Afghan leaders have for years sought a means through which to unify a country made up of a patchwork of different ethnic groups and tribal rivalries. The means they've settled on: Ahmad Shah Massoud. Since his death at the hands of an al Qaeda bomb in September 2001, a cult of personality has formed around Massoud, whose mythology was built up through fighting against both the Soviets and the Taliban. This elevation of Massoud to the status of national hero has come about both organically and at the encouragement of officials, who seek both to claim a bit of Massoud's popularity for themselves and to provide a larger-than-life figure that Afghans can rally around. Whether or not Massoud-- who fought bravely, but whose personal feuds often devastated the lives of thousands of unwilling civilians -- fits the bill is not yet clear. In the meantime, Massoud, whose face now covers cars, billboards, posters and carpets across Afghanistan, has become an absentee rival for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who now must operate in the shadow of a legend. Writing in Foreign Policy, James Verini argues that the combination of a complex legacy and posthumous star power means Massoud has become "the Che Guevara of Central Asia."
Two men sit under a billboard of Massoud in Kabul in 2002. At the time, Massoud had been dead less than a year, but his image was already plastered across Kabul.