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Afghanistan's 'Lion of Panjshir'

Balance of power in region may shift if reports of Masood's death prove true.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 12, 2001


The capital of Afghanistan was tense as rumors sped from house to house that the Taliban's chief enemy, Northern Alliance military leader Ahmad Shah Masood, was assassinated on Sunday.

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At press time, Mr. Masood's commanders were still denying his death. But US and Russian intelligence sources confirm it.

What isn't disputed is that Masood's departure from the scene would radically change the balance of power in Afghanistan, and raises concerns that the Taliban's brand of Islamic fundamentalism would spread through the region.

With open support from Russia, Iran, and several Central Asian states, and rumored covert support from India and the United States, the so-called "Lion of Panjshir" was projected by many Western leaders as the last bulwark against the Taliban militia that took over the bulk of Afghanistan nearly five years ago.

"If he's dead, the war will go into a much more active phase," says Sergei Kazyennov, of the Institute for National Security and Strategic Research in Moscow.

"The Taliban and [alleged international terrorist leader Osama] bin Laden will definitely be stimulated by this. Outside participants, such as Iran and Russia, will move to organize a big coalition against the Taliban because, for surrounding countries ... the Taliban represents an enormous danger."

Masood has been hailed by friends and enemies as a brilliant field commander, a man of tremendous charisma and personal loyalty, who single-handedly held together the ragged remnants of the mujahideen resistance that drove Soviet forces to withdraw in 1989 after a decade-long occupation.

Whether he is dead or even gravely injured, experts say it is just a matter of time before his coalition of warlords in the rugged northeast begins to fall apart.

"If Ahmad Shah Masood is dead, the anti-Taliban alliance is also dead," says Grigory Bondarevsky, Central Asia expert at the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow and a former an advisor to Soviet forces that occupied Afghanistan in the 1980s. "Masood was the single figure capable of uniting the diverse opposition, and also obtaining some recognition for the alliance abroad."

"Afghans have a different attitude toward war," says Gen. Hamid Gul, who as former head of Pakistan's interservices intelligence agency was in charge of arming and training the anti-Soviet mujahideen. "They'll be fighting each other, negotiating, and doing business with each other all at the same time. When the Taliban took over in 1995-96, they took over whole provinces without firing a shot. They just bribed commanders."

While Masood's status is still unclear, the attack against the anti-Taliban leader was brazen and brilliantly planned. Two Arab men with Belgian passports, posing as journalists, reportedly carried a video camera packed with explosives into Masood's headquarters in Khwaja Bahauedin, in the northern province of Takhar on Sunday. The ensuing explosion reportedly killed both of Masood's assassins, along with a bodyguard. Masood, who was immediately taken to the hospital in Dushanbe, was said to be gravely injured.