Will the son of the legendary 'Lion of Panjshir' help to shape Afghanistan's future?
There are not many Afghans who make it to the cover of France’s best selling magazine but in October 2018, Ahmad Massoud managed just that.
Paris Match ran a long profile of Ahmad with the headline: “The heir of the lion”
In many ways, it was a rekindling of the French fascination with his father Ahmad Shah Massoud, known as the 'Lion of Panjshir', the legendary Afghan mujahideen leader who fought the Soviets in the 1980s and then the Taliban in the 1990s.
In the last year and a half, the Belgian national broadcaster 19 Trente, AFP, BBC, and France 24 have all run pieces talking about his father’s legacy and how Afghanistan’s hopes now rest upon the younger Massoud.
The world’s media observes him with piqued curiosity, not just for his leadership potential but also the dashing looks he inherited from his father.
Two of the world’s foremost Afghan experts, Steve Coll and Sandy Gall, have also become advocates for Ahmad in front of global leaders.
Massoud says that he has shunned politics so far and spends a lot of his time running the Massoud Foundation, a charitable organisation that works all over Afghanistan.
Analysts like Coll have concluded that as the situation grows more desperate in Afghanistan, more and more people will be knocking on Massoud’s door hoping he is finally persuaded to take up his father’s mantle.
‘My father was the first person to negotiate with the Taliban’
I have known Ahmad for the better part of a decade. In that time he has graduated from the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst (RMAS), one of the world’s best military schools, and finished his education in War Studies at King's College London.
Ahmad is the oldest of Ahmad Shah Massoud's children and the only son among five daughters.
We recently spent hours discussing the Taliban, both through his father’s lens and now, as he immerses himself entirely into Afghan political society.
As both the Afghan government and the US try to sit down and negotiate with the Taliban, Ahmad offers an insight few can compete with. He has first-hand knowledge about the negotiations between his father and the Taliban that few are aware of.
"My father was the first person to negotiate with the Taliban when they were perched on the gates of Kabul,” he narrates, continuing:
“He went without any bodyguards and weapons to meet the Taliban, he prayed and spent a couple of hours with the Taliban leaders. He said you want Islamic law, so do we, but we must not use force, Afghanistan has already seen a lot of bloodshed.”
With peace talks between the Taliban and the Americans now a semi-permanent feature of the news cycle, Ahmad realises that intra-Afghan talks are far more critical than those between the Taliban and US.
The younger Massoud believes that once the Americans leave, it will be up to the Afghans to sit down and work out a viable governance system and that each faction must do so independently without foreign influence.
“My father was (open) to a power-sharing agreement but one that did not involve any outside interference and influence,” Ahmad tells TRT World.
'His belief was simple, we fought the Soviets for ten years. Why should we take (orders) from other countries that clearly had influence and fighters with the Taliban," he adds.
However, Ahmad can’t help recalling his father’s experience negotiating with the Taliban whenever the issue of the current peace negotiations comes up.
“My father came back depressed and said there is no way to talk to them, and it is either their way or war - no compromise.”
There is no love lost between Ahmad and the armed movement that has led an 18-year-long campaign against the Afghan government.
Ahmad studied the Taliban for his undergraduate and postgraduate dissertation and views them as a criminal franchise network engaged in drugs, kidnapping, and other organised crime.
Ahmad has also spent time looking at the Taliban from an Islamic perspective, studying the faith and meeting Islamic scholars from across the Arab world and Turkey.
Massoud's father's legacy lives on in capitals far away from Kabul. In Cairo, Algiers, and even in Riyadh, where locals welcome Ahmad with open arms telling him that he reminds them of his father.
They tell Ahmad his father was right about the Arab extremists who came to fight in Afghanistan, and who later became vanguards of an international terrorist threat.
Ahmed Shah Massoud was one of the first people to warn Arab and Western intelligence agencies about the threat.
“These people shall return home one day to fight you, you must stop sending them to Afghanistan,” Ahmad recalls his father saying.
Ahmad works with the senior Islamic Scholars from Afghanistan to look at the historiography of Islam not just in Afghanistan, but Central and South Asia.
His goal is to look at how Afghans can use a common bond to bring Islamic scholars together.
“We never had religious extremism and intolerance in this region before the 1970s. What binds the Muslims of Central Asia, South Asia and Turkey is the Hanafi Madhab of Sunni Islam,” he says.
“This was hijacked with the coming of the Arab fighters into Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 1980s.”
Ahmad believes that Muslims had traditionally not waged internecine warfare on religious grounds in Central Asia, instead they waged war based on power and money.
The wars of the last thirty years, however, are new phenomena with respect to their use of theology to justify conflict. He believes in overcoming this theology, a relearning of regional historical theology is key.
“I talk to everyone, including Taliban leaders who are ready to come on a common regional platform, and Turkey can play a leading role in this."
‘Afghanistan needs education, harmony with its neighbours’
It is a heavy burden that Ahmad carries.
When Ahmad first told his grandfather that he was going to study War Studies at King's, his grandfather looked perturbed and said, “Son have we not seen enough of war in this country for you to study this?!”
He hopes that his academic knowledge will give him the experience to inspire change in others.
Ahmad has studied both warfare and international relations, taking in Western, Arab, Turkish, and Afghan perspectives.
“Education is a must for Afghanistan, at the moment the Massoud Foundation is looking at all sorts of issues, hospitals, mental health issues, sports sciences, and the combination of able mind and body,” he explains, adding.
Ahmad does not want the Massoud Foundation to focus just on education or the northeast of the country, where his father was based.
“I spent time playing semi-professional football and swimming competitively. Two generations of Afghan children have been deprived of sport. We are aiming to get schools, villages all around the country, thinking that sports are as important as books.”
Through international aid organisations, he is trying to focus on the most impoverished parts of southern Afghanistan and the west, which are predominantly inhabited by Pashtuns and other ethnic groups.
“For me, an Afghan is an Afghan, it does not matter whether you are a Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek or Hazara - we must overcome this.”
Ahmad is adamant that any solution for Afghanistan must come from inside its borders.
“We first need to fix our house before we blame other countries for our problems,” he says, "the rot lies at home, once we are at peace with ourselves our neighbours and others will immediately feel at ease with us."
Pakistan and specifically it's premier intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence or ISI, is often blamed for many of Afghanistan's ills by Afghans and the US. Ahmad has a more measured take on his country's neighbour.
“I don’t see any Afghan group as my enemy. I refuse to blame Pakistan or any other country. I am ready to talk and serve the people of Afghanistan.”
Where Ahmad does look to foreign states, is in his idea of what a future Afghanistan should look like.
Ahmad sees in Turkey a powerful modern state, a regional power independent of foreign aid, a leader in market economics, and military power with a world-class defence infrastructure.
“Turkey is the key for Afghanistan, we have a century-long partnership, and we know the great leaders of Turkey helped Afghanistan develop as a modern state,” he said, adding:
“NATO under Turkish leadership has had the best results in peacekeeping and conflict resolution. We would welcome an increased role for Turkey – the leadership role that Ankara can bring to Afghanistan is unique.”
On the topic of Afghanistan’s powerful neighbour next door, he is careful to remind people that his father was never against Pakistan.
“My father always publicly said the people of Pakistan have done a lot for Afghans, millions of Afghans lived and continue to prosper in Pakistan. My father appreciated how Pakistan helped us more than any other country. However, my father was not happy with taking orders or any foreign country dictating terms to Afghans."
Ahmed understands that maintaining good relations with his neighbours is crucial to peace in Afghanistan and that he can help to build bridges.
"Whether it was Pakistan or Iran – we welcome regional friendships and more importantly, joint brotherhoods - that is the way forward. My grandfather is buried in Peshawar, I would love to go there soon, I have heard about the beauty of Chitral, which is very much like our own Panjshir, I hope to visit soon and make Pakistan Afghanistan’s best friend.”
Domestic and foreign alliances
Ahmad has held talks with several big names in recent years including former Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, Atta Mohammed Nur, and Salahuddin Rabbani, to discuss the country’s future.
There is prestige attached to getting Ahmad’s endorsement, given the respect and goodwill for his father’s achievements during the Soviet occupation.
Despite frequent meetings with senior officials, the son of one of the most famous Afghans in the world is in no hurry to get into power.
Building alliances is what matters for now, and his priority remains his charitable work, as well as responsibility for several special units within the Afghan National Army.
Of his military role, he says: “War is something my father certainly did not like, he hoped and prayed for all his life that war would stop, and Afghanistan would prosper, we must not talk of war but instead build bridges. However, to be ready for war is in our Afghan blood.”
Speculation that Ahmad will one-day take over the country primarily comes from the international media rather than Ahmad himself, but that does not mean he is the only Massoud in the running.
Two of his uncles, Ahmad Zia and Ahmad Wali Massoud have leadership ambitions and have backing from various regional powers.
A once powerful faction in Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance barely exists in any form today, and regional leaders in Panjshir, such as Amrullah Saleh and Bismillah Khan have amassed immense power that cannot be outdone by Ahmad.
Elsewhere in the country, Ata Muhammad Nur and Abdul Rashid Dostum are still very much the big players in the north of Afghanistan - and each leader has a second generation waiting for their shot at power.
The sons of Dostum, Fahim, and Hekmatyar are also making their mark on the political scene.
Amid allegations that all Pashtuns did not like his father Ahmad Shah Massoud, the elder, Ahmad will also have to earn their backing to take leadership of the country.
There are also those Afghans who feel he has spent far too much time abroad to understand the realities of modern-day Afghanistan.
All those questions are on hold for now as he has not publicly announced any political intentions as of yet.
While world leaders and diplomats come calling for him regularly offering advice and trying to court a potential future leader, Ahmad’s dreams, for now, are far more straightforward.
He smiles and “yearns for the mountains of Panjsher, where he can gaze at the stars.” He knows, however, his time is coming fast.