Son of famed Afghan resistance fighter launches new political movement

Against the uncertainty over talks that have now collapsed between the U.S and the Taliban, the son of the most prominent anti-Taliban fighter of the late 20th century is trying to resuscitate his father's political coalition for a new generation in Afghanistan.

Ahmad Massoud was 12 when his father was killed by al-Qaeda 2 days before 9/11 attacks

Ahmad Massoud says his new alliance in Afghanistan wants to foster a moderate Islamic system that supports social justice. (Jennifer Glasse)

While President Donald Trump has declared U.S.-Taliban talks "dead," the Taliban are vowing to fight on in Afghanistan, saying the American president will "regret" the results.

The Afghan government had not been included in the negotiations and was kept in the dark about much of the process that was unfolding even as Taliban fighters intensified their attacks.

At the same time, many ordinary Afghans were worried that the negotiations would not benefit them and merely offer the U.S. a cover for withdrawal. 

It was against this backdrop of uncertainty over the U.S.-Taliban talks that the son of the most prominent anti-Taliban fighter of the late 20th century is trying to resuscitate his father's political coalition for a new generation.

Ahmad Shah Massoud was known as The Lion of Panjshir. He was considered such a significant threat by al-Qaeda that they assassinated him in northeastern Afghanistan two days before the 9/11 attacks in the United States in 2001.

Ahmad Massoud was 12 when his father was killed. Now 30, he wants to revive his father's ideals with a political coalition that reflects the anti-Taliban sentiment that made Massoud a hero.

Massoud spoke last week in front of the tomb of his father, Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was known as The Lion of Panjshir. (Jennifer Glasse)

"We are able to restart this movement again after many discussions with many former jihadi commanders," Massoud told thousands of followers gathered recently in the shadow of his father's mausoleum on a mountaintop in Panjshir, north of Kabul. 

"Our goals are like my father's: complete independence of country, governance to improve the country, and today we renew that commitment."

The new movement is based on the National Front, known commonly as the Northern Alliance, an opposition group formed in 1992 to fight the Communist government and which tried to negotiate and ultimately fought the Taliban from 1994 to 2001.

Massoud said his coalition is coming together at a key time.

"Right now, the peace process is a golden opportunity but we want a peace that respects the Afghan people," he told his followers last week. "We want a peace that can put an end to the violence and bloodshed and should be long-lasting."

In the wake of the collapse of the talks over the weekend, Massoud reiterated that he wants his followers and those who fought with his father to have a stake in whatever peace process might emerge now.

"We support any decision or effort taken by anyone that will result in a genuine peace process," he said. "That's an inclusive peace process where everyone from all walks of life in Afghanistan are represented, especially the resistance constituency that was formed years before the Americans came and which fought the Taliban since 1994."

The Afghan government has offered to negotiate with the Taliban, but only if there is a ceasefire. That doesn't seem likely. They refused to talk to the Afghan government, calling them "stooges" of the United States.

Thousands came to see Massoud launch a new political movement in Panjshir. (Jennifer Glasse)

Throughout the negotiations with the U.S., Taliban fighters carried out a string of offensives, with attacks intensifying.

With the talks off for now, the Taliban has vowed to continue fighting and launched offensives around the country, capturing districts in the north and killing a prominent human rights official from central Afghanistan.  

"If the Taliban want to bring peace to Afghanistan, they should gather in Afghanistan, not go to Qatar or Moscow," said Hashmatullah Mirzai, a 32-year-old Massoud supporter. He trained as a teacher, but like so many others, he is unemployed and wants the fighting to stop so the country's economy can recover.

"At the end of every fight is peace," Mirzai said. "It's clear to everyone that the Taliban is still fighting. They fight because they want to use the pressure from fighting to get something at the peace table."

Massoud said his new alliance wants to foster a country with a moderate Islamic system that supports social justice and to be able to solve the country's problems with unity.

The first test of unity will likely come with presidential elections scheduled for Sept. 28. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who is favoured to win a second five-year term, wants the vote to go ahead. Some of his opponents had said they would abandon their campaigns if there was a viable peace process.

The new movement's spokesman, Ali Nazary, said the vote can't be fair because Ghani is "interfering" and last year's flawed parliamentary elections, marred by corruption and mismanagement, showed his government wasn't capable of carrying out a vote.

"We are not in favour of an election which is rigged, which will further divide our country, and in which the commissions are biased and won't provide the transparency for a free and fair election," Nazary said.

Supporters watch video of Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was killed by al-Qaeda in 2001, as they wait for the event to begin in Panjshir last week. (Jennifer Glasse)

He said the new movement, as yet unnamed, has not decided on a stance regarding the elections — whether it will tell its followers to stay away or back a certain candidate.

Ideally they would like to see more stability before any election.

"We should work for peace first. Then if a peace process is successful, we could have elections," Nazary said. The movement hasn't come up with a plan about what would happen in the meantime — whether Ghani's government would remain in power or some other solution could be found, he said.

It is not clear whether Massoud's new resistance movement will garner a large following countrywide. While perhaps as many as 10,000 gathered at the initial meeting in Panjshir, (Nazary said it was 15,000), the area is the former Northern Alliance's stronghold.

That meeting was also Massoud's first public political outing and many came to see him out of respect for his famous father.

Former parliamentary Speaker Younus Qanooni said he knows the younger Massoud is not Ahmad Shah, but he has talent and is the only one able to bring everyone together.

The flag of the former Northern Alliance, an opposition group that fought the Taliban from 1994 to 2001, flew over the heavily guarded gathering in Panjshir last week. (Jennifer Glasse)

Some of those gathered said they would follow Massoud in whatever direction he led them. While organizers say the movement is political, a couple of younger supporters indicated they would fight the Taliban if called on to do so.

"We are not going to allow anyone to force their values, their strict interpretation, their extreme interpretation of anything, on us," Nazary said.

"So if that day comes where the other side does not have goodwill, the other side isn't prepared to launch a genuine peace process, then we might be forced to defend ourselves."

He and Massoud pointed out that the Lion of Panjshir tried to talk to the Taliban before he ever fought them.

It is the fight against the Taliban that made the original alliance strong. This revival says they hope the battle will be political, but the war in Afghanistan continues as each faction looks for some kind of end.


Jennifer Glasse is a correspondent who has been based in Afghanistan for the past eight years, reporting for CBC News, Al Jazeera English, NPR and PBS NewsHour. She has been an international correspondent for 25 years reporting from more than 75 countries.