In a career filled with complexity and contradiction, Massoud was lionised as the ‘good Muslim’ during the insurgencies of the 1980s and 1990s, an expediency that would reek of Western dissonance post-2001.

It may be strange for a militantly secularist country that has repeatedly announced its hostility to both political Islam and most outward signs of Islamic faith to lionise one of modern history’s most successful Muslim commanders of jihad.

But for forty years France has made that very exception for the Afghan military adventurer Shah Massoud.

Massoud didn’t live to see the ‘war on terror’ begin – two days before the Al Qaeda attack on the US, the Afghan commander was assassinated in northeast Afghanistan, quite likely by the same perpetrators. Both the circumstances and aftermath of his death – where his militia was supported by the US in its invasion of Afghanistan, and dominated Afghan security for years afterward – meant that he has been remembered posthumously as the good Afghan commander, the one who challenged the Taliban and was killed by extremists.

But this simply adds to a twenty-year record of Western lionisation of Massoud; one of the most capable military commanders of the twentieth century, he played a key role both in fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s and the Taliban emirate in the 1990s.

The contradictions and twists between these two campaigns have been conveniently overlooked in popular memory, largely because both tallied with Western interests.

From freedom fighters to fanatics

In a war that attracted far more mythmaking than field coverage – Afghanistan had only perhaps twenty serious foreign correspondents, as compared to the thousand in 1960s Vietnam – Massoud was a journalist’s delight.

His extraordinary military talent and popularity among his men was matched with a decidedly photogenic charisma and a sophisticated mind; it helped, too, that he had been educated in a French school and thus presented better conversation for the Western journalist than most Afghan insurgents.

Even before the Soviets mounted several offensives against his stronghold in the Panjshir Valley, Massoud had been tipped by British intelligence as a potential “Tito” in the making – referring to the founder of Yugoslavia, who had started out his career as a guerrilla fighter and snubbed the Soviets much to Western schadenfreude.

They immediately dispatched Sandy Gall, a self-confessed spy and journalist, to Afghanistan to cover and exalt Massoud’s exploits. Other admirers included left-leaning American reporter Jon Anderson, neoconservative French ideologue Bernard Henri-Levy, rightwing American politician Dana Rohrbacher, and the American envoy to the insurgency, Peter Tomsen. Almost without exception, these admirers of the jihad’s preeminent commander Massoud, have since emerged as harsh critics of Islamic militancy.

Tomsen’s thousand-page memoirs in 2011, singular for their combination of anecdotal detail and editorial obfuscation, issued a grave warning against jihad: he squared the circle by arbitrarily distinguishing between “nationalist”, thus moderate, commanders such as Massoud and other “radical” leaders; yet he neglects to mention the close working links between Massoud and other such “radicals” as Palestinian ideologue Abdullah Azzam, future Taliban commander Jalaluddin Haqqani, and even the Iranian government, a long-term supporter of Massoud.

Similarly, Gall – who had praised the 1980s Afghan insurgency with the support of Pakistan – drew to condemning the 2010s Afghan insurgency and its Pakistani sponsor. Such dissonance reveals more about the motivations of the writers than it does about their subject matter; put simply, Afghan insurgency under the banner of jihad was useful to the West in the 1980s, and has been toxic to the West since 2001.

The wonders of a lycee education

France’s revisionism toward Massoud follows a similar trajectory. The French government and media have repeatedly issued grave warnings against even basic Islamic injunctions as a threat to laicite and a basis for “radical Islam”.

Yet an exception is made for Massoud.

Involved in ‘Islamist’ politics since his university days as an engineering student, Massoud took up insurgency against the Afghan government even before the Soviet invasion and led his followers – affiliated with Jamiat and thus related to the much-pilloried Muslim brethren – to famous victories against the Soviet invasion under the banner of jihad.

Had Massoud lived in modern France, he would very likely have found himself vilified as a fanatic; his wife, who wore the veil banned in French public places and relentlessly attacked in public discourse, would have fared no better.

The typical plea, made by Henri-Levy and other ideologues who groan about political Islam and its purported dangers, is that Massoud represented the good Muslim; the enlightened, chivalrous foil to the fanatic. Part of the reason was that Massoud, with his education in a French school and his relative sophistication, struck a chord with French reporters that was then translated to the public memory with little concern for accuracy.

This was most recently evidenced in French reporter Arnaud Ngatcha’s announcement of an upcoming commemoration for Massoud, where he did not mention the anti-Soviet war for which the Panjshir commander was most famous but instead mentioned Massoud as a champion against obscurantism.

Again, there is considerable irony here; during their campaign in Afghanistan, the Soviets constantly attacked their opponents as obscurantists. And while Massoud did not follow the ultraconservative interpretation advanced by the Taliban, Panjshir under his control was governed by Islamic law, with a ban on smoking, drinking, and other vices that French high society holds as a civilisational virtue.

Massoud’s party literature was typically marked with the same Ikhwani motto – “Allah is our Objective, His Prophet our leader; Quran our law; jihad our way; and martyrdom in His cause our highest hope” – for which other Islamist organisations, such as Hamas, have been vilified.

The messier Massoud: recipe for revision

The historical Massoud, of course, was neither a Frenchman-in-pakol as fondly imagined by Henry-Levy, nor a militant fanatic. Like most militants, he was a complex character, whose trajectory followed the complexity of the Afghan war.

When Massoud took Kabul in 1992, it was with the support of the same communist commanders and units who had fought him in Panjshir a decade earlier. When he fought over the capital with his Islamist rival Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, he enlisted the assistance of the Wahhabi leader Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, whose militia exchanged ethnosectarian massacres with Hekmatyar’s Shia Hazara counterparts.

In fact, far from the dichotomy of enlightened Massoud-versus-barbaric Taliban, Massoud lent the Taliban movement tacit early support so they would rid him of Hekmatyar. Once that threat was eliminated, he conveniently decided that the Taliban were in fact a Pakistani proxy and – aided by Iran, India, and ironically Russia – joined hands with his former rivals to fight them.

In a career of such dextrous manoeuvres, Massoud’s last days were spent trying to enlist the support of both Europe and the US. The events of September 11, 2001 posthumously twisted his legacy into the sort of civilisational warning against Taliban-style obscurantism for which he is remembered today.

In the subsequent war on terror, he has become a convenient ‘acceptable Muslim’ for even the most sharply hostile critics of Islam to repaint in their image, nowhere more than in France where a twenty-year romanticisation found its most fantastical element after his assassination.

The irony is that, when the defining feats of his early career against the Soviet invasion is concerned, it is by no means certain that Massoud would have supported the full-fledged invasion of Afghanistan that followed.

It is absolutely certain that the real Massoud, stripped of historical revisionism, would have been at least as vilified in France as any other Muslim.

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