All Hail, the Brother of the Lion of Panjshir!
Ahmad Zia Massoud is fed up with Kabul and threatening to fill the power vacuum inside Afghanistan’s crumbling government.
Ahmad Zia Massoud doesn’t immediately fit the prototype of a guerrilla commander. For one, he doesn’t have his brother’s charisma. On billboards, Ahmad Shah, known as the “Lion of Panjshir,” looks radiant, like a splicing between Bob Marley and Che Guevara. In contrast, Ahmad Zia, stern-faced and calm, looks more like a serious dad. When speaking in public, he folds his hands across his abdomen, as if trying to appear as unimposing as possible. His hands are soft, like a politician’s, not a fighter’s.
But the Massoud name goes a long way with the mujahideen. One of them is Baghlan’s provincial council chief, Mohammad Safdar Mohseni, who said he went to Massoud’s rally out of loyalty to the family legacy.
“If the government continues to waste time, people will take up weapons and fight the Taliban. They will ask the government to leave them alone so they can fight on their own,” he said. Another commander, Jalan Bajgar, said the mujahideen had long deterred the Taliban from attacking police posts just by being well-armed, but the insurgents had grown bolder. “We need bigger weapons and commanders to go to the front lines,” he said.
The idea of private armies scattered across the north makes foreign diplomats uneasy. “It might solve a local security problem, but it doesn’t strengthen the state,” Mellbin said. “We have invested enormous sums in moving Afghanistan out of fragility towards stability. So undermining the authority and legitimacy of the state is not a solution for those of us who would like to see a stable Afghanistan.”
In March, Ghani got a rare win in his attempts to restart the peace process when a delegation from the insurgent group Hizb-e-Islami visited Kabul to pledge their readiness to talk. Last week, the group dropped a previous demand that all international forces must leave Afghanistan before they want to talk peace. Though not as militarily important as they once were, the government hopes Hizb-e-Islami’s concession will help convince the Taliban to join the peace process as well.
But the consensus is that there will be no peace without serious reforms. On one side, Ghani has proved the president many feared he would be: a professorial micromanager wary of delegating responsibility. At the same time, Abdullah is facing pressure from his northern supporters, who still believe he was robbed of the presidency, to claim his fair share of influence in the unity government. That is a formula for a paralyzing tug of war.
“The government has become very fragile,” Mir said. “It wasn’t built on a vision for the country; it was based on pure power sharing. It hasn’t come together on a specific agenda. People in government want to preserve their own interests.”
Before Massoud left Baghlan, the provincial police chief delivered some good news. Over a breakfast of bread, tea, and deep-fried fish, he reported that security forces had pushed the Taliban back, so engineers could finally repair the destroyed electricity towers. Massoud’s convoy drove to a snow-speckled mountaintop, which constituted the front line, to look at the pylons from afar. It was impossible to make them out, but the army commander said engineers were working away. While he and Massoud pored over a map, canon gunners blasted three shells from a 122 mm howitzer in the supposed direction of the Taliban. A week later, after Massoud had safely returned to Kabul, electricity had still not returned. The Taliban fired back and hit the governor’s compound with a rocket, killing one employee. Government forces later retook the district but not without U.S. planes raining bombs on the insurgents. It confirmed the often painful view of many Afghans that, politically and militarily, their government is still beholden to the United States.