The green-domed mausoleum housing the tomb of Afghanistan's legendary guerrilla leader Ahmed Shah Massoud sits atop a windblown cliff with a breathtaking view of the lush Panjshir Valley. This was Massoud's northern redoubt over two decades of fighting against a succession of enemies, beginning with invading troops from the Soviet Union and ending with the extremist Taliban militia.
But the vista seemed lost on the hundreds of grim-faced men who trudged up the peak on a recent morning to pay their respects on the fourth anniversary of Massoud's assassination by two al Qaeda suicide bombers posing as journalists -- a strike that came just two days before the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.
"If Massoud were still alive, we would not be living like this," proclaimed an enormous black banner carried by the crowd, as a handful of parliamentary candidates looked on solemnly.
"We feel so sad and alone," said Nader Khan, 22, wiping away tears. Khan is a former mujaheddin, or holy warrior, in Massoud's militia who is now unemployed. "Massoud loved the mujaheddin. Today, nobody cares for us."
As leading members of a coalition of northern ethnic militias that joined forces with the United States to topple the Taliban rulers after the Sept. 11 attacks, Massoud's Panjshiri successors were a dominant force in Afghanistan's first post-Taliban government. But over the last year and a half, the ethnic Tajiks of the Panjshir Valley have watched with dismay as President Hamid Karzai, a member of Afghanistan's majority Pashtun ethnic group, has replaced some of their most prominent leaders with Pashtuns and welcomed former Taliban officials back into the country as part of a reconciliation program.
Now, many Panjshiris see Afghanistan's parliamentary elections, to be held Sunday, as their chance at a comeback.
As in the rest of Afghanistan, campaign posters with pictures of the contenders have been affixed to every conceivable surface of the Panjshir Valley -- shop doors, tree branches, even the rusting Soviet tanks that still litter the area. But here, where Massoud's image has become synonymous with the past Tajik glory, many of the advertisements also feature portraits of "the Lion of the Panjshir," as Massoud is widely known. His pictures are as large as, if not larger, than those of the candidates themselves. One candidate, Saleh Registani, is handing out an entire brochure of moody photographs of himself with Massoud during the years of the Soviet war.
Speaking in the tidy, modest living room of his house about a mile from Massoud's tomb, Registani, 42, complained that "right now the role of non-Pashtuns is too weak. We want the government to be a broad-based government for all Afghans." Most of the policies he proposes involve amending the constitution to transfer authority from the presidency to the provinces, a move that would considerably enhance the power of Afghanistan's ethnic minorities.
Registani may get his way. Yonus Qanooni, a polished former deputy to Massoud and the runner-up in presidential elections last October, is leading a coalition of 14 parties fielding approximately 500 candidates from provinces across the country for Sunday's vote -- the first legislative elections in Afghanistan since the 1960s. Many candidates who are not officially part of the bloc say they also support Qanooni.
Their bid presents a double-edged challenge for Karzai, who has enjoyed relative freedom to maneuver since he won the presidency with 55 percent of the vote: If Qanooni and his allies win a majority of seats, the president will likely face a highly combative parliament. If Qanooni's bloc fails to make a strong showing, Karzai may have to contend with the wrath of a sizable swath of voters convinced that the election was stolen.
Although international observers signed off on the results of last year's presidential election, Qanooni and many of his supporters still maintain that he was the true victor.
"I only accepted the results for the sake of national stability," Qanooni said in a recent interview.
Foreign election officials have privately expressed concern that Qanooni's recent complaints about the vote-counting procedures planned for the legislative elections are an attempt to lay the groundwork for claiming fraud again if he is unhappy with the results.
Interviews with registered voters from several villages in Panjshir suggest that Qanooni would find a receptive audience for his concerns.
"This is their last chance," Del Agha, 30, a wiry, sandy-haired veteran of Massoud's militia, warned darkly. "If they steal our votes again, it will be time for us mujaheddin to do something."
He spoke from his guard hut at a munitions depot next to a rushing river at the foot of a narrow valley. Around him were stacks upon stacks of forest green ammunition boxes, alongside several dozen shipping containers packed with small arms.
The arms and ammunition should have been sent to the capital, Kabul, months ago under a U.N.-run program to demobilize armed groups in Afghanistan. However, while the militia's leaders have handed over about 150 heavy weapon pieces to the government -- including tanks and Scud missiles -- they have so far proved reluctant to relinquish their ammunition stocks, according to U.N. officials.
Agha said he understood his superiors' reluctance to comply. A fighter since the age of 17, Agha said he remained haunted by memories of war: the back-breaking weight of the rockets he used to carry across freezing mountain passes, the eyes of a wounded enemy fighter his comrades urged him to shoot at point-blank range, the terror he felt as his truck plummeted down a steep ravine one night, and the pain of multiple surgeries in India to repair his spine.
The thought of handing control of the weapons amassed during those years to the central government fills him with bitterness.
"Most of those officials were off having fun in European capitals while my brothers were dying," he said.
The Panjshiris' resentment is compounded by their impression that they have received less foreign aid than southern and eastern provinces that were former strongholds of the Taliban.
Western observers acknowledge that there is some truth to these complaints. For instance, while the United States spent $190 million to build a road connecting Kabul to the southern city of Kandahar in 2004, work on a $26 million U.S.-funded project to pave the narrow main road through the Panjshir Valley did not start until last month. Officials said the delay was caused by a plan, since scrapped, to use the project to train Afghan officials and companies in road-building.
Also, because former fighters in the Panjshir were slow to disarm, they did not receive the financial compensation and job training called for in the program as quickly as counterparts in other provinces.
But analysts also say that the Panjshiris' sense of grievance is overstated.
Last month, for example, the U.S. military agreed to contribute an additional $4 million to the Panjshir road project. And this year, the government declared the valley a province, granting it separate representation in the new parliament even though its population and land area are far smaller than those of many existing provinces.
Also, while Karzai has sidelined top Panjshiri leaders such as the former defense minister and vice president, Mohammed Fahim, and the former head of national intelligence, Muhammad Arif Sarwari, many other Panjshiris remain in prominent positions -- including Foreign Minister Abdullah, army chief Bismillah Khan and the new head of intelligence, Amralluah Saleh.
"In fact, I think you'll find that the top positions are way oversubscribed by Panjshiris given their percentage in the population," said a foreign diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Still, the diplomat said, whatever the outcome of the elections, the government will have a strong interest in placating Panjshir's residents for some time to come. "In a place where there are tens of thousands of tons of weapons, it's not a good idea to have people alienated from the government," he said.