Afghanistan's 'Lion of Panjshir'
Balance of power in region may shift if reports of Masood's death prove true.
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"There are reports that the assassins were 'Afghan Arabs' - Arab militants based in Afghanistan," says Amin Tarzi, senior research associate for the Middle East with the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California. "If Masood was not killed, this will create a backlash against 'Afghan Arabs.' This has actually been happening for the past few months," Mr. Tarzi says, with Afghans from the Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara, and Turkmen ethnic groups complaining of the policies of the Pashtun-dominated Taliban. Masood is a member of the Tajik ethnic group.Skip to next paragraph
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The Taliban has denied responsibility for the suicide attack. Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Muttawakil told reporters in a phone interview, "He was an enemy in the front lines, but the Taliban were not involved. If we had been, we would take responsibility."
That Masood was able to retain control of his fractious coalition is testament to not just his personal charisma but also his elaborate system of patronage. From his home base in the Panjshir Valley, which begins just 31 miles northeast of Kabul, Masood controlled the flow of emeralds and other gems from that region's rich mines. With the profits from these mines, Masood could send money to commanders in the field, to pay soldiers' salaries and buy weapons.
Burhanuddin Rabbani, former Afghan president and political leader of the Northern Alliance, yesterday named intelligence chief Gen. Fahim to stand in for Masood. But many experts say his successor would face a near impossible task. "The personality factor is tremendously important, and especially in the East," says Mr. Kazyennov. "The Taliban will use this factor. Indeed, they are using it already. They've already launched attacks on Northern Alliance positions."
Other experts, however, say the Taliban should not expect easy victory. "The forces [Masood] created and the people he promoted into leadership will continue the resistance. Of course it would be a huge loss, but such a loss wouldn't undermine the opposition completely," says Alexander Ruchkin defense expert with the Parliamentskaya Gazeta newspaper.
Still, there remains a dangerous potential for rival commanders to fight for control within the anti-Taliban coalition or simply switch sides. At the moment, most appear to be waiting to hear confirmation of Masood's status.
"There is no fighting at present," says one Western relief official based in Feyzabad. "These rumors have not had any effect on the military situation."
On the streets of Kabul, a city controlled by the Taliban for nearly five years, many Afghans expressed hope that the commander was still alive.
"If Masood is dead, people will be unhappy, very unhappy," says Abdul, a young merchant. Asked if Masood's death will bring an end to the war, he replies, "No, it won't bring peace. There will be another commander."