Panjshir dreams of a new Massoud for Afghanistan

BAZARAK - In the scenic Panjshir Valley where anti-Soviet fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud built his legend, all hopes are on his former spokesman Abdullah Abdullah winning Saturday's presidential election and pursuing his legacy.

Three hours' drive northeast of Kabul stands the towering mausoleum of Massoud, who was killed on September 9, 2001 -- two days before the 9/11 attacks -- by two suicide bombers posing as journalists. The majestic black marble tomb of the "Lion of Panjshir", who fought the Taliban after helping to beat back the Russians, is decorated with red flowers and surrounded by large woollen rugs. Close by, rusting Soviet tanks recall the mujahedeen commander's fight against the invaders in the 1980s.

"We came here to visit, he is the hero of Afghanistan," said Moureed Alami, a 26-year-old student accompanied by a group of friends. "We want to pay our respects and to offer our prayers for him. Everybody who's passing here always stops by." As Afghanistan prepares for the second-round vote to succeed Hamid Karzai, for Alami the choice is clear: vote for Abdullah, who faces Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank economist.

"Abdullah was a very good friend of Massoud and later was his spokesman. He has been through all the ups and downs of our country," the young man said. "Massoud's legacy is known worldwide. He advocated equal rights, democracy and wanted men and women to have the opportunity to study, to vote, to work. Abdullah is going to follow in his footsteps."

Many other Afghans have a less rosy view of Massoud's record, pointing out that he was one of the militia leaders responsible for the widespread bombing and destruction that brought the country to its knees in the 1992-1996 civil war. But in Panjshir, his supporters won't hear a word against the ethnic Tajik fighter who led the long fight to keep both the Soviets and then the Taliban's 1996-2001 regimes out of the steep-sided valley.

"We are the followers of Massoud," said student Ansaruddin Qarizada in front of the commander's tomb. "Massoud was unique, he cannot be replaced. But the one closest to him is Dr Abdullah." In Panjshir province, which is dominated by the Tajik ethnic minority, Abdullah won 87.3 per cent of the first-round vote in April (45 per cent nationally) while Ghani, an ethnic Pashtun, got just 0.4 per cent (31.6 per cent nationally). Abdullah's mother was a Tajik and his father a Pashtun.

The candidate's portrait hangs from car windshields and in the windows of shops such as the clothing store that Ahmadullah, 34, manages in the provincial capital Bazarak. "There may be some supporters of Ashraf Ghani here, but personally I have never seen any in this valley," said the father of five, wearing a long traditional Afghan shirt. Abdullah "should have become president in the last election in 2009 but they committed fraud against him", Ahmadullah said.

Saturday's election result may depend on whether Abdullah can draw enough votes from the Pashtun-dominated areas of south and east Afghanistan -- far from his heartland in Panjshir. But the valley and its warrior history remain at the centre of his life. "Mujahedeen fighters stepped in to solve the problems that Afghanistan faced over three decades, and I'm proud to say that I walked with them," he told supporters at a campaign meeting in Kabul this week.

He still has a large, elegant family home by the river in the village of Dashtak, where, according to members of his entourage, he goes several times a month to rest. The peace and quiet there will no doubt become even more attractive if he is elected to lead a country facing such an uncertain future.

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Aaj Kal