Ahmad Massoud: 'decentralisation is the solution', son of Afghan national hero says

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - If he was given the choice, Ahmad Massoud says he would have liked to work in astrophysics, pursue a doctorate degree and travel the world, occasionally finding a television screen to watch his favourite football team, Real Madrid.

Instead, the 30-year-old dove into politics, admitting that he actually doesn’t like it. “It’s something I have to do; something that needs to be done,” he told The National.

Last year Mr Massoud was officially declared successor to his father Ahmad Shah Massoud – a politician and mujaheddin leader celebrated as Afghanistan’s national hero, or the ‘Lion of Panjshir'. Among the achievements of the elder Massoud was the creation of the Northern Alliance, a multi-ethnic force fighting the Taliban, after his initial efforts to include them in a peace process failed.

Assassinated just two days before September 11, 2001 by a suicide bomber posing as a journalist with explosives hidden in his camera, Massoud had been resisting Soviet attempts to enter his native Panjshir province, fighting for a free and independent Afghanistan.

The country has since seen almost two decades of US invasion and is now on the brink of a new era with US troops leaving and growing uncertainty over the country's future and security.

Sergeant Jay Kenney, 26, with the 101st Airborne Division, Task Force Destiny, assists wounded Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers off the Blackhawk UH-60A helicopter after they were rescued in an air mission in Kandahar on December 12, 2010 in Kandahar province, Afghanistan. Getty Images

An Afghan Northern Alliance fighter mans the front line against the Taliban on October 2, 2001 near Jabul os Sarache, 30 miles north of Kabul. Getty Images

Abdullah Abdullah, chief executive of Afghanistan travelling via helicopter for the final campaign rally in Bamiyan, Afghanistan on September 25, 2019. Afghans will head to the polls on Saturday, September 28th. Getty Images

Mustafa Tamanna, 10, son of Afghan reporter Zabihullah Tamanna, weeps during the funeral ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan on June 7, 2016. Tamanna was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade fired by the Taliban. Getty Images

Northern Alliance soldiers come back from the front line after a battle near Charatoy town in the north of Afghanistan on October 10, 2001. REUTERS

A Northern Alliance fighter throwing rocks as part of a popular national game yards away from a multiple Grad missile launcher in October 12, 2001 in the Salang Gorge in Northern Afghanistan. Getty Images

A French soldier from the 7th Mountain Regiment, part of the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) stands on a boulder overlooking Kabul during a patrol August 3, 2002 in Afghanistan. The ISAF has been patrolling Kabul since January 2002, working with the government and a new police force to prevent the violence and lawlessness that threatened to engulf the city after a U.S.-led coalition forced the Taliban from power. Getty Images

US Marine Sgt. Jerry Brown (L) of Jacksonville, North Carolina watches over a weapons cache found during a patrol near the American military compound at Kandahar Airport in January 16, 2002 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. The Marines recovered mortars, rockets, rocket-propelled grenades and artillery rounds discovered in various caches near the base while on the patrol. Getty Images)

Members of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry patrol through poppy fields in the village of Markhanai in May 6, 2002 in the Tora Bora valley region of Afghanistan. Getty Images

The United States and Britain on October 7, 2001 launched a first wave of air strikes against Afghanistan. President George W. Bush said the action heralded a "sustained, comprehensive and relentless" campaign against terrorism. REUTERS

A young Afghan girl eats a piece of bread at the Chaman refugee camp on November 8, 2001 on the Pakistan border with Afghanistan. The UNHCR has estimated that since September 11, 2001 over 135,000 Afghans have crossed the border into Pakistan, adding to the already millions of refugees living in the country. Getty Images

Afghan opposition Northern Alliance soldiers leap over a trench as they return from front line positions after battle near the town of Charatoy in the north of Afghanistan October 10, 2001. REUTERS

An Afghan child peeks out from the doorway of his family's home as a US Army soldier from the 101st Airborne stands guard in the eastern Afghan village of Hesarak on July 16, 2002 during what the Army refers to as a 'sensitive site exploitation' mission or 'SSE'. Getty Images

Fred Perry, a British Royal Engineer soldier, reads the book "Black Hawk Down" inside his tent after a day of work on January 29, 2002 at the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) barracks at the Kabul airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. Getty Images

Afghan soldiers (L) speak to a local Afghan, while a medic in the U.S. Army's 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment, Charlie Company (R) monitors a soldier who has just survived a blast from an improvised explosive device (IED) while driving a vehicle during a mission near Command Outpost Pa'in Kalay, on March 19, 2013 in Kandahar Province, Maiwand District, Afghanistan. Getty Images

Marines on a light armored vehicle prepare for patrol as an AH1W "Super Cobra" helicopter flies by on December 28, 2001 at the U.S. Marine Corps Base in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Getty Images

A Norwegian ISAF (International Security Assistance Force)soldier from Recce Squadron 3 patrols on October 4, 2004 in Kabul, Afghanistan as election officials get ready for the Presidential elections. Getty Images

Interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai (L) is greeted by a group of Afghan military officers on his arrival to Kandahar airbase on May 04, 2002 in Southern Afghanistan. Getty Images

Soldiers in the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division wade though a creek to avoid buried insurgent bombs while on patrol October 16, 2010 in Zhari district west of Kandahar, Afghanistan. Getty Images

British commandos descend from a mountain observation post overlooking the beginning of the Helmand River at the Kajaki hydroelectric dam on March 13, 2007 in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province. Getty Images

101st Airbornes 1st Sgt. Kerry Black from Westmoreland, Tennessee uses an Afghan child's sling shot on February 6, 2002 as children crowd around him while he patrols on the outskirts of Kandahar, Afghanistan. Getty Images

Marine Cpl. Jonathan Eckert of Oak Lawn, IL attached to India Battery, 3rd Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment works his improvised explosive device (IED) sniffing dog Bee as they secure a compound during a patrol near Forward Operating Base (FOB) Zeebrugge on October 11, 2010 in Kajaki, Afghanistan. Getty Images

Afghan refugees walk across the border into Pakistan on October 11, 2001 as they leave Afghanistan at the Chaman crossing point on the 4th day of U.S.-led air strikes against the ruling Taliban and terrorist networks in the country. Getty Images

Anti-Taliban Afghan fighters watch several explosions from U.S. bombings in the Tora Bora mountains in Afghanistan on December 16, 2001.

British Marines run under fire from the Taliban during a morning operation on March 18, 2007 near Kajaki in the Afghan province of Helmand. Getty Images

Afghan Army troops prepare to board a British chinook helicopter from their base at Shorabak on March 12, 2007 in Southern Helmand province, Afghanistan. Getty Images

British Marine Joe Harvey from Stafford, England (R), watches as British forces come under fire by Taliban insurgents on March 18, 2007 near Kajaki in the Afghan province of Helmand. Getty Images

U.S. Army 101st Airborne 3-187 "Bravo" company soliders pass through a corn field while conducting a sensitive site exploitation (SSE) mission July 23, 2002 near the town of Narizah in Southeastern Afghanistan. Getty Images

Scouts from 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (Airborne), pull overwatch during Operation Destined Strike while 2nd Platoon, Able Company searches a village below the Chowkay Valley in Kunar Province, Afghanistan on August 22, 2006. US Army

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Previously the CEO of the Massoud Foundation, his son had been juggling the idea of entering politics for a while, saying he was disappointed in both the Afghan government and the elite after returning home from his studies in London.

Ahmad Massoud's political approach is summarised in one word: decentralisation; focusing on the division of power between the country’s 34 provinces, instead of a Kabul-based government stronghold; something his father already supported.

“Currently, the political system itself is the problem. There is no accountability, no one can question the president” he says, sitting on a sofa in his Kabul home. Wearing a light-coloured shalwar kameez, Afghanistan’s traditional dress and a pakol, a round-topped woollen hat, he closely resembles his father as a younger man.

Given the choice, Ahmad Massoud says he would have liked to work in astrophysics, pursue a doctorate degree and travel the world but felt it was his duty to follow his father into politics. Stefanie Glinski for The National
Given the choice, Ahmad Massoud says he would have liked to work in astrophysics, pursue a doctorate degree and travel the world but felt it was his duty to follow his father into politics. Stefanie Glinski for The National

“To me, decentralisation is the solution to the peace process. With it, I hope we can solve structural issues that allow foreign countries to abuse Afghanistan,” he explains confidently.

His voice still carries the hint of a British accent from eight years in London – the city where his wife, who he met through family members – is still living to complete her PhD in politics.

After delayed election results that had President Ashraf Ghani take up another five years in office, and hurdles in the prisoner exchange that’s a forerunner to peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban, talks are due to begin, though a date hasn’t yet been determined.

Afghanistan has in the meantime been hit by a wave of violence amidst the coronavirus pandemic with increased fighting reported in provinces throughout the country as well as the attacks in the capital.

Mr Massoud caught and recovered from the virus himself in May.

During the same month, the United Nations warned that rising civilian casualty numbers were highlighting the urgent need to halve fighting and re-focus on peace negotiations.

Deborah Lyons, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan called for “a halt to the fighting and for parties to respect humanitarian law that is there to protect civilians.”

“To me, decentralisation is the solution to the peace process. With it, I hope we can solve structural issues that allow foreign countries to abuse Afghanistan,” Ahmad Massoud said. Stefanie Glinski for The National
“To me, decentralisation is the solution to the peace process. With it, I hope we can solve structural issues that allow foreign countries to abuse Afghanistan,” Ahmad Massoud said. Stefanie Glinski for The National

Mr Massoud said that after the US invasion, Afghanistan had several “good years in harmony with the support of the international community.”

“We managed to reduce the amount of violence,” he said, adding that things took a turn for the worse after 2005.

The mujaheddin leader’s son wants to see the Taliban driven out and power restored to the Afghan people; a “multiethnic society”, as he describes it.

He now divides his time between Kabul and Panjshir – a mountainous northern province about two-hours by car from the capital – spending his time walking, hiking, sometimes tending to his vegetable plot and reading about politics.

He admitted that the perception of Afghanistan in the press saddened him: a “strict and dogmatic place,” but, “Afghanistan is nothing like it.”

Mr Massoud was 12 years old when his father was assassinated, but he remembers growing up with him vividly.

“He was busy 24/7. There was no weekend and no vacation for him, but I considered him my best friend. I remember once he came home sick with malaria and he stayed at home for a week. Somehow I wished the recovery would last longer. I’ve never seen anyone more devoted. He sacrificed everything: his family, his safety, his security, his life.”

At times, the younger Mr Massoud would sit with his father, looking at the stars and reciting poetry – mostly verses by Hafez and Maulana Rumi. When the older man was killed, Mr Massoud admitted that he lost his sense of purpose for a time, but has since rekindled his life’s direction.

After the assassination and the collapse of the Taliban, the family of seven, including Mr Massoud’s mother and five sisters went to live with relatives in Iran’s Mashhad, where he attended high school.

Today, he says, the positions and power of the mujaheddin leaders – many of whom still make up part of the Afghan government – can’t be ignored. They are “defenders of our country,” he says, adding that people currently find identity in religion or ethnic groups, not in governmental structures, as there is little trust and accountability.

“There have been so many sacrifices made in Afghanistan, but what I don’t see in this peace agreement is a democratic and free country. The solution lies with the Afghan people and a decentralised system,” he argues – an opinion that other politicians dispute.

The decision to succeed his father came amidst an increasingly tense situation, with US troops withdrawing and the future for both the Afghan government and the Taliban unclear.

“If it wasn’t [for] the current situation in Afghanistan, I think I’d be an astrophysicist,” Mr Massoud laughed.

Updated: July 3, 2020 08:23 AM

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