Afghanistan: militia endure ‘heavy assaults’ from Taliban in Panjshir Valley

Militia forces say they are enduring “heavy assaults” as they battle the Taliban in Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley, the final holdout against hardline Islamist control.

The Taliban face the enormous challenge of shifting gears from insurgent group to governing power, days after the United States fully withdrew its troops and ended two decades of war.

But they are still battling to extinguish the last flame of resistance in the Panjshir Valley, which held out for a decade against the Soviet Union’s occupation and also the Taliban’s first rule from 1996-2001.

Celebratory gunfire rang out across Kabul late on Friday as rumours spread that the valley had fallen, but the Taliban made no official claim.

Fighters from the National Resistance Front – made up of anti-Taliban militia and former Afghan security forces – are understood to have significant weapon stockpiles in the valley, which lies around 80km (50 miles) north of Kabul.

Former Afghan vice-president, Amrullah Saleh, one of the leaders of the opposition forces, said his side had not given up.

“There is no doubt we are in a difficult situation. We are under invasion by the Taliban,” he said on a video clip posted to Twitter by a BBC World journalist. “We have held the ground, we have resisted.”

Several other resistance leaders also dismissed reports of the fall of Panjshir, where thousands of fighters from regional militias and remnants of the old government’s forces had massed.

“News of Panjshir conquests is circulating on Pakistani media. This is a lie,” said Ahmad Massoud, who is leading the forces.

Pro-Taliban Twitter accounts aired video clips purporting to show the new regime’s fighters had captured tanks and other heavy military equipment inside the valley.

Taliban and resistance tweets suggested the key district of Paryan had been taken and lost again, but that could also not be independently verified.

While the West has adopted a wait-and-see approach to the group, there were some signs of engagement with the new leaders gathering pace.

US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, is due to head to Qatar on Sunday, a key hub for the Afghan evacuation and the location of the Taliban’s political office, though he was not expected to meet with the militants.

He will then travel to Germany to lead a virtual 20-nation ministerial meeting on Afghanistan alongside German foreign minister Heiko Maas.

The United Nations has already restarted humanitarian flights to parts of the country, while the country’s flag carrier Ariana Afghan Airlines resumed domestic flights on Friday and the United Arab Emirates sent a plane carrying “urgent medical and food aid”.

Western Union and Moneygram, meanwhile, said they were restarting money transfers, which many Afghans rely on from relatives abroad to survive, and Qatar said it was working to reopen the airport in Kabul – a lifeline for aid.

China confirmed it will keep its embassy in Kabul open.

“We hope the Taliban will establish an open and inclusive political structure, pursue moderate and stable domestic and foreign policy and make a clean break with all terrorist groups,” foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said.

Even before the Taliban’s lightning offensive, Afghanistan was heavily aid-dependent – with 40% of the country’s GDP drawn from foreign funding.

The UN has warned 18 million people are facing a humanitarian disaster, and another 18 million could quickly join them.

Qatar hopes to see the establishment of humanitarian aid corridors at Afghan airports within 48 hours, Doha’s envoy to Afghanistan told Al Jazeera on Friday.

The new rulers have pledged to be more accommodating than during their first stint in power, which also came after years of conflict – first the Soviet invasion of 1979, and then a bloody civil war.

That regime was notorious for its brutal interpretation of Islamic law, and its treatment of women, who were forced inside, deprived of access to school and work and denied freedom of movement.

This time round, the Taliban have made repeated declarations that they will not carry out revenge attacks on opponents and that women will have access to education and some employment, but there is increasing evidence from across Afghanistan that the biggest changes may be in messaging, rather than ideology.

They have promised a more “inclusive” government that represents Afghanistan’s complex ethnic makeup – though women are unlikely to be included at the top levels.

Residents also voiced worry over the country’s long-running economic difficulties, now seriously compounded by the hardline movement’s takeover.

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