The Taliban are dispatching hundreds of fighters to the Panjshir Valley, 150 kilometers north of the Afghan capital, Kabul, to try to stamp out an emerging resistance movement led by the son of a warlord who defied them the last time they ruled Afghanistan 20 years ago.
The deployment comes hours after forces aligned with Ahmad Massoud’s National Resistance Front, comprising remnants of regular Afghan army units and special forces and local militia fighters, clashed with the Taliban in Andarab — a southern district in Baghlan province.
Last week, in the first stirrings of serious resistance, anti-Taliban fighters secured three districts neighboring Andarab, all near the Panjshir Valley, Massoud’s redoubt. The Taliban on Monday claimed to have recaptured the three districts.
Ahmad Massoud’s father, Ahmad Shah Massoud, nicknamed the "lion of the Panjshir,” blocked Soviet forces in the 1980s and the Taliban in the 1990s from conquering the narrow and almost impenetrable valley It has in effect one main road in and out. His 32-year-old son, who was trained at Britain’s military academy Sandhurst and was taught war studies at King’s College, London, hopes to emulate his father.
"Talibs have massed forces near the entrance of Panjshir a day after they got trapped in ambush zones of neighboring Andarab valley & hardly went out in one piece,” tweeted Amrullah Saleh, Afghanistan’s former vice president, who midweek declared himself the country’s caretaker leader after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country. Saleh has thrown in with the National Resistance Front, although his status as president is not recognized by the National Resistance Front, Massoud’s advisers told VOA in a phone call.
Ready to fight
The Taliban gave Massoud four hours Sunday to surrender the Panjshir Valley, saying they were deploying forces “after local state officials refused to hand it over peacefully.” Ahmad Massoud has been holding negotiations with the Taliban since the Islamist movement seized power in Kabul a week ago, but one of his advisers told VOA that the talks were stalled and appeared unlikely to advance.
“There has been no progress,” Ali Nazari, Massoud’s spokesman said. The talks have mainly been conducted in Pakistan via emissaries, including Ahmad Massoud’s uncle. The Taliban said it will establish a centralized government and will not be holding elections. To end his nascent resistance, Massoud is demanding elections, decentralization of government, with regions and provinces allowed semi-autonomy, and for the Taliban to guarantee civil rights.
On Sunday, Massoud told Reuters that he did not want war. “We want to make the Taliban realize that the only way forward is through negotiation," he said by telephone. He said his fighters are ready to fight. “They want to resist any totalitarian regime,” he said.
His spokesman, Nazari, talking from an undisclosed location, told VOA that the resistance movement has sufficient strength to keep the Taliban out of the valley, near the Hindu Kush and home to more than 100,000 people, including Afghanistan’s largest concentration of ethnic Tajiks. He said Massoud had opened negotiations with the Taliban much as his father did in 1995 in the hope that bloodshed could be avoided.
Last week in an article in The Washington Post, Massoud appealed to the West to back his resistance. “The Taliban is not a problem for the Afghan people alone. Under Taliban control, Afghanistan will without doubt become ground zero of radical Islamist terrorism; plots against democracies will be hatched here once again,” he warned. He added that the military stores and equipment his Front has amassed could be depleted quickly without resupply from outside powers.
Massoud has been storing arms and material for the past two years, since the U.S. opened talks with the Taliban. His local militia has been boosted, his aides say, with an influx of a few thousand former Afghan army soldiers, including members of special forces units, and volunteers from other militias from northern and western Afghanistan.
The Afghan army remnants brought with them half-a-dozen helicopters and other equipment and the National Resistance Front has a dozen or so Soviet-era tanks, anti-Taliban sources say. They also have Russian BM-21 Grad rocket launchers.
Nazari told VOA Massoud is fairly confident that he can sustain the resistance until wintertime, when the fighting would decrease, and inclement seasonal weather would halt a Taliban offensive. “The Taliban will be less mobile in winter,” he said.
“So, we believe that we can sustain the resistance up to winter. But again, it's difficult to say. It will come down to the intensity of the fighting,” he added. “If the fighting intensifies in the coming days or weeks, there might be a short window of opportunity for the West to support the National Resistance Front, and that window could shut much sooner than we expect,” he conceded.
Looking to the West
Nazari said Massoud has not asked anything from neighboring countries, including Tajikistan, which helped his father. His focus has been on Western powers. While there had been no response yet from the Western governments, U.S. lawmakers have been in contact. Last year, Massoud met in Paris French President Emmanuel Macron, a meeting arranged by the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, a longtime friend of Massoud’s father.
Nazari said: “We believe that the Western countries should stay engaged because of the threat of terrorism. Terrorism still exists. International terrorism still exists, and it will strengthen itself and will be stronger compared to 2001. You'll have an emboldened al-Qaida, you have ISIS [Islamic State]. You have other splinter groups. You have a much powerful Taliban now. So, it's very important to keep an ally inside Afghanistan. It just doesn't make sense for the Western world to abandon natural allies, people who could fight terrorism, who can resist the rise of terrorism.”
“This all has eerie but perhaps heartening echoes of the situation during Taliban rule before the 9/11 terror attacks,” says Toby Harnden, author of "First Casualty: The Untold Story of the Battle That Began the War in Afghanistan."
“The Panjshir Valley was the CIA's vital foothold in Afghanistan before 9/11. Its mountain flanks along with Ahmad Shah Massoud fighters, many veterans of the mujahideen war against the Soviet army, made it a redoubt the Taliban could not penetrate,” Harnden added.
Without outside support, military experts say it is hard to estimate how long Massoud can keep the Taliban out of the valley, and resupply will be difficult. The Panjshir has no airport and the Taliban in theory now surround the valley “Nobody can answer the question ‘how long?’ Too many variables,” a former CIA officer, who knows the valley well, told VOA. “The Soviets never really got in; and the Taliban the first time around made just a few inroads into Panjshir,” he said. And it is not clear, he added, how quickly the Taliban will be able to mount a major offensive.
Massoud’s advisers say they believe the Taliban has a lot of weaknesses. “They are not as a strong military force as we're seeing them being portrayed in the media,” says Nazari. “They have a shortage of men and are overstretched. They lack popular support. They have 75,000 fighters to control a country of 38 million,” he adds.
“A key risk for the Taliban with the resistance in the Panjshir is the unraveling of local surrender pacts the Islamists struck with tribal elders and local warlords,” says another Western intelligence officer who served in Afghanistan. “They paved the way for the Taliban all the way to Kabul,” he adds. Many of those pacts were clinched because tribal elders and others assumed the Taliban would be victorious, and “if the impression gains ground, they can be challenged, then other groups may decide to resist. Remember the Afghan saying: you can hire me, but you can’t buy me,” he adds.