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Afghan hero Massoud's assassination a prelude to 9/11

07 september 2011, 12:16
Ten years after he was killed by Al-Qaeda, Ahmad Shah Massoud is revered by many Afghans as a hero whose murder just two days before 9/11 was designed to eliminate resistance to the Taliban, AFP.

His vision of a united Afghanistan is far from realised, but photographs of the French-speaking, poetry-loving, ethnic Tajik leader still cover Kabul, frequently displayed in car windows, shops, guard huts and even on billboards.

The legacy of the "Lion of Panjshir" still holds great sway over parts of the country, and the date of his assassination is now a national holiday, while his tomb is being developed into a $10 million tourist attraction.

A decade ago, Massoud and his Northern Alliance, which controlled parts of the Afghan northeast, led the only remaining resistance to the Taliban, who earned international notoriety by hosting Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Al-Qaeda intended to kill Massoud three weeks earlier, sending two bombers disguised as reporters to request an interview with him, but he made them wait for 22 days before granting the pair a 5-minute interview that proved deadly.

Had he been killed earlier as planned, experts predict the Northern Alliance would have fallen and put the US-led invasion of October 2001 in jeopardy without its crucial Afghan partners.

"The goal was to eliminate all types of resistance before the September 11 attacks," said Afghan analyst Haroon Mir.

"The Afghan resistance would have collapsed if Massoud had been killed earlier and the Taliban could have quickly occupied the entire country. The US military would not have been able to clean up Afghanistan so quickly."

Some experts say Massoud's early death aged 49 was part of an Al-Qaeda plan to ensure Taliban chief Mullah Omar would support them against the US in the wake of the Twin Towers attacks.

Others argue the alliance had already been set, and that Al-Qaeda carried out the killing at Omar's behest as part of a planned offensive against the Northern Alliance, whose fighters joined the post-911 US-led operation.

"All of us at the time assumed there was a link between the attack on Massoud and the attacks on America," said Kate Clark of Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network, who was a BBC reporter at the time.

"It might have been a sweetener for the Taliban for what happened next...

"Whether or not the Taliban leadership knew or were warned about the attacks on America, and I think that's still unclear, I think some of them knew something was going to happen."

It was in his home region of the Panjshir valley that Massoud built his reputation in the 1980s fighting the Soviets with American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) funds.

Rusting hulks of Soviet tanks still lie as reminders of his battlefield successes among the plunging valleys and white-water rivers of the Hindu Kush.

After the Afghan communist regime collapsed in 1992, Massoud served in a coalition government as defence minister.

But his reputation was tainted as civil conflict engulfed Kabul in the years that followed, as Massoud's forces engaged in a power struggle with rivals which wreaked devastation on large parts of the once-picturesque capital.

Having earlier quit as defence minister, Massoud pulled his forces out of Kabul in 1996 prompted by the Taliban advance, and earlier covert US financial support for his resistance was no longer forthcoming.

However, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Ghost Wars", journalist Steve Coll says that by 2001, US officials were talking about giving Massoud fresh funds to fight the Taliban, to help the wider struggle against bin Laden.

But he did not survive to see it, and the conjecture over the Taliban's role in his killing by Al Qaeda continues.

The US's 9/11 Commission Report cited evidence that Taliban leader Mullah Omar initially opposed a major Al-Qaeda operation against the US in 2001, although he may later have reconciled himself to it.

It added that a major Taliban offensive against Massoud's Northern Alliance was due to start right after the assassination.

But Al-Qaeda's then military chief was also quoted in the report by 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as saying he hoped Massoud's killing would appease the Taliban post-9/11.

Whatever the exact circumstances of his death, Massoud's followers still wonder what part he would have played in the torrid political scene of war-torn Afghanistan today.

Fahim Dashty, who edited a newspaper founded by Massoud and was in the room with him when he was killed, believes the commander would have never accepted the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan for the last 10 years.

"Sometimes I feel happy for him that he is not alive," he said. "If he was alive, he would have found it very difficult to adjust."

Yossef Jannesar, who was one of Massoud's personal cameramen for 17 years, says he represented a united voice for Afghans that is missing today.

"Massoud's aim was a free, united and sovereign Afghanistan," he said. "No-one thinks about that any more, they only think of lining their own pockets."

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