Ahmad Shah Massoud

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Ahmad Shah Massoud : biography

September 2, 1953 – September 9, 2001

Resistance against the Taliban (1996–2001)

United Front against the Taliban

Ahmad Shah Massoud created the United Front (Northern Alliance) against the Taliban advance. The United Front included forces and leaders from different political backgrounds as well as from all ethnicities of Afghanistan. From the Taliban conquest in 1996 until November 2001, the United Front controlled territory in which roughly 30% of Afghanistan’s population was living, in provinces such as Badakhshan, Kapisa, Takhar and parts of Parwan, Kunar, Nuristan, Laghman, Samangan, Kunduz, Ghōr and Bamyan.

Meanwhile, the Taliban imposed their repressive regime in the parts of Afghanistan under their control. Hundreds of thousands of people fled to Northern Alliance territory, Pakistan and Iran. In 1998, after the defeat of Abdul Rashid Dostum’s faction in Mazar-i-Sharif, Ahmad Shah Massoud remained the only main leader of the United Front in Afghanistan and the only leader who was able to defend vast parts of his area against the Taliban. Most major leaders including the Islamic State’s President Burhanuddin Rabbani, Abdul Rashid Dostum, and others, were living in exile. During this time, commentators remarked that "The only thing standing in the way of future Taliban massacres is Ahmad Shah Massoud."

Massoud stated that the Taliban repeatedly offered him a position of power to make him stop his resistance. He declined, declaring the differences between their ideology and his own pro-democratic outlook on society to be insurmountable.

Massoud wanted to convince the Taliban to join a political process leading towards democratic elections in a foreseeable future. He also predicted that without assistance from Pakistan and external extremist groups, the Taliban would lose their hold on power.

In early 2001, the United Front employed a new strategy of local military pressure and global political appeals. Resentment was increasingly gathering against Taliban rule from the bottom of Afghan society including the Pashtun areas. At the same time, Massoud was very wary not to revive the failed Kabul government of the early 1990s. Already in 1999 the United Front leadership ordered the training of police forces specifically to keep order and protect the civilian population in case the United Front would be successful.

Cross-factional negotiations

From 1999 onwards, a renewed process was set into motion by the Tajik Ahmad Shah Massoud and the Pashtun Abdul Haq to unite all the ethnicities of Afghanistan. Massoud united the Tajiks, Hazara and Uzbeks as well as several Pashtun commanders under his United Front. Besides meeting with Pashtun tribal leaders and acting as a point of reference, Abdul Haq received increasing numbers of Pashtun Taliban themselves who were secretly approaching him. Some commanders who had worked for the Taliban military apparatus agreed to the plan to topple the Taliban regime as the Taliban lost support even among the Pashtuns. Senior diplomat and Afghanistan expert Peter Tomsen wrote that "[t]he ‘Lion of Kabul’ [Abdul Haq] and the ‘Lion of Panjshir’ [Ahmad Shah Massoud] would make a formidable anti-Taliban team if they combined forces. Haq, Massoud, and Karzai, Afghanistan’s three leading moderates, could transcend the Pashtun—non-Pashtun, north-south divide." Steve Coll referred to this plan as a "grand Pashtun-Tajik alliance". The senior Hazara and Uzbek leaders took part in the process just like later Afghan president Hamid Karzai. They agreed to work under the banner of the exiled Afghan king Zahir Shah in Rome.

In November 2000, leaders from all ethnic groups were brought together in Massoud’s headquarters in northern Afghanistan, travelling from other parts of Afghanistan, Europe, the United States, Pakistan and India to discuss a Loya Jirga for a settlement of Afghanistan’s problems and to discuss the establishment of a post-Taliban government. In September 2001, an international official who met with representatives of the alliance remarked, "It’s crazy that you have this today … Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazara … They were all ready to buy in to the process".