by Michael Hughes
May 27, 2022
Ahmad Massoud (احمد مسعود) is founder and president of the National Resistance Front (NRF), a political-military group that took up arms against the Taliban regime when the radical movement captured Kabul in August of 2021. Son of legendary Tajik mujahideen commander and national hero Ahmad Shah Massoud, supporters hope the younger Massoud will not only fill his father’s shoes but will successfully lead a rebellion to oust the Taliban, unify Afghanistan, and establish a democratic state with a moderate Islamic system.
The Predestined One
Massoud, born in 1989, was the eldest and only son of the famous “Lion of Panjshir,” Ahmad Shah Massoud, who fought against the Soviets in the 1980s and the first Taliban regime in the 1990s. Although the Taliban had defeated most of the Northern Alliance, the Lion remained unconquered and successfully defended the Panjshir until his death in 2001. He would later be declared a national hero by presidential decree and is still seen as a unifying figure by many.
Massoud was only 12 years old when his father was assassinated by two undercover al-Qaeda agents on September 9, 2001 – two days before the 9/11 attacks. Seeing his father’s “shattered body” after the attack was a moment that helped drive the younger Massoud later in life to lead a resistance movement against the Taliban.
Massoud attended high school in Iran before moving to London, where he was trained at the British military academy at Sandhurst. He received his bachelor’s degree in war studies at King’s College London in 2015 and a master’s in international politics a year later at City, University of London.
Massoud traveled between London and Kabul from 2017-2019 before making the life changing decision to formally enter politics in a bid to carry on the Lion’s legacy.
On September 5, 2019, a crowd of Afghans gathered at a ceremony at his father’s mausoleum in Panjshir province to reaffirm their allegiance to Massoud as the Lion’s successor. As he unveiled the establishment of a new resistance movement built along the same framework as the Northern Alliance, wearing the same type of Pakol hat made famous by his father, he called on Afghan politicians and former jihadi leaders to unite for the defense of Afghanistan.
“Freedom, liberty, justice, and the establishment of a moderate Islamic system [was] the aspiration of my father. I feel committed to all those aspirations and I am responsible to follow those ideas,” Massoud, then only 30 years old, said in remarks in what was his first public political appearance.
At this time, Massoud expressed skepticism of the ongoing U.S.-Taliban talks being led by American envoy Zalmay Khalilzad who were reportedly on the verge of reaching an accord. Massoud felt the approach would not lead to reconciliation and would only embolden the Taliban.
The yet to be named movement’s spokesman Ali Nazary said about 15,000 attended the first meeting in the Panjshir although others had reported a gathering of 10,000. Former vice president Younus Qanooni, a close aide to his father, realized the younger Massoud is not Ahmad Shah but felt he is the only one able to bring everyone together.
The movement was originally political in nature but its key members vowed they were willing to fight the Taliban if needed. Massoud had pointed out that his father tried to negotiate with the Taliban before he ever fought them.
Although the Lion of Panjshir was a national hero, he was definitely much more beloved among the northern minorities. The civil war in the 1990s left Kabul in ruins with international monitors registering war crimes including against Massoud’s men. The Lion of Panjshir himself in hindsight regretted many of the actions by the mujahideen government he was a part of. And this aspect of the legacy is something the young Massoud will have to remember as he tries to build support nationwide, especially among Pashtuns, the country’s largest ethnic group.
According to Italian journalist Fausto Biloslavo, who interviewed the “young Lion” in October of 2019, Massoud is referred to as the “predestined” in the valley of Panjshir. Massoud in that interview said the Taliban must accept the resistance movement’s most important value: democracy.
“If they want to regain power, they can do so only through the use of ballot boxes,” Massoud said in the interview.
Political Movement Turns to Arms
As the Taliban showed no sign of truly wanting to negotiate with the Ghani administration after signing the withdrawal agreement with the Americans in February 2020, Massoud set the wheels in motion to build up the armed opposition and by the summer of 2021 had assembled a coalition of militias in northern Afghanistan that he referred to as the “Second Resistance.”
By the time the Taliban captured Kabul in August of 2021, some estimated that the NRF had about 10,000 fighters, including 6,000 commandos, five operational helicopters, and a number of armored vehicles – along with ammunition and other supplies they had been stockpiling for four years.
On October 12, 2021, about two months after the Taliban retook power, the NRF issued an “official declaration,” condemning the new regime for brutal killings, repression, field executions, massacre of worshippers, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. The declaration also denounced Ghani for surrendering then fleeing the country with the people’s deposits, which it characterized as a “national betrayal.” Ghani allowed the state to collapse and fall into the grip of extremism and bloodthirsty terrorism, the NRF said in the statement.
The group also applauded the international community for refusing to recognize the Taliban regime and vowed to ensure Afghanistan had a “legitimate” government.
A week later, the NRF registered as an official foreign lobbying group in the United States. However, the Biden administration has so far refused to entertain demands by some U.S. lawmakers to recognize the NRF as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. The Taliban, for their part, have said any U.S. support for the NRF would constitute a breach of the 2020 Doha agreement.
Just days later, Massoud was found in Tajikistan trying to garner more support for the movement. Tajikistan had been providing substantial assistance to the fight against the Taliban. A spokesperson said Massoud is traveling to different states in the region to convince leaders to back the NRF.
On November 14, in answer to a call for an “international uprising,” by Massoud, protesters took to the street in 20 major cities across the U.S., Europe, Australia, Canada in addition to Kabul. Massoud called on the people of Afghanistan and the world community to unite to combat the Taliban, according to an NRF press release, which said their movement had spread to every province and is growing.
Another senior leader of the NRF, former vice president Amrullah Saleh, in defending the strength of the resistance, said the movement that Massoud founded is not based on grievances of a few individuals.
“If it was resistance of a few characters, the Pakistanis would have not gone door to door begging Ahmad Massoud to make peace with their proxy in Kabul,” Saleh told Foreign Policy in February, 2022.
On May 19, 2022, Massoud was one of among 40 Afghan political figures – including former warlords and exiled politicians – who gathered in Ankara to announce the creation of a High Council of National Resistance against the Taliban. They called on the radical movement to form a more inclusive government or risk all-out civil war.
Those attending were invited by former Afghan vice-president and warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, who fled to Turkey after the Taliban reseized power. In addition to Massoud and Dostum, other founding members of the council include former Balkh province governor Atta Mohammad Noor and Shia community leader Mohammad Mohaqiq.
Some experts believe that the resistance is growing although others have their doubts. U.S. Army War College professor Chris Mason, a retired Foreign Service Officer, told Afghan Online Press that the West should have helped the resistance shortly after Kabul fell. To even begin to be a viable resistance movement, Mason explained, the NRF would have to be able to expand beyond the Panjshir and control access to the valley – something they were unable to do when the Afghan government fell. And, according to Mason, the resistance had far more fighters and resources in August of 2021 versus May of 2022.
However, by the end of May clashes between the Taliban and the resistance had continually escalated in the Panjshir, forcing the defense minister himself, Mullah Omar’s son Mullah Yaqoob, to leave southern Kandahar for the north. Meanwhile, reports have surfaced that the Haqqani Network – with Pakistan’s support – has been tasked with quashing the NRF and other rebel groups in northern Afghanistan.
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