KABUL, Afghanistan – While most of the winding road to Kabul after dark is a sleepy, dimly-lit journey as Afghans remain huddled in their homes, the massive military build-up in Jabal Sijaj, Parwan – the entry point turning toward the Panjshir Valley – is unmistakable. Hundreds of Taliban fighters stand guard in and around their armored vehicles, armed to the teeth, with high-level commanders keeping a close watch on anyone passing by.
Except for the fighters themselves, nobody is going in, and nobody is going out. Heavy clashes continue in the picturesque province of flowing mountains and steep valleys – the last resistant enclave determined not to let the Taliban take control.
Yet on Monday, chief Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid claimed that Afghanistan’s new rulers had overrun all eight districts in the province and thus have complete dominance over the entire country.
“With this victory, our country is completely taken out of the quagmire of war,” Mujahid vowed at a press conference inside the Foreign Ministry, stressing that there were no civilian casualties and adding that it was the government’s responsibility to allow militant groups to function on Afghan soil.
However, the National Resistance Front (NRF) – as the dedicated coalition of Panjshiris and former Afghan military personnel who fled to the holdout pocket have come to be known – dismissed the allegations that their province has fallen, insisting that their fight rages on.
“Fighters and civilians – thousands of them – have all gone to the mountains to keep fighting. This is not finished, we will finish them,” Moslem al-Hayat, a former Afghan military attache in the London Embassy and Mujahadeen Panjshiri Commander, said by phone on Monday. “Panjshir will never surrender. We are ready to exist for hundreds of years. We will defeat them.”
The NRF spokesman also doubled down that the Taliban’s claim of triumph is fictitious, emphasizing that opposition forces remain in “strategic positions” across the Panjshir valley.
However, some Taliban officials – speaking on background – said Monday morning that while it appeared that the Taliban has secured the main parts of Panjshir, not all the districts were under its wing.
The struggle to accurately ascertain exactly how much control the Taliban has wrangled is primarily born out of communication gaps. The new government severed internet and cell service inside the jagged mountain valley. In addition, the Taliban will not grant journalists entry, citing danger levels and the heavy planting of IEDs by the NRF.
Panjshir, the hub of the opposition and home of the Northern Alliance – which the United States closely supported during the 1980s Soviet war, throughout the first Taliban reign and again after September 11 – holds the mantle as the only region of Afghanistan never to have fallen to Taliban rule.
However, the chaotic withdrawal of the US military last month – exacerbated by the crumbling of Afghan security forces – meant that the Taliban acquired a massive arsenal of top-notch US-issued equipment. Analysts and the NRF proclaim the hefty stockpile is now being used against the very people who served as longtime Washington allies.
And for those in the firing line, it’s a bitter and bloody form of betrayal.
“They (Washington) willingly and knowingly sold out. Promised air support but in reality watched our troops get massacred or pushed every day,” the now Panjshir-based Amrullah Saleh, the former government’s senior vice president – who declared himself acting president after President Ashraf Ghani fled the beleaguered country following the Taliban annexation on August 15 – wrote to me in a text message last week. “I want to fight with our own means and not pollute our purity. I have no desire to beg help.”
On Twitter last week, he further declared that “Talibs have blocked humanitarian access to Panjshir, do racial profile of travelers, use military-age men of Panjshir as mine clearance tools walking them on minefields, have shut phone, electricity & not allow medicine either. People can only carry a small amount of cash.”
Hayat also acknowledged that while the NRF is brimming with world-class fighters who know the rugged terrain like no other, the outfit is now faced with a much larger and better-equipped enemy than ever before.
Yet even Pashtuns – who have notoriously not seen eye-to-eye with the Tajik-dominant Panjshir – that I met in Afghanistan over recent days offered secret support to the resistance group, throwing up one-finger salutes and exclaiming in hushed tones that they were behind the rebel fighters.
However, even Panjshir natives living 80 miles away in Kabul say their security has become untenable as a result of the ongoing skirmishes.
“We cannot go out of the home because it is very dangerous for us,” one young professional told me, his face ashen and his eyes wet with tears. “The Taliban is taking the Panjshir boys from Kabul and using them as human shields.”
According to multiple Panjshiris, the fear is that those from the Tajik-predominant area now in Kabul have – or will be – used to first enter districts appearing as Taliban, eliciting a firing response from NRF fighters in the mountains. Thus, this enables Taliban fighters to determine the secret hideout locations of the Panjshiris and target them back.
We could not corroborate this information first-hand, yet pro-resistance social media accounts have lamented the ongoing “genocide” against them in more ways than one – and it is claiming the lives of those at the top.
For weeks, the NRF’s official spokesperson Fahim Dashty – a prominent Afghan journalist and nephew of former government leader Abdullah Abdullah – for weeks sent me flurries of encrypted messages and video updates on the increasingly dire situation. Then, on Saturday, his communications went silent. On Sunday, the group confirmed that he had been killed in combat.
On Monday, the Taliban’s top representative, Mujahid, denied Dashty was slain at the hands of the Taliban, instead stating that he died in an “internal dispute among two commanders in Panjshir.” He also endeavored to appease Panjshir residents that they will not suffer any retaliatory measures of discrimination, pledging that “all Panjshir people and those who live in Panjshir are our brothers and they are part of our country.”
Moreover, Mujahid pledged that the Taliban sought to solve the Panjshir issue through dialogue, but they received “negative” answers when purporting to come to an agreement. However, Ahmad Massoud, 32, the leader of the NRF, said he was open to peace talks on the condition that the Taliban ceased its attacks.
I first met a twenty-something Massoud in Panjshir in 2017 alongside Hayat, his late father Ahmad Shah Massoud’s guard. Deemed the “Lion of Panjshir,” the elder Massoud was assassinated by al-Qaeda two days before the September 11 attacks in a strategic bid to hamstring US efforts to retaliate with a close in-country partner.
What struck me most about the young Massoud at the time was his calmness and clarity, carefully listening one by one to each of the elders who came to him with their community concerns. But the mere mention of ever losing grip of his father’s prized province and his soft stance wizened into something harder, something formidable.
And now, that determination is tinged with the feeling of having been double-crossed and left for slaughter.
“The international community was fully responsible for providing the Taliban with the ruinous opportunity that helped them gain political legitimacy and entitlement,” Massoud said Monday. “In no way military pressure on us and our territory will lessen our resolve to continue to fight, but only strengthens our firmness to stand in defense of our dignity, freedom and the triumph of our people until the last moment.”