Nine years after his death, Ahmad Shah Massoud is seen all over Afghanistan.

Notes from different corners of the world.
Sept. 9 2010 10:00 AM

A Visit to the Shrine of Afghanistan's National Hero

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

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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]."

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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.

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April Rabkin is a contributing writer to Fast Company.

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