Of Lions and Horses in the Panshir

Feb 23, 2011   //   by LouBu   //   culture, long, photos, videos  //  4 Comments

Last Fri­day morn­ing we headed off at first light from the muddy streets of Kabul. We wound our way north, past Bagram, where ISAF is head­quar­tered, and took a sharp turn east in the vil­lage of Jebal Seraj. We’d decided to take a day long pil­grim­age, of sorts, to the tomb of Ahmad Shah Masoud. His grave lies deep his home­land of the Pan­shir Val­ley which he so famously defended against the long and ardu­ous Soviet attack.

View From a Tank
Masoud is arguably Afghanistan’s biggest hero. Through­out Afghanistan his pic­ture is dis­played in car win­dows, posted on build­ings, or memo­ri­al­ized in woven blan­kets. The day he was assas­si­nated, Sep­tem­ber 9, 2001, by sus­pected Al Qaeda agents pos­ing as jour­nal­ists, is a national hol­i­day. He earned his title “The Lion of the Pan­shir” defend­ing his home turf from the Sovi­ets dur­ing the attacks of the 1980s. Lions are intrin­si­cally part of Pan­shir cul­ture. The word itself means “Five Lions” and we saw elec­tion posters for a can­di­date whose sym­bol was four of the majes­tic beasts. (Each can­di­date is “ran­domly assigned” a visual sym­bol so illit­er­ate peo­ple can rec­og­nize their can­di­date on the bal­lot. It’s well known that with the right funds and con­nec­tions it is pos­si­ble to influ­ence on this “ran­dom assign­ment.” One polit­i­cal party paid for all of its can­di­dates in dif­fer­ent races to have apples for icons, to present uni­for­mity to its illit­er­ate supporters.)

Dur­ing the Soviet inva­sion of the 1980’s the Lion of the Pan­shir and his mujahideen fight­ers would descend from the val­ley, attack the Soviet sup­ply chains head­ing across the Salang pass to Kabul, and retreat with their stolen booty. The Sovi­ets tried to dis­lodge him from the val­ley in ten sep­a­rate offen­sive attacks. All of them failed.

When the com­mu­nists fell from power Masoud served in the mujahideen gov­ern­ment as Min­is­ter of Defense for the few years before the Tal­iban took power. He then retreated back to his val­ley, from where he con­tin­ued fight­ing the Tal­iban, (until the bomb hid­den in the dis­guised jour­nal­ists’ cam­era made him a mar­tyr.) When he died he was the leader of the North­ern Alliance, or the United Islamic Front-an unprece­dented multi-ethnic group of lead­ers who fought against the Tal­iban gov­ern­ment and, once the US began car­pet bomb­ing post Sep­tem­ber 11, took con­trol of Afghanistan.

The Chief of Martyrdom's Hill
In 2002 Mosoud was post humously nom­i­nated for a Nobel Peace Prize. (How­ever, the prize can only be awarded to a liv­ing per­son.) He was buried 30 km from the entrance to the val­ley, near the vil­lage that was his home. Orig­i­nally it was a plain, sim­ple grave on a large prom­e­nade over­look­ing the val­ley, but recently a mas­sive mar­ble struc­ture has been erected over the grave, with plans already in con­struc­tion to add a large mosque and build­ing com­plex to the site.

Masoud Monilith
This was our ini­tial des­ti­na­tion as we made our way up the val­ley, dri­ving along­side the Pan­shir river, stop­ping to climb around in the rusted shells of dis­carded tanks and heli­copters, until we reached the hill­side crested with the mar­ble mono­lith. We paid our respects to the great hero, along side with a steady stream of oth­ers, local and vis­i­tors, who often stopped to pray at the holy grave site.

Taliban Seal
The path approach­ing the site was lined with a vari­ety of Soviet armored vehi­cles, some spray painted with the Taliban’s sym­bol (were they cap­tured as Pan­shiri loot dur­ing a bat­tle 15 years ago?). A few bees had taken up res­i­dence behind the screen of one of the instru­ment pan­els, cre­at­ing a clus­ter of per­fectly geo­met­ri­cal cells, whose inhab­i­tants and mak­ers were now frozen to death by the chilly win­ter. Beyond the high prom­e­nade, fields spread out across the val­ley, sewn with snow.

Fields of snow
As we climbed around the rusty metal, the wind whipped falling snow at us prim­ing us for some hot tea, so we went in search of a chai­hana. As we drove up the val­ley we stopped to ask men wrapped in green Uzbek robes, hud­dled against the cold, where we might be able to get some chai and a bite to eat. “Fif­teen min­utes up the road” seemed to be the stan­dard response. After a few incar­na­tions of this, the road finally passed through a tiny town cen­ter, com­plete with a mosque, a few stores, and exactly one place to get food.

We stomped in and hud­dled near the fire they lit for us. After real­iz­ing all they had was beef broth and tea, so Najib took charge and sent the employ­ees to the bazar for sup­plies and then ended up cook­ing up the meal him­self. I’ve encoun­tered few restau­rants where you bring your own food and cook for yourself.

Najib gives the thumbs up

Grate­ful to be out of the car and out of the cold, we relaxed on the raised wooden plat­form cov­ered in car­pets. The other patron across the way started chat­ting with us. We learned from him that every Fri­day in win­ter the vil­lage played Buzkashi on a field just down the street. They were now on a break for prayer, but would resume the game in an hour. He invited us to come watch.

Buzkashi is the national sport of Afghanistan. It’s a win­ter sport, played on horses, some­what like polo. Two teams com­pete to grab a dead goat and trans­port it across a field into one of two goal cir­cles. Usu­ally two vil­lages com­pete against one another and there are cash prizes for the play­ers who score goals.

The match we saw was played in a large field of mud and snow. A clump of play­ers reared their mounts, smash­ing and push­ing one another in attempts to reach down and scoop the 36 kilo dead goat off the ground. Many of the play­ers wore Soviet tanker hats. When asked how they acquired their head­gear they answered “We took them from the Rus­sians we killed.” Four hats per tank, hun­dreds of tanks, you do the math. As they kicked and whipped and pushed, the horses’ and play­ers’ legs alike were cov­ered in muddy brown slush and the goat was inde­ci­pher­able from a bag of mud.


And so we spent the after­noon hud­dled against the cold with the entire pop­u­la­tion of a small Pan­shir Vil­lage, watch­ing horses and men fight each other to carry a dead goat across the valley.

Epi­logue: On our jour­ney home we stopped to watch some kids shoot snow­balls across a field using a long sling­shot appa­ra­tus. When they real­ized I was video­tap­ing they quickly pushed their ace sling­shot­ter for­ward, encour­ag­ing him to dis­play his tal­ent. They then taught Peretz how to shoot, applaud­ing his efforts. His num­ber two shot earned him much whasta.


Downed Helicopter

  • T$

    Some of the shots here are great! I espe­cially like “We took them from the Rus­sians we killed.” and “the goat was inde­ci­pher­able from a bag of mud.”

  • Bryces­tan

    Just found this blog today, from a friend at NDU — amaz­ing — I’ll make it to the Taj someday…

  • Bryces­tan

    J. Scott — he doesn’t work there, but I met him there the other day. I know Dave as well.

  • Christi­nasc

    Hey Peretz,

    This arti­cle just popped into my inbox today. I thought it might be of inter­est to you.


    Afghanistan’s Will­ing Entre­pre­neurs: Sup­port­ing Private-Sector Growth in the Afghan Economy

    Despite ongo­ing secu­rity chal­lenges, the Afghan pri­vate sec­tor has enor­mous oppor­tu­nity for devel­op­ment and growth and will be a sig­nif­i­cant deter­mi­nant to long-term sta­bil­ity in the coun­try, accord­ing to the Voices from the Field pol­icy brief Afghanistan’s Will­ing Entre­pre­neurs: Sup­port­ing Private-Sector Growth in the Afghan Econ­omy. Authors Jake Cusack and Erik Malm­strom are Iraq and Afghanistan com­bat vet­er­ans and grad­u­ate fel­lows at Harvard’s Kennedy and Busi­ness School.

    Afghanistan’s Will­ing Entre­pre­neurs is based on over 130 on-the-ground inter­views with busi­ness own­ers and key stake­hold­ers in Afghan cities Kabul, Kan­da­har, Jalal­abad, Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat. They describe five key char­ac­ter­is­tics of the Afghan busi­ness envi­ron­ment that have impli­ca­tions for pol­i­cy­mak­ers: 1) Afghan busi­nesses are respond­ing ratio­nally to eco­nomic incen­tives in a highly dis­torted eco­nomic envi­ron­ment; 2) uncer­tainty and unpre­dictabil­ity, not phys­i­cal inse­cu­rity, are the fun­da­men­tal obsta­cles to busi­ness; 3) busi­nesses are adapt­ing through strate­gies such as ver­ti­cally inte­grat­ing, pur­su­ing short-term trad­ing over long-term enter­prises, and “buy­ing” secu­rity; 4) many busi­nesses feel threat­ened by the Afghan gov­ern­ment; and 5) inter­na­tional actors dis­tort the busi­ness envi­ron­ment in ways harm­ful to Afghan business. .…