Afghan resistance movement and anti-Taliban forces take part in military training in the Dara district in Panjshir (AFP via Getty)
The last battle in the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan is unfolding in the Panjshir Valley, with a rising tempo of fighting, and time becoming a critical factor in what lies ahead.
Celebratory gunfire in Kabul on Friday night led to at least 17 deaths and more than 40 injuries after the Taliban declared it had captured Panjshir. But the valley had not fallen and the opposition insisted soon afterwards that it had repulsed the Islamists and taken back territory.
The claims and counter-claims of supposed victories from both sides continue.
A Taliban spokesperson, Belal Kareemi, said on Sunday that all areas of Panjshir had been taken except for the capital, Bazarak, and another district, Rokha. The opposition National Resistance Front (NRF)’s version was: “We have allowed the Taliban to enter the valley intentionally and now they are trapped.
“This is a tactic we have used from our playbook from the 1980s, when the Soviets entered the valley. The NRF is all over Panjshir and the Taliban have suffered heavy casualties.”
The Taliban have been saying until quite recently that they would prefer a negotiated settlement in the Panjshir, in much the same way as they have taken over the rest of the country.
Edging closer to international recognition as the new government of Afghanistan, they do not want large-scale bloodshed to erupt and undermine the narrative of seeking stability and not strife.
One senior Taliban official told The Independent: “We have managed to avoid a long civil war with many dead, like the ones after the Russians left. We think that is recognised by other countries, even by the Americans, and it shows that we want peace now in Afghanistan, not more war. We have had peaceful handovers all over the country: that should happen in the Panjshir as well.”
But the negotiations have led nowhere so far. The Taliban claim the opposition has spurned their offers. The resistance say that they did not trust the Islamists, and that the terms offered would have amounted to surrender.
Fighting has meanwhile intensified. Some factions of the Taliban now seek a victory as quickly as possible, while the NRF, on the other hand, want to hold the valley in the belief that time will buy them support.
There are a number of factors at play. The Taliban are having problems forming a government. Capturing the last enemy-held territory would strengthen their position as the undisputed rulers, both at home and abroad, and, the hardliners feel, end the need to bring in moderate figures.
The head of the Pakistani intelligence service (ISI), Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed, arrived in Kabul at the weekend, and his presence, it has been claimed, may play a key part in what happens in the Panjshir.
The leadership of the resistance, especially former vice-president Amrullah Saleh, who was once the head of the Afghan intelligence service (NDS), are implacable adversaries of Pakistan, blaming the country for what has happened to Afghanistan in almost every announcement they have made.
The ISI has been accused of being linked to the Taliban and to other insurgent groups, such as the Haqqani network. One of Lt Gen Hameed’s tasks, it is claimed, is to help establish a government that would reflect the broad insurgency, including the Haqqanis and others.
His presence is viewed as being of particular importance because Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban leader, has had a fractious relationship with the Pakistani security establishment in the past, having been arrested and imprisoned in the country.
Mariam Solaimankhil, head of international relations coordination at the office of the former president Ashraf Ghani, tweeted: “From what I am hearing, DG of ISI has come into Kabul to make sure Baradar does not lead this government and the Haqqani does. There are a lot of disagreements amongst the Taliban factions and Baradar has called all his men off of attacking Panjshir.”
It is highly unlikely, in reality, that Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani network, would supersede Baradar as the leader of the new government. Pakistani officials deny that Lt Gen Hameed is getting involved in the Panjshir campaign.
But what happens in the Panjshir does appear to be an issue of division among the Taliban and their allies, and may delay decisive military action there.
Any such delay would suit the resistance. Holding back the Taliban for a month would see the onset of winter, and it would be very difficult to sustain military operations in the terrain of the Panjshir for the next five months.
The “Valley of Five Lions”, flanked by mountains, has proved a tough nut to crack in the past. The Russians failed to take it during their Afghan war. And, as the stronghold of the Northern Alliance, it withstood the attacks of the Taliban and other Islamist groups during the long and bloody civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal.
The hope among the opposition is that internal strife may surface among the Islamists during the winter break, that discontent and defiance against the Taliban may grow elsewhere in the country, and that the resistance may start getting support from abroad.
That support has proved hard to obtain so far. There has been talk among former American and British military, many of whom were deployed in Afghanistan while in service, or later as private security contractors, about Afghans abroad allegedly starting to raise funds for private forces to fight the Taliban. But nothing has come of that so far.
It is also clear from talking to US diplomats that such a move would get no support from the Biden administration, which is now on a path to establishing a relationship with the Taliban.
There also appears to be little sympathy for Saleh or for other NRF leaders among these diplomats, who are apprehensive that politicians in America may try to drag the country back into a conflict by drumming up support for the armed opposition. A number of Republican members of congress have already stated that the US should stand by the resistance.
A fellow leader of the resistance, Ahmad Massoud, the 32-year-old son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the renowned mujahideen leader, wrote in The Washington Post requesting help before fighting in the Panjshir escalated.
“We have stores of ammunition and arms that we have patiently collected since my father’s time, because we knew this day might come. If Taliban warlords launch an assault, they will of course face staunch resistance from us,” he said.
That resistance is evident from the fighters, comprised of Tajik militias and members of Afghan security forces. However, they face formidable obstacles, surrounded by enemy territory, outnumbered as well as outgunned, with the Taliban now in possession of vast quantities of western weaponry, including artillery and aircraft either captured from troops or handed over to them as the allied forces withdrew.
But even if the Biden administration washes its hands of the opposition, there is the possibility that other regional powers, caught on the hop by the collapse of the Ghani government and the Taliban triumph, may start providing support to the resistance, as they did to the Northern Alliance against the Talibs.
Saleh is now the public face of the resistance, providing a steady stream of defiant messages from the Panjshir. He says that there has been heavy fighting, and that there have been casualties on both sides, and he acknowledges that “there is no doubt we are in a difficult situation – we are under invasion from the Taliban – but we have held the ground, we have resisted”.
The opposition is bitter about the manner in which the US and its allies have walked away.
“The betrayal of Afghanistan by the west is colossal ... The scenes at Kabul airport in recent days represented the humiliation of humanity, an embarrassment for any nation that has been involved in Afghanistan since the Taliban were routed by the US-led coalition force in the aftermath of the 9/11 atrocity,” said Saleh.
“This is not only shameful for President Biden, it is shameful for the whole of western civilisation.”
Saleh says he knew that when he set off for Panjshir, it might be a battle to the death.
Speaking to the author Kapil Komireddi, he described how he made his chief bodyguard swear on the Quran to fulfil his last order: “I told him, we are going [to] Panjshir and the road is already taken. We will fight our way through, we will fight it together.
“But should I get injured, I have one request of you. Shoot me twice in the head. I don’t want to surrender to the Taliban. Ever.”
(c) 2021 INDEPENDENT