James Verini: The Cult of Massoud

Roundup: Talking About History

James Verini is a Foreign Policy contributor based in Nairobi.

The first sign of officialdom you see when you drive from the Kabul airport parking lot is a government billboard looming above a traffic jam. It's the size of a highway billboard in the United States, but closer to the ground, so that you can make out every nuance of the faces on it. Those faces belong to, on the right of the coat of arms of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai, and on the left, slain Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, dead some 11 years. With Karzai, you note those tired eyes and that child's chin, unaided by a trimmed gray beard. Massoud comes off vastly more dashing. He appears to be in conference with the heavens: The eyes smolder from within, the strong chin and bushy goatee angle out like a divining rod. A pakol, the traditional hat of the Hindu Kush, sits like a column capital on his head.

The billboard calls to mind a prizefight boxing poster, and the champ is obvious. It also happens to capture the attitude of many Afghans and foreigners working here. In the years since Massoud was assassinated by al Qaeda, just two days before 9/11, and Karzai installed as Afghanistan's interim president the following summer, their reputations have moved in inverse proportion. Karzai's popularity has steadily contracted, while Massoud's legend in Afghanistan has grown. As though he had just been killed last week, Afghans still talk about what a great president the guerrilla leader would have made. The implicit slight on Karzai, once dismissed as merely ineffectual and now as ineffectual, corrupt, and deluded, is obvious. Abroad, after years of worshipful portrayals of him by foreign reporters and historians,Massoud has become the Che Guevara of Central Asia. A young Norwegian woman staying in the same guesthouse as me here went weak in the knees when she learned the house's driver fought under Massoud. "I want to meet him," she breathed, referring to the driver, but really meaning the Lion of Panjshir.

Oddly, the billboard captures at least some portion of Afghan officialdom's attitude, too.

Lately, no one has promoted the cult of Massoud as much as Karzai's government. This October, a month after the 11th anniversary of his death, the barrier walls of ministry buildings and the homes of officials are covered with Massoud's stoic visage, as are awnings, shop windows, street-food carts, car windshields, and so on. Wherever possible, as at the airport, Karzai is placed alongside Massoud, as though they were running mates in the 2014 election -- an election for which Karzai is ineligible to run, though there is talk that he may be so oblivious to his unpopularity he'll attempt to amend the constitution to allow himself a third term. ("Sure, if he wants to be killed," one Kabuli friend responded when I asked if he thought Karzai might try it.)

In fact, Massoud has been a kind of unwelcome spectral running mate to Karzai all along, a Kalashnikov-slung Banquo, against whom, by comparison, the president is always falling short... 

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