- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 15, 2001

KABUL, Afghanistan — The capital of Afghanistan was tense as rumors sped from house to house on Sunday that the Taliban's chief enemy, Northern Alliance military leader Ahmad Shah Masood, had been assassinated.
At press time, Mr. Masood's commanders still were denying his death. But U.S. and Russian intelligence sources confirmed it.
What isn't disputed is that Mr. Masood's departure from the scene would radically change the balance of power in Afghanistan, and raise 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," said Sergei Kazyennov, of the Institute for National Security and Strategic Research in Moscow.
"The Taliban and [reputed 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."
Mr. 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 military intervention.
Whether he is dead or even gravely injured, analysts 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," said Grigory Bondarevsky, Central Asia specialist at the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow and a former adviser 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," said Gen. Hamid Gul, the former head of Pakistan's interservices intelligence agency who 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 to '96, they took over whole provinces without firing a shot. They just bribed commanders."
While Mr. Masood's status remained 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 Mr. Masood's headquarters at Khwaja Bahauedin, in the northern province of Takhar, on Sunday. The ensuing explosion reportedly killed both assassins, along with a bodyguard. Mr. Masood, who was taken immediately to the hospital in Dushanbe, was said to be gravely injured.
"There are reports that the assassins were Afghan Arabs — Arab militants based in Afghanistan," said Amin Tarzi, senior research associate for the Middle East with the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Monterey, Calif.
"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 said, with Afghans from the Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara and Turkmen ethnic groups complaining of the policies of the Pashtun-dominated Taliban. Mr. Masood is an ethnic Tajik.
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 Mr. Masood was able to retain control of his fractious coalition is testament not just to his personal charisma, but also to his elaborate system of patronage.
From his home base in the Panjshir Valley, which begins just 31 miles northeast of Kabul, Mr. Masood controlled the flow of emeralds and other gems from that region's rich mines. With the profits from these mines, he could send money to commanders in the field, pay soldiers' salaries and buy weapons.
Burhanuddin Rabbani, former Afghan president and political leader of the Northern Alliance, at midweek named intelligence chief Gen. Fahim to stand in for Mr. Masood.
But many analysts say his successor would face a near-impossible task.
"The personality factor is tremendously important, and especially in the East," said Mr. Kazyennov. "The Taliban will use this factor. Indeed, they are using it already. They've already launched attacks on Northern Alliance positions."
Other analysts, however, say the Taliban should not expect easy victory. "The forces [Mr. 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," said Alexander Ruchkin, defense specialist with the Russian newspaper Parliamentskaya Gazeta.
Still, a dangerous potential remains 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 Mr. Masood's status.
"There is no fighting at present," said 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," said Abdul, a young merchant. Asked if Mr. Masood's death would bring an end to the war, he replied: "No, it won't bring peace. There will be another commander."


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