Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Northern Alliance Faces Uncertain Future

Afghanistan's anti-Taleban forces have suffered a severe blow, with the death of their charismatic leader.
By Vladimir Davlatov

The death at the weekend of Ahmed Shah Massoud will have significantly weakened his anti-Taleban forces and dispirited Afghanistan's neighbours who had relied on him to stem the radical Islamist tide.


Massoud died from wounds he suffered in a suicide bomb attack, by two men posing as journalists, at his Afghan headquarters on September 9. He was buried last Saturday in a small village in the Hindu Kush - thousands of Northern Alliance supporters attended the funeral.


Representatives of the Afghan government-in-exile had been insisting last week that Massoud survived the attack. Regional analyst, Ahmed Rashid, believes this was merely a stalling tactic while anti-Taleban forces decided their next move. "When you lose someone of such legendary stature as Massoud, it is going to be very difficult to recover from the shock," he said.


Massoud's followers have little doubt over who was behind the attack. "It was the Taleban's handiwork," Afghan foreign minister-in-exile Abdullo Abdullo told journalists: "Those so-called journalists came to Massoud's headquarters from a Taleban - controlled area - and planting a bomb in a video camera is something only Pakistani secret service people could have pulled off."


Although Massoud has been the target of several assassination attempts over the past 22 years, a spokesman at the Afghan embassy in Dushanbe said that the Northern Alliance leader had always treated journalists with respect and rarely had them checked by bodyguards.


Massoud is a legendary, charismatic figure who has devoted his whole life to armed struggle. An ethnic Tajik, he launched his military career in 1975 by joining an anti-government revolt in northern Afghanistan. In 1979, he organised formidable resistance to the Soviet troops deployed in the country.


Back then, experts called him a guerrilla warfare "genius". During the decade-long war in Afghanistan, the Soviets never managed to penetrate Massoud's defences around the Panjshir Gorge in the north of the country. The nickname "Lion of the Panjshir" has stuck ever since.


Massoud evolved as a prominent figure on the Afghan political scene, until the Taleban movement captured the capital Kabul in 1996 and declared themselves the country's leaders. In response, Massoud formed and spearheaded the Northern Alliance. Many military experts agree that Massoud held much more sway back then than ousted Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani.


At that point, Russia started talking to Massoud, aware of the threat posed by the Taleban movement, and has since been funnelling him enormous amounts of military aid, realising that he is the only force in Afghanistan capable of resisting the powerful Islamists. He has also received aid from Iran and Tajikistan.


This year, Massoud, who controls no more than ten per cent of Afghanistan, has made headlines in Europe with his peace initiatives, which have been backed by all EU leaders. They've pledged their support and promised to put pressure on Pakistan, which allegedly sponsors the Taleban.


The question everyone is now asking is whether the anti-Taleban bloc, without Massoud, is able to resist the Taleban any longer. Many experts are also wondering if an internal rift may now develop within the Northern Alliance which will allow the Taleban to take control of the whole country.


"Once Massoud stops running the alliance, the Taleban will gain the upper hand. Massoud was the kingpin of anti-Taleban forces. He kept them together," said one Tajik political analyst, reflecting a view held by most observers.


So far, Massoud's official successor is the alliance's chief of intelligence and security, General Muhammad Fakim. Little is known about him. A competent commander, he is believed to lack Massound's charisma and political experience.


But there are some who suspect the assassination will not significantly alter the situation, claiming Massoud is not as irreplaceable as many believe him to be. "His military commanders are quite autonomous and independent," said Russian analyst Alexander Ramazanov. This, he says, has already been apparent, with the alliance beating back several Taleban military attacks this week.


And alliance commanders will clearly be pleased that senior officials from Russia, Iran, Tajikistan, India and Uzbekistan, meeting in Dushanbe, discussed sending military and humanitarian aid to Massoud's forces, in the aftermath of the American hijack tragedy. The alliance will also be bolstered if the West chooses to do the same, which some believe is increasingly likely as the Saudi dissident, Ossama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the US outrages, is sheltering in Taleban-controlled territory.


Vladimir Davlatov is the pseudonym of a journalist in Tajikistan.