‘Panjshir stands strong’: Afghanistan’s last holdout against the Taliban

When President Ashraf Ghani fled Afghanistan, and the Taliban seized Kabul in a single bloodless day, the country’s long civil war seemed all but over. But within hours a group of fighters and politicians had vowed otherwise, promising to fight back from the last corner of the country not under control of the militant group.

Panjshir valley, north of Kabul in the Hindu Kush, was a resistance stronghold for decades, first against the Soviets in the 1980s, then against the Taliban in the 1990s. It is still dotted with rusting tanks from the fights of those decades.

The vice-president, Amrullah Saleh, who was born and trained to fight there, vowed it will reprise that role, after he declared himself “caretaker” head of state under the constitution the Taliban effectively seemed to have swept aside.

There are many in Afghanistan who hate their new rulers, and the history of the last 20 years serves as a potent reminder that the Taliban should not consider themselves entirely secure just because they now control most of it.

The group were themselves all but destroyed in the wake of the US-led invasion in 2001, before they reformed and fought their way slowly back to power. Part of the movement’s strength was that their austere vision is shared with some in Afghanistan, even as it repels others.

Any long-term resistance movement would draw from the same dynamic. There are many in Afghanistan who may be forced to live under Taliban rule, but will never embrace it.

The last few days have seen protests by women in Kabul, and in defence of the flag of the toppled republic in eastern Afghanistan.

Those people came out into the streets despite the Taliban’s long track record of bloodshed and ruthless suppression of dissent. One person was killed in Jalalabad city when gunmen broke up the group who had taken down the Taliban banner.

Afghanistan’s ambassador to Tajikistan, Lt Gen Zahir Aghbar, a former senior security official before becoming an envoy, promised Panjshir would form a base for those who wanted to fight on. “Panjshir stands strong against anyone who wants to enslave people," hy het gesê.

“I cannot say that the Taliban have won the war. Geen, it was just Dr Ashraf Ghani who gave up power after treacherous talks with the Taliban,” he told Reuters in an interview.

Videos released on social media appeared to show potential opposition figures gathering in what is now the only province held by Taliban opponents. Defence Minister Gen Bismillah Mohammadi and Ahmad Massoud, the son of assassinated Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, were shown alongside Saleh.

Panjshir’s geography, nestled on the edge of the Himalayas, makes it a natural fortress and for now the Taliban have not attacked it – despite their lighting sweep across Afghanistan and the capture of huge stashes of weapons, ammunitions, vehicles and other military supplies.

That may be because they are focused on structuring their new government after the previous one collapsed so fast it took even the militants by surprise.

But it may also be because the retreat to Panjshir seems – at least for now – as much political as military. The current leaders of the historic anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, who have holed up there and vowed to fight, may be bidding for a stake in the new government as well as planning a guerrilla campaign.

Na 20 years leading an insurgency, at least some in the Taliban have admitted the shift to governing a country will be a challenge. There may also be some in the group who recognise that an inclusive government could help them achieve greater legitimacy and something closer to peace.

They have asked the health minister and the mayor of Kabul to stay in office and there are rumours that ex-president Hamid Karzai, currently leading negotiations on the shape of the new government along with former peace envoy Abdullah Abdullah, could be offered a cabinet post.

Aghbar hinted at the options for a deal, saying the Taliban could become part of a coalition government that would represent all Afghan factions if they “let others live in peace and accord”.

If that fails, the option to start fighting again in earnest will still be open, although any anti-Taliban resistance may face more challenges than the group did in its long battle against Kabul and its western allies.

The Taliban had a permanent base for its leaders to run operations and fighters to rest, across the border in Pakistan. None of Afghanistan’s other neighbours are likely candidates to support an anti-Taliban movement, at least for now.

Panjshir is a fortress, but it is also isolated by its defences, which would make supplying an insurgency a challenge. And perhaps most importantly, the Taliban have funded themselves not only through drugs but covert support from allies including many of America’s regional rivals.

Washington has made clear it is all but walking away from Afghanistan. Saleh and his allies would probably struggle to find significant foreign backing.

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