhol—has become the uniform of choice among young adventurers visiting Afghanistan for the first time.

He is no less a hero in Afghanistan. A Che Guevara-type figure, Massoud’s image can be found plastered on shop windows and car windshields, as much a symbol of pride in Afghanistan’s mujahidin past as an allegiance to his anti-Taliban (and pro-Tajik) bent. One of Kabul’s biggest intersections is named after him, and September 9, the anniversary of his death, is a national holiday. Massoud’s supporters, many of them hailing from his anti-Taliban United Islamic Front, which has now been reconstituted in Western parlance as the Northern Alliance, hold that had he not been killed, Afghanistan would have been in far better shape.

“If Massoud had not been killed, we would have lived in a totally different world,” says his friend and advisor, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. “From what I know of him, he would have asked for Western support, but would have said ‘no’ to  boots on the ground. Who knows if the Americans would have listened, but we probably wouldn’t be in the situation we are in today.”

Nearly ten years after an invasion that has neither a clear cut success nor palatable end in sight, its tempting to indulge in a bout of magical thinking. Would Massoud have been able to defeat the Taliban for good? Would he have been a contender for president, and if so, would he have steered Afghanistan in a different direction than towards the quicksand that we now find ourselves in?

Recent history suggests otherwise.

As head of one of the factions fighting for Kabul during the civil war, Massoud oversaw widespread bombing and destruction. While his men may not have indulged in the brutal carnage and human-rights violations enacted by other factions in the war (factions that eventually went on to ally with him against the Taliban in 1996), he bears much responsibility for Afghanistan’s destruction. Yet neither Massoud, nor any other commander involved in the civil war that eventually ushered in the Taliban, ever answered for their acts. Instead, in 2001, they were rewarded.

Had Massoud been alive during the US invasion of Afghanistan, he, like many other military commanders in the Northern Alliance, would likely have been bolstered with suitcases of cash and high tech weapons and sent off to fight the Taliban on America’s behalf. That is what war with a light footprint looks like, and, according to Candace Rondeaux, Afghanistan analyst for the International Crisis Group, it was mistake number one in a litany of things we did wrong over the past ten years in Afghanistan. “The [U.S. President George W.] Bush Administration thought that they could do this war on the cheap. They thought they could send in a couple of hundred guys from the CIA and Special Forces, direct their allies in the Northern Alliance to prosecute a war against their long term enemies, and it would be mission accomplished.”

Of course, not all was lost at that point. Using local fighters is nothing new for the United States, and had we then thanked the commanders politely for their time, sent them on their way with a tidy bonus, we might have been O.K. Instead, says Rondeaux, we took sides in an ethnic conflict that had roiled the country for the better part of a decade. “We allowed those same allies, who had an axe to grind against Pashtuns, carte blanche to pursue anyone they saw fit, and we called it an army.” The third mistake was allowing those warlords, many of whom stand accused of grievious human rights abuses, a significant role in the post-Taliban government, despite a national clamor for truth and reconciliation.

From the very beginning, rule of law was subsumed by the more urgent demand for security. That trade-off is at the very root of all that ails Afghanistan today. “If we really wanted to see results,” says Rondeaux, “we would have wanted to see war criminals prosecuted, the law applied fairly and justly, and Afghanistan able to pursue justice for its people.” Instead we cemented the perception that the law belongs to the powerful, the rich and the armed, no matter how egregious their offenses. In effect, we reset the clock to the early 90s, when warlords ran the country and the Taliban triumphed not by military might but popular support for their brand of quick, if brutal, justice.

Though much of the developmental efforts by the international community have centered on democracy-building exercises, foreign military forces have often relied on the services of local strongmen, regardless of their adherence to the law. As a result a new generation of power brokers, fueled by the money and influence that such connections bring, has come to the fore. In a 2004 survey conducted by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, 90 percent of Afghans said that they wanted criminal warlords banned from the government. Instead,  Parliament and the administration of President Hamid Karzai granted a blanket amnesty to all mujahidin, further undermining confidence in a government-supported system of justice.

“Even as a liberal I can say that the Taliban time was better,” says Sadiq Niazi, a Soviet-trained technocrat in Afghanistan’s oil and gas industry. “Yes, there was dictatorship, and they didn’t let girls go to school, but at least there was justice. It doesn’t matter if I have to go to mosque five times a day or grow a beard, as long as we have rule of law.” Niazi speaks from a comfortable, middle class apartment in central Kabul.  Financially, he says, he is better off now than in 2001, but what’s the point, he asks, if someone could murder him tomorrow for his property, and get out of jail with a bribe or political connections?  “That is the mistake the Americans made. Instead of supporting the law, they supported warlords.”

It’s not just that the international community in Afghanistan supported warlords. Rather, they supported personalities over institutions. A common refrain in post-war Iraq among American officials and military leaders was a wish for an “Iraqi Karzai” — an English-speaking, charismatic leader that looks good on the international stage and could be counted upon to do the West’s bidding. But even as frustration with Afghanistan’s current president mounts, we still ask, “If not Karzai, then who?” It’s the wrong question. That which builds nations and keeps countries strong does not wear striped capes or  felt berets. Institution building is not sexy, and it can’t be done in one year, or even ten. But had we started on the fundamentals of good governance back in 2001, we might not be wondering today what Afghanistan might have looked like if Massoud had lived.

Aryn Baker is TIME’s Middle East Bureau Chief, based in Beirut. Find her on Twitter at @arynebaker. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEWorld.

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