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Ahmed Shah Masood: Tribute to a Fallen Hero


(Speech delivered at Kabul on 8th September 2005 to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the martyrdom of Ahmed Shah Masood)

Although I had been hearing about Ahmed Shah Masood from earlier times the first real exposure of the living-talking persona came through in a documentary that I happened to see on a French television channel in Paris in the second half of the 1980s. I recall downloading the programme and sending video copies back to several government departments in India, inviting their attention to the amazing leadership qualities of the doughty warrior whom the world had started dubbing the “Lion of Panjshir”. In fact, if I mistake not, I remember touching upon those leadership qualities in several talks that I delivered when I was commanding a mountain division on the Sikkim-Tibet watershed almost immediately after my return from France.

Today, however, I am not going to dwell on Commander Masood’s leadership qualities. They have already been woven into the legend of one of the greatest warriors of Afghanistan of recent times, if not all times. My reason for showering such fulsome praise on the towering personality is completely devoid of the emotion or sentiment that would be pervading the hearts of many, if not most, of the personages gathered at this conclave. I, for one, had never met Ahmed Shah Masood. My assessment, therefore, is based entirely upon the non-subjective inputs of his military prowess that I have gleaned over the years.

To an outsider looking in on Afghan affairs through the 1980s and 90s, all the way up to September 2001, Commander Masood hardly ever seemed to be on the winning side. The tales of fierce resistance, which earned him the sobriquet ‘Lion of Panjshir’, were always reminiscent of a touch-and-go situation, where the outcome hung finely in the balance. He and his hardy band of warriors seemed almost perpetually on the verge of disaster, invariably surviving by the skin of their teeth. Perhaps therein lies his military genius. It was not simply a case of fighting a bigger foe. It was not a one-time fight between David and Goliath.

It was a perpetual cliffhanger over two decades. His resources were pitiful. In comparative terms almost non-existent. His enemies seemed to spring up wherever he turned. Neither was it a slight mismatch in numbers. His opponents not only had larger numbers than those that he could field from his limited manpower base, at times the enemy superiority could have been counted as high as 10, 20 or even more than 30-to-one during his bitter campaigns against the Russians. The same adverse ratios obtained in the final stages of the rearguard battles against the combined Taliban-Al-Qaeda-Pakistan military juggernaut pushing onwards to wind up the remaining pockets in Northern Afghanistan. On several occasions he should have been swamped by the weight of sheer numbers.

Just as he could have been defeated by the numerical superiority against him, the equipment inferiority also worked against Masood, both in the quantity and quality of the equipment used. During the 1980s the Russians could use heavy artillery, masses of tanks and armed helicopters and all types of close air support. After the fall of Kabul to the Taliban the Pakistan military had thrown in overwhelming equipment and numbers superiority for the final push against the Northern Alliance as they approached the winter of the year 2001. Such, however, was the myth of invincibility surrounding the Lion of Panjshir, that even with the full might of the Pakistan military, in addition to the funding from Saudi Arabia, the vastly superior Taliban forces were still not sure of the outcome. The Masood mystique had even mesmerised the top military brass in Islamabad. They felt that unless Masood himself was done away with, their protégés would not be able to defeat him. Their only salvation lay in the physical elimination of the man who stood rocklike between them and their ambition to debouch into Central Asia. They had been plotting his death for years. Finally, they succeed. Ahmed Shah Masood was assassinated on 9th September 2001.

Tragic as his end might have been, Ahmed Shah Masood does not reveal himself to have been a tragic figure. Later day historians are bound to romanticize him, for adversity invariably brought out his finest skills as a military commander. His greatest asset, however, was the forbidding nature of the terrain in which he operated. He knew how to use its ruggedness to advantage. In military parlance he had an unerring feel for the ground. Occasionally he made intuitive decisions that seemed incomprehensible to people – both his opponents and his own forces. Because of those decisions and his uncanny feel for the situation he lived to fight another day. More than that, it must have been his ability to sustain the morale of his men that compels admiration.

Masood was not leading a guerrilla force, far from it. Many were the occasions when he fought pitched battles, often being forced to retreat. When his beloved Panjshir Valley was threatened he stood his ground, ready to die till the last man and the last round. Leaders on the losing side, who are prepared to fight pitched battles, generally face annihilation when the battle is lost. Their men lose heart. They melt away. At best they can be mobilized for one more battle, and, should that battle be lost as well it spells their end as a cohesive fighting force. It was Masood’s ability to keep rebounding after each setback - again and again and again - that puts him in the front rank of military commanders of all times. The nearest parallel that comes to mind is Frederick the Great of Prussia. Ahmed Shah Masood did not let the morale of his men sag for full 20 years.

The Pakistani generals must have hoped for a quick collapse of the Northern Alliance, once Masood had been removed from the scene. That the force that he led did not collapse as expected, but moved in swiftly to capture Kabul a few days after the US- led offensive is a post-mortem tribute to the legacy of Commander Masood. Although it would be fanciful to speculate on what might have been, coming historians will, nevertheless, ponder over the future of Afghanistan had Masood not been assassinated? Had Masood remained at the head of the forces that moved into Kabul after the rout of the Taliban, it is almost certain that the uppermost thought in his mind would have been the unity of Afghanistan. He had the charisma to bring about that unity. Even now his successors at the helm of affairs in Kabul must build on his legacy to rid Afghanistan of internal strife and external aggression. It would be the most befitting tribute to the memory of a legendary warrior.

My book Restructuring Pakistan was completed around the end of November 2001 and came out in January 2002. Approximately one month before Commander Masood’s assassination I had a discussion in New Delhi with few of his very close associates on the situation in Afghanistan. Some questions that had remained unanswered at that time found an answer by the time the book was completed.

At the end of the day a quotation from the great philosopher-sage of India, Sri Aurobindo comes to mind:
“ Wherever thou seest a great end, be sure of a great beginning”.

What Ahmed Shah Masood’s enduring legacy is going to be will depend to an extent on the people, some gathered here, who were close to him.

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