His declaration of war came straight from the Hollywood playbook – a dashing young resistance leader invokes his heroic dead father while pledging to rise up, in the face of seemingly unimaginable odds, against the forces of darkness sweeping his homeland.
This was the scene in Afghanistan‘s lush Panjshir Valley at the weekend as Ahmad Massoud, 32-year-old son of the most revered guerrilla fighter in the history of a nation shaped by guerrilla fighters, marshalled his troops for a last stand against the marauding Taliban.
‘I am the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud,’ he told his friend, the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, in a telephone interview.
‘Surrender is not part of my vocabulary. The resistance has begun!’
Massoud, a Sandhurst graduate who also studied at King’s College, London, is nicknamed ‘Heir to the Lion’ or ‘Lion Cub’ after his father, a famed Mujahideen commander known as the ‘Lion of Panjshir’ after the region that he ruled and successfully defended.
Ahmad Massoud (pictured), 32-year-old son of the most revered guerrilla fighter in the history of a nation shaped by guerrilla fighters, marshalled his troops for a last stand against the marauding Taliban
Twenty years after his death, Ahmad Shah Massoud’s portrait still adorns walls, bill-boards, the white, green and black flag of the Northern Alliance he once represented, and even coffee mugs across the region.
In recent weeks his son has been digging into the picturesque but inhospitable region of narrow gorges and snow-capped mountains, roughly 100 miles north-east of Kabul.
Alongside him is a loyal force of soldiers and pilots equipped with scores of armoured vehicles and four or five helicopters.
For many Afghans, Massoud and his rebel force – who are vehemently opposed to the Taliban’s medieval social values – are believed to represent their country’s last real hope of freedom. Thousands have fled to the region in recent days.
‘We have stores of ammunition and arms that we have patiently collected since my father’s time, because we knew this day might come,’ he wrote in The Washington Post last week.
‘Under Taliban control, Afghanistan will without doubt become ground zero of radical Islamist terrorism; plots against democracies will be hatched here once again.
No matter what happens, my mujahideen fighters and I will defend Panjshir as the last bastion of Afghan freedom.’
To supporters – along with natural allies in the West – the Lion Cub’s heroic defiance recalls that of his late father, an alumni of Kabul’s Lycée Esteqlal (the Afghan Eton) from one of the country’s few wealthy families who spoke fluent French, loved poetry, and talked of breaking his homeland’s seemingly never-ending cycle of war.
Ahmad Massoud (left) pictured with his late father
Ahmad Shah Massoud had in effect made it his mission in life to turn Afghanistan into a modern, multi-ethnic democracy. He was trusted and supported by MI6, who helped arm his troops during the Soviet occupation.
After the Russians left, he successfully resisted the Taliban, ensuring that Panjshir remained the only part of the country that was not under their control.
But in 2001, his luck ran out: just days before 9/11 he was assassinated via a suicide bomb hidden in a fake video camera carried by Al Qaeda agents who had travelled from Brussels pretending to be TV journalists seeking an interview.
Massoud junior’s first public appearance came days after the tragedy when, at the age of 12, he was filmed, head bowed, beside his father’s coffin, having just viewed his body in a mortuary.
‘He was a one-of-a-kind character in Afghan history and I don’t think anyone can be like him,’ he later said about his father.
The eldest child of six (and only son) he was taken to the relative safety of Iran, where at secondary school he dreamed of being an astronomer and was a huge fan of Stephen Hawking.
Indeed, after turning 18, he was set to go to university in the West to study astrophysics only to perform a dramatic volte face after one of his father’s old comrades visited and asked: ‘Do you really think you can find the solution for Afghanistan in the stars and planets?’
Massoud later told an interviewer: ‘I could see my father lying on that metal table and remember the promise I had made to devote my life to try to achieve what he was wanting – a peaceful Afghanistan.’
He decided to undergo military training and after narrowly failing to secure a place at West Point, the top US academy, spent a year at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, where he was purportedly regarded as an outstanding student.
In 2012, he moved to London to study for an undergraduate degree in War Studies at King’s College, where his final dissertation was titled: ‘The Taliban: organised criminal network or religious nationalist movement?’ (Short answer: both).
He obtained his master’s degree in International Politics from City, University of London, in 2016 before returning to Afghanistan to enter politics, seeking to negotiate peace deals with various warring factions under successive Western-backed governments.
For many Afghans, Massoud and his rebel force (pictured) – who are vehemently opposed to the Taliban’s medieval social values – are believed to represent their country’s last real hope of freedom. Thousands have fled to the region in recent days.
To this day, he endorses a Swiss-style federal system of government where different regions of the country are controlled by local administrations.
‘I love three things in this world,’ he once said. ‘Books, gardens and the astronomy I learned, before entering Sandhurst, which instilled in me the habit of looking each night at the sky and its constellations…. I was not cut out for political action.
But someone had to pick up the torch. The hope my glorious father embodied could not be allowed to die out.’
By 2019 he had returned to Panjshir, and last year began issuing warnings about the peace plan and proposed withdrawal of troops being negotiated between the Trump administration, the Taliban, and the Afghan government in Doha, Qatar.
On September 5 that year he began pulling together a fighting force called the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, while simultaneously protesting that he dreams of peace and one day becoming a physics teacher.
Helping bolster his support is the fact that he now looks almost identical to his late father, having grown a beard and taken to wearing a similar-looking beige pakol, or Afghan woollen hat.
Massoud has also not entirely abandoned hope of negotiating some sort of peace settlement, recalling how his father had been open to cutting deals with the Taliban and occasionally met them unarmed, even praying and spending time with them, only to find himself unable to find sufficient common ground to call a ceasefire.
For now, though, his force – no one knows its size and estimated numbers range from the hundreds to the thousands – is surrounded in that long, remote valley of several hundred villages.
Their best chance of survival is likely to either be the local geography – with 2,000ft mountain walls on both sides it can only be accessed via a single road which is highly vulnerable to guerrilla attacks – or potential assistance from the West.
To that end, he told The Washington Post: ‘We need more weapons, more ammunition and more supplies. America and its democratic allies do not just have the fight against terrorism in common with Afghans.
‘We now have a long history made up of shared ideals and struggles. There is still much that you can do to aid the cause of freedom. You are our only remaining hope.’
Even if that help is not forthcoming, the Lion Cub has promised not to back down.
‘We are going to fight for democracy, we are going to fight for the rights of the people, we are going to fight for the rights of the women and fight for many other values that are cherished and loved,’ he told his men, in a rousing speech recorded last week.
‘We will stand with our people to the end.’