Myth of Masood endures in Afghan halls of power

Five months after his murder, supporters still use him for leverage.

Masood Khalili recalls the "poisonous" smile and eerie calm of the Arab reporter as he prepared to interview Ahmad Shah Masood, the head of the Northern Alliance.

By the time the reporter had poised his explosive-laden camera in front of a seated Masood on Sept. 9, and admitted that he and his cameraman were in fact representatives of Osama bin Laden, Khalili, Masood's good friend, realized it was too late. The ensuing explosion killed the visitors, left Khalili handicapped, and ended the life of a man known as Afghanistan's best hope for a unifying post-Taliban leader.

His enemies see him as another ruthless warlord, but for many Afghans, Masood has become his nation's Che Guevara, a martyr-in-chief, rendering him an ongoing force in the halls of power.

The posters and photos of Masood on street corners and in most shops are expressions of continued factionalism within the interim government - and are an attempt by Masood's Tajik-dominated party, the Shoora-e-Nizara, to assert influence, observers in Kabul say. Members of his party occupy most of the important positions in the new government, including finance, military, and interior ministries, leaving the less important ministries to Uzbek, Hazara, and Pashtun parties.

In addition, Shoora-e-Nizara members are reportedly recruiting village elders in non-Tajik provinces in the south to consolidate their control of the central government in the expected supreme council, or loya jirga, which is scheduled to choose a permanent government in another 18 months.

At Masood's grave in the Panjshir Valley, pilgrims come to pray for courage, protection, and even the birth of a healthy baby boy.

To be sure, Afghan leaders may shove Masood aside if and when a greater unifier comes along, such as the 87-year-old Afghan King Zahir Shah, who is planning to return to his country after nearly 30 years in exile. But in the meantime, Masood continues to have his uses, as his nation moves to rebuild for the first time after 23 years of war.

"He died for us, when other leaders left for other countries," says Daud Rawosh, vice chancellor of Afghan University in Islamabad. "He lived with us, ate with us, fought for us, and died for us. There was only one Masood. He was a symbol of strength, and honesty, and resilience."

In the last days of his life, Masood was said by US diplomats to be planning a massive assault on Taliban lines around the northern city of Taloqan. US and Afghan sources predicted that the Taliban, while outmanning the alliance, would collapse at the approach of the better-trained alliance troops.

It was in those heady days of preparation that Masood had called Khalili, the Northern Alliance ambassador to India, up to northern Afghanistan on an "emergency." On Sept. 9, Masood and Khalili planned a trip to the Oxus River for an afternoon of poetry reading, Khalili recalls with a smile. But he had a little business to attend to first: two Arab reporters had been kept waiting for an interview.

"I'm scared when I think of that man, the assassin, the one who knows in five minutes he will die," recalls Khalili, who walks with a cane, and has lost sight and hearing on his right side. "How quiet, how calm he was."

Khalili acted as Masood's interpreter, asking the reporter for his questions. Most involved Mr. bin Laden. Why did Masood oppose bin Laden? Why did he reject him as his leader?

Once the camera was in place, the cameraman moved away from it and waited by the door. The reporter then asked the first question: What is the current situation in Afghanistan? Just as Khalili opened his mouth to translate the question, the bomb inside the camera went off.

The blast left Masood mortally wounded. He died on the way to a clinic at Khwaja Hayauddin, near the Afghan-Tajik border, a fact that was kept from Khalili - and from reporters - for nearly four days, to prevent panic.

After he recovered from his injuries, Khalili realized that his life had been saved by his murdered friend. Before the interview, Masood was admiring Khalili's leather-bound passport. Oddly, he insisted that Khalili wear the passport in his shirt pocket. "My wife later found eight pieces of shrapnel on page 15 of the passport," he says. "That passport was right over my heart."

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