October 10, 2006


Slain hero protects Afghan valley (MITCH POTTER, 10/10/06, Toronto Star)

[H]ere in the panoramic Panjshir, a 100-kilometre ribbon of lush green farmland armoured left and right by Hindu Kush mountain ridges impassable to all but the hardiest mujahideen, worry melts away.

The rusting hulks of nearly a 100 Soviet tanks remain in situ today, including one whose cannon protrudes from the rapids of the fast-flowing Panjshir River. If their guns are silent, each still booms the legacy of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the so-called "Lion of Panjshir," whose venerated exploits shredded Communist attempts to tame the valley.

"We turned back the Russians again and again and we turned back the Taliban after that. And whatever is happening in the rest of Afghanistan, the Panjshir is safe. People here are too strong to let them in the door," says our host, Shafa Hat, 65, a former fighter under Massoud's command.

Hat smiles sheepishly as he collects the offending RPG, assuring his visitors that it is far too ancient to do damage. Someone found it recently while scaling the parched, rocky heights above his village of Malaspa and simply forgot it was left beneath the bed.

Both fiercely independent and fervently religious, Panjshiris cling not only to the warrior creed of Massoud but also to his vision of a moderate Islamic society, where the sight of a Western face is more likely to trigger welcoming smiles than the suspicious stares more common to the south.

A case in point: Hat and his friends go out of their way to demonstrate their non-Muslim visitors need not be sensitive to the daylong fasts of Ramadan, offering an almost continuous flow of food, from local apples, corn and grapes to steaming discs of homemade gotagh, a wafer-thin crepe stuffed with goat cheese and yogurt.

Blessed by flowing water underground, the Panjshir also can boast of the lion's share of reconstruction efforts, evidenced during The Star's visit by the sight of the United States AID-financed resurfacing of the only road that stretches the length of the valley.

If jobs remain scarce, stability has enabled substantial improvements in health care, schooling and farming techniques, thanks to the efforts of the U.S.-led Provincial Reconstruction Team and other non-governmental organizations.

Yet some Panjshiris, at least, have come to the understanding that relative security is a mixed blessing. With the vast majority of their kind not in the valley proper, but mired in the more volatile capital Kabul, three hours drive southeast, the people of the Panjshir know that their fate will be tied to that which awaits the whole of Afghanistan.

One of the benefits of having deranged enemies is that had OBL assassinated Massoud but not attacked America, September of 2001 would have been al Qaeda's best month instead of its worst.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 10, 2006 8:17 AM
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