Slain hero is enlisted in battle against Taliban
On a hill overlooking this verdant valley, U.S. and Afghan officials came together Thursday to praise the legacy of a legendary guerrilla fighter in hopes that his memory will serve as a rallying cry against a Taliban resurgence.
Ahmed Shah Massoud, 48, was killed in a suicide blast two days before the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The assassination was ordered by Osama bin Laden, apparently as a way to eliminate a natural ally of the United States if it invaded Afghanistan looking for the Al Qaeda leader.
Now, with those who succeeded the Taliban and their Western allies seeking to provide a continuing sense of unity, Massoud, known as the Lion of Panjshir, is considered an ideal symbol for that cause.
Massoud’s tomb, housed inside a 75-foot-high concrete, domed mausoleum, has been declared a national shrine by President Hamid Karzai’s government, which replaced the Taliban.
In the capital, Kabul, where a main street is named National Hero Massoud, the commander’s picture adorns lampposts and car windshields. There also are banners with his visage and the slogan “Unity is Massoud.”
At the ceremony Thursday, a U.S. Marine Corps general compared Massoud to a rather notable American as he presented a plaque at the tomb.
Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis, speaking before a gathering of Afghan officials, soldiers and villagers, said that visiting the tomb of Massoud gave him “some of the same emotions I felt when I visited the grave of George Washington, the father of our country.”
Massoud was a hero in the struggle against Soviet domination of Afghanistan and later the Taliban regime, but he was kept mostly at arm’s length by the United States. The CIA, although eager to help topple the Soviets, had an on-again, off-again relationship with Massoud, preferring sometimes to back rivals favored by ally Pakistan.
But on this day, Massoud was hailed as a visionary by both Afghan and U.S. officials. The latter included two Marine generals, an Army general and a State Department representative.
At the ceremony, Ahmed Wali Massoud, wearing a pin with the U.S. and Afghan flags, said of his brother: “Although he is not with us, his vision and ideals live within us. Afghan people live through his vision: an Afghanistan without terrorists, Al Qaeda or Taliban. This is our dream.”
Later, during a tea-and-cookies reception, a former Massoud confidant was more blunt. Unless the Americans help defeat the Taliban and their allies, the insurgency will spread to other nations in the region, said Abdullah, a former foreign minister in the Karzai government who uses one name.
“This is the next strategic step for Al Qaeda,” said Abdullah, a physician who gave up his Kabul practice to come to this valley and fight alongside Massoud.
Many analysts have predicted a springtime offensive by the Taliban, and attacks are occurring frequently.
In the restive southern city of Kandahar, 10 people died Thursday in three bombings, one of them an apparent assassination attempt against the governor of Kandahar province. The governor escaped injury, but three bystanders were killed in the suicide car bombing.
Earlier, four security guards were killed in a roadside explosion, Afghan officials said. As rescue workers responded, a second blast went off, killing three police officers.
Authorities said the tactic of staggered bombings, with the second of two explosions aimed at those arriving at the scene to provide help, was a rarity in Afghanistan.
But Taliban fighters have been borrowing methods from insurgents in Iraq, where such dual attacks are common.
Many officials expect an even larger Taliban offensive in late summer after the opium poppy crop is harvested.
The poppies, which are used to make heroin, provide money for the insurgency, officials said.
Most of the preparation by U.S., North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Afghan forces has involved additional training, better weaponry and changes in key leadership spots. But the information war, including memorializing Massoud, is also considered important.
Massoud “was a leader who could fight like a lion but kept compassion for the innocent,” said Mattis, who is the commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and the Marine Forces Central Command.
The U.S. has more than 20,000 troops in Afghanistan, among them about 250 Marines who specialize in training the Afghan army, police and border patrol. A NATO force, led by a U.S. Army general, has about 30,000 troops. So far this year, 33 U.S. military personnel have been killed in combat with insurgents, according to icasualties.org, which tracks injuries and deaths in the war.
“We stand here as partners in Massoud’s vision,” Mattis told the group.
Special correspondent M. Karim Faiez in Kabul contributed to this report.