KABUL — The first sign of officialdom you see when you drive from the Kabul airport parking lot is a government billboard looming above a traffic jam. It's the size of a highway billboard in the United States, but closer to the ground, so that you can make out every nuance of the faces on it. Those faces belong to, on the right of the coat of arms of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai, and on the left, slain Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, dead some 11 years. With Karzai, you note those tired eyes and that child's chin, unaided by a trimmed gray beard. Massoud comes off vastly more dashing. He appears to be in conference with the heavens: The eyes smolder from within, the strong chin and bushy goatee angle out like a divining rod. A pakol, the traditional hat of the Hindu Kush, sits like a column capital on his head.
The billboard calls to mind a prizefight boxing poster, and the champ is obvious. It also happens to capture the attitude of many Afghans and foreigners working here. In the years since Massoud was assassinated by al Qaeda, just two days before 9/11, and Karzai installed as Afghanistan's interim president the following summer, their reputations have moved in inverse proportion. Karzai's popularity has steadily contracted, while Massoud's legend in Afghanistan has grown. As though he had just been killed last week, Afghans still talk about what a great president the guerrilla leader would have made. The implicit slight on Karzai, once dismissed as merely ineffectual and now as ineffectual, corrupt, and deluded, is obvious. Abroad, after years of worshipful portrayals of him by foreign reporters and historians, Massoud has become the Che Guevara of Central Asia. A young Norwegian woman staying in the same guesthouse as me here went weak in the knees when she learned the house's driver fought under Massoud. "I want to meet him," she breathed, referring to the driver, but really meaning the Lion of Panjshir.
Oddly, the billboard captures at least some portion of Afghan officialdom's attitude, too. Lately, no one has promoted the cult of Massoud as much as Karzai's government. This October, a month after the 11th anniversary of his death, the barrier walls of ministry buildings and the homes of officials are covered with Massoud's stoic visage, as are awnings, shop windows, street-food carts, car windshields, and so on. Wherever possible, as at the airport, Karzai is placed alongside Massoud, as though they were running mates in the 2014 election -- an election for which Karzai is ineligible to run, though there is talk that he may be so oblivious to his unpopularity he'll attempt to amend the constitution to allow himself a third term. ("Sure, if he wants to be killed," one Kabuli friend responded when I asked if he thought Karzai might try it.)
In fact, Massoud has been a kind of unwelcome spectral running mate to Karzai all along, a Kalashnikov-slung Banquo, against whom, by comparison, the president is always falling short. Karzai's inability or unwillingness to reign in graft, his failure to halt the Taliban, his perceived timidity and indecision -- Massoud's ubiquitous image is a rebuke to all of it. His years spent fighting the Soviets and then the Taliban from within Afghanistan contrast with the years Karzai spent safely in exile in Pakistan. The exception is in the department of political survival, where Karzai is at least Massoud's match, maybe his better. The president may venerate Massoud's memory or he may not, but he knows he must appear to do so to keep ex-mujahideen and ethnic hostilities in check. In an Afghanistan largely managed by foreign governments and defined by internal division -- most importantly the rivalry between the powerful Tajik minority, among whom Massoud is the favorite son, and the Pashtun majority, among whom Karzai is among the least favorite sons -- Massoud is, regrettably, the closest thing Afghans have to a national hero.
I say regrettably, because, while many Afghans venerate him, many others see Massoud as a false idol -- as just one in a rogue's gallery of militia commanders, living and dead, with their own personal fan clubs. His legacy is a matter of bitter divisiveness. His most ardent admirers are confined largely to Tajik strongholds in the north and west and in the capital. Recently, I visited Herat, Afghanistan's second-largest city, and saw only a few Massoud photos around. That the Taliban had just staged a firing-squad execution of accused kidnappers outside the city was not, I was assured, the reason for this. In many Pashtun-dominated areas in the south and east, and not just those where the Taliban is gaining control, Massoud is more of a national anti-hero. As one friend put it to me, "You can't say in the north that he's not a hero. People will kill you. And you can't say in the south that he's a hero. People will kill you."