The winding, narrow road from Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul to its Panjshir Valley 40 miles away has always been a journey from chaos to calm.
But that sentiment has never rung so true as now.
The small, picturesque province of Panjshir – meaning “five lions” – at the foot of the lush Hindu Kush mountain range has become the last bulwark against Taliban fighters, who have seized the country at breakneck speed after America’s pullout.
For decades, thousands of mostly ethnic Tajiks have protected Panjshir’s prized oasis of emerald rivers and rolling hills. Snipers loyal to the province are always hidden in its ranges, which serve as Nature’s garrison, while the gates of Panjshir’s valley are fiercely guarded by another dedicated band of locals.
Should the Taliban choose to turn its guns and heavy armor on the country’s last remaining oasis, it is safe to say that there will be no dropping guns and dashing by Panjshir’s residents.
“We will be resisting, not surrendering. We will never surrender,” vowed Ahmad Muslem Hayat, a former Afghan Embassy defense attache in London, security expert and Panjshiri native, to The Post. “People in Panjshir will never surrender to terrorists — we will all die before that happens.”
In the immediate aftermath of Kabul’s fall to the insurgents Sunday, high-ranking Afghanistan government officials immediately directed helicopters and armored vehicles to be sent to Panjshir before the equipment could be seized by the Taliban.
A number of Afghan Special Forces and security personnel who rebuffed orders to put down their weapons and accede to the Taliban also took the bumpy road into the province before the Taliban could seal the city’s entries and exits.
And while the Taliban have claimed Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar to be the embattled nation’s rightful leader, First Vice-President (FVP) of Afghanistan Amrullah Saleh relocated to Panjshir on Sunday and declared himself the president. Citing the country’s constitution, he reiterated in a statement that “in the event of escape, resignation or death of the President, the FVP becomes the caretaker President.
“I am currently inside my country and am the legitimate caretaker President. I am reaching out to all leaders to secure their support and consensus,” Saleh said — after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country under siege Sunday.
According to Hayat, several other high-ranking government leaders – including its minister of defense and some provincial commanders – are in Panjshir, too, to mobilize assets and prepare to defend the mosaic of land as the region makes what could be its last stand against the Taliban.
The treasured area is now presided over by 32-year-old, British-educated Ahmad Massoud, who commands thousands of deeply dedicated fighters to protect the parcel and is the son of late national hero and anti-Soviet resistance fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud.
Dubbed the “Lion of Panjshir,” Massoud, a prominent mujahadeen and Northern Alliance chieftain, developed tight ties with the West, only to be assassinated by al-Qaeda operatives two days before planes assailed the Twin Towers n Sept. 11, 2001.
But while the battle-hardened and deeply proud Panjshiris are mobilized and ready for battle to keep their province safe, some fear that the Taliban’s strategy is to squeeze them in other ways.
“Right now, things are quiet. But the worry is that the Taliban will form a blockade around Panjshir and force our hand in not being able to bring in food and urgent supplies,” Hayat explained. “This is the problem. We need support from the international community.”
Another Panjshir-based official said the fertile and self-sustaining province had enough food and medical supplies to sustain itself through the notoriously harsh winter.
“This location is very important, and we can survive for a while,” he said, speaking on background. “If we can keep resisting there, it will be a big headache for all terrorists groups there.”
But after that, times could be tough.
Panjshir officials declined to give precise figures as to how many fighters they have in the area, but it is believed to be in excess of 6,000. It is believed that they really need are heavy weapons and support, something they say they never received from the Ghani-led administration.
Several Panjshiris also expressed concern about revenge killings, given their long and bloody history with the Taliban, although the militant organization’s leadership has pledged not to retaliate against such Afghans.
The Panjshir Valley remains the only parcel of Afghan soil that has never succumb to Taliban control, including during the militant group’s previous reign from 1996 to 2001.
And throughout much of the US-led occupation of Afghanistan, which saw blood stain most of the landlocked country, Panjshir remained largely untouched as a result of its same devoted force of locals.
But because the hidden valley also was not subject to conflict and calamity, it was often left off the budget of US humanitarian programs and rarely the recipient of the aid funds allocated to other areas.
Today, much of the Panjshir Valley does not have running water and electricity, with most residents relying on generators for a few hours per day. But the area also is beautifully reflective of a time long ago – featuring mud huts carved from the earth and fringed by mulberry and stone fruit trees and donkey carts moving through the swirls of morning mist.
Submerged beneath its earth and into its rocks lies one of the world’s largest untouched arsenals of emeralds, ripe for extraction should there ever be a business boom there.
Meanwhile, there also remains a symbol of how the province previously beat back invaders: remnants of destroyed Soviet tanks and machine guns dotting its landscape and languishing in its gushing waters.
While the future of this oasis carved into the middle of madness remains uncertain, its inhabitants’ will to fight is staunchly in place.
“Twenty years, and the US now has a Terrorstan,” Hayat said, referring to an infamous nickname for the country. “Panjshiris will not, will never, accept this.”