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The Cult

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Afghan leaders have for years sought a means through which to unify a country made up of a patchwork of different ethnic groups and tribal rivalries. The means they've settled on: Ahmad Shah Massoud. Since his death at the hands of an al Qaeda bomb in September 2001, a cult of personality has formed around Massoud, whose mythology was built up through fighting against both the Soviets and the Taliban. This elevation of Massoud to the status of national hero has come about both organically and at the encouragement of officials, who seek both to claim a bit of Massoud's popularity for themselves and to provide a larger-than-life figure that Afghans can rally around.  Whether or not Massoud-- who fought bravely, but whose personal feuds often devastated the lives of  thousands of unwilling civilians -- fits the bill is not yet clear. In the meantime, Massoud, whose face now covers cars, billboards, posters and carpets across Afghanistan, has become an absentee rival for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who now must operate in the shadow of a legend. Writing in Foreign Policy, James Verini argues that the combination of a complex legacy and posthumous star power means Massoud has become "the Che Guevara of Central Asia."

Two men sit under a billboard of Massoud in Kabul in 2002. At the time, Massoud had been dead less than a year, but his image was already plastered across Kabul.

A cleaner polishes Massoud's face on a poster at the  entrance of Kabul international airport in September 2003.
A cleaner polishes Massoud's face on a poster at the entrance of Kabul international airport in September 2003.

A cleaner polishes Massoud's face on a poster at the entrance of Kabul international airport in September 2003.

President Hamid Karzai delivers a speech from behind a podium  covered with Massoud's image. The speech was given at a gathering in 2004 to  mark the third anniversary of Massoud's assassination. Karzai has sought to  capitalize on Massoud's popularity, but some have questioned whether setting himself up for comparisons with the dead hero is wise.
President Hamid Karzai delivers a speech from behind a podium covered with Massoud's image. The speech was given at a gathering in 2004 to mark the third anniversary of Massoud's assassination. Karzai has sought to capitalize on Massoud's popularity, but some have questioned whether setting himself up for comparisons with the dead hero is wise.

President Hamid Karzai delivers a speech from behind a podium covered with Massoud's image. The speech was given at a gathering in 2004 to mark the third anniversary of Massoud's assassination. Karzai has sought to capitalize on Massoud's popularity, but some have questioned whether setting himself up for comparisons with the dead hero is wise.

Afghan schoolgirls perform in front of a giant portrait of  Massoud in 2006 during a ceremony marking the 14th anniversary of  the mujahideen victory over the communist regime in Kabul.
Afghan schoolgirls perform in front of a giant portrait of Massoud in 2006 during a ceremony marking the 14th anniversary of the mujahideen victory over the communist regime in Kabul.

Afghan schoolgirls perform in front of a giant portrait of Massoud in 2006 during a ceremony marking the 14th anniversary of the mujahideen victory over the communist regime in Kabul.

Afghan soldiers carry portraits of Massoud in 2006 during a  parade to commemorate Afghanistan's independence from the British in 1919.
Afghan soldiers carry portraits of Massoud in 2006 during a parade to commemorate Afghanistan's independence from the British in 1919.

Afghan soldiers carry portraits of Massoud in 2006 during a parade to commemorate Afghanistan's independence from the British in 1919.

Massoud watches over training athletes from a billboard in  Kabul Olympic National Stadium in 2008.
Massoud watches over training athletes from a billboard in Kabul Olympic National Stadium in 2008.

Massoud watches over training athletes from a billboard in Kabul Olympic National Stadium in 2008.

Karzai, bottom right, speaks beneath a large poster of  Massoud in 2008. Sept. 9, the date of his death, is observed  as a national holiday and known as Massoud Day.
Karzai, bottom right, speaks beneath a large poster of Massoud in 2008. Sept. 9, the date of his death, is observed as a national holiday and known as Massoud Day.

Karzai, bottom right, speaks beneath a large poster of Massoud in 2008. Sept. 9, the date of his death, is observed as a national holiday and known as Massoud Day.

An Afghan man walks by a wall with posters of incumbent  president Hamid Karzai and Massoud in Kabul in 2009, prior to the August  election. Pictures of Karzai are often placed alongside Massoud, in an effort  to create an association between the two leaders.
An Afghan man walks by a wall with posters of incumbent president Hamid Karzai and Massoud in Kabul in 2009, prior to the August election. Pictures of Karzai are often placed alongside Massoud, in an effort to create an association between the two leaders.

An Afghan man walks by a wall with posters of incumbent president Hamid Karzai and Massoud in Kabul in 2009, prior to the August election. Pictures of Karzai are often placed alongside Massoud, in an effort to create an association between the two leaders.

In Afghani politics, everyone tries to claim a piece of  Massoud: above, supporters of former presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah  await his arrival under a picture of Massoud in August 2009, days before that  year's election.
In Afghani politics, everyone tries to claim a piece of Massoud: above, supporters of former presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah await his arrival under a picture of Massoud in August 2009, days before that year's election.

In Afghani politics, everyone tries to claim a piece of Massoud: above, supporters of former presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah await his arrival under a picture of Massoud in August 2009, days before that year's election.

An Afghan man sits on top of a tank surrounded by pictures  of Massoud in Sept. 2009 in Panjshir, Afghanistan. Thousands came to honor  Massoud at his mausoleum in Panjshir on the eighth anniversary of his death.
An Afghan man sits on top of a tank surrounded by pictures of Massoud in Sept. 2009 in Panjshir, Afghanistan. Thousands came to honor Massoud at his mausoleum in Panjshir on the eighth anniversary of his death.

An Afghan man sits on top of a tank surrounded by pictures of Massoud in Sept. 2009 in Panjshir, Afghanistan. Thousands came to honor Massoud at his mausoleum in Panjshir on the eighth anniversary of his death.

A memorial honoring Massoud sits at a scenic overlook in the  Bazarak district, Panjshir province, in 2011.
A memorial honoring Massoud sits at a scenic overlook in the Bazarak district, Panjshir province, in 2011.

A memorial honoring Massoud sits at a scenic overlook in the Bazarak district, Panjshir province, in 2011.

Afghans drove through Kabul in cars covered with Massoud  posters to show respect on the 10th anniversary of Massoud's  assassination in September 2011.
Afghans drove through Kabul in cars covered with Massoud posters to show respect on the 10th anniversary of Massoud's assassination in September 2011.

Afghans drove through Kabul in cars covered with Massoud posters to show respect on the 10th anniversary of Massoud's assassination in September 2011.

An Afghan man drinks tea in a small restaurant in front of a  carpet adorned with an image of Massoud in Kabul in September of this year.
An Afghan man drinks tea in a small restaurant in front of a carpet adorned with an image of Massoud in Kabul in September of this year.

An Afghan man drinks tea in a small restaurant in front of a carpet adorned with an image of Massoud in Kabul in September of this year.

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