The Taliban Storm Afghanistan’s Last Bastion


By taking the Panjshir valley the militant mullahs now have a commanding position

THE PANJSHIR VALLEY, a slender and rugged groove cut into the mountains 150km north of Kabul, populated by ethnic Tajiks, was subjected to wave after wave of Soviet assaults in the 1980s. Each one was driven away by Ahmad Shah Masoud, a legendary anti-Soviet—and, later, anti-Taliban—commander whose photograph adorns Kabul airport. So tenacious was Masoud’s resistance that on September 9th 2001, days before the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaeda sent two bombers to assassinate him in co-ordination with a Taliban advance. It was in the Panjshir, too, weeks later on September 26th, that America began its war in Afghanistan with a small CIA team sent to meet Masoud’s comrades.

In recent weeks it is Masoud’s 32-year-old son, Ahmad Masoud, who has holed up in the valley, alongside Amrullah Saleh, vice-president of the government that was toppled by the Taliban on August 15th (and a former aide to the older Masoud). Yet whereas Masoud senior parried Soviet and Taliban blows for over a decade, his son’s resistance has crumbled in less than a month.

After a weekend of fierce fighting, on September 6th a spokesman for the Taliban said that the group had taken “complete control” of Panjshir province. Videos circulating on social media showed triumphant Talibs hoisting their black and white flag in Bazarak, the provincial capital. Some posed in front of the town’s gates, under a portrait of Masoud senior gazing benignly down at them. Others browsed the collection of helicopters at the governor’s house, eager to add to their ragged air force.

The National Resistance Front (NRF) of Afghanistan, Mr Masoud’s political movement, denied the Taliban’s claims. “The NRF forces are present in all strategic positions across the valley to continue the fight,” a spokesman tweeted. “The struggle against the Taliban & their partners will continue.” Ali Nazary, the group’s head of foreign relations, said that Mr Masoud was safe and would soon deliver a message. In an audio message published later, Mr Masoud vowed to continue the fight “in the valleys of the Hindu Kush, Panjshir and Andarab”. But if he is still in the country, his prospects do not look good. The region’s geography, with smaller valleys branching off the main one, means that some sporadic resistance may continue even as the Taliban stream down the Panjshir river. “Some groups will try to wage a kind of guerrilla war there,” says Antonio Giustozzi, an expert on the Taliban. “I doubt it will be sustainable,” he adds.

In the 1990s Panjshiri fighters were supplied by Iran and India—a young Mr Saleh playing a key role—and benefited from supply lines from Tajikistan to the north. This time round, the Taliban’s lightning advance largely surrounded the valley and cut off those lifelines. Though Western intelligence agencies had kept in touch with Mr Masoud, few were willing to extend significant support while the evacuation of foreign nationals from Kabul was under way. Other anti-Taliban leaders in northern Afghanistan, such as Atta Mohammad Noor, a fellow Tajik, and Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek warlord, had fled the country.

Though many Afghan commandos escaped to the valley in mid-August, Mr Masoud was ultimately left with few experienced fighters and almost no heavy weapons. One source says that as the fighting intensified, Mr Saleh fled abroad, taking the commandos with him. Mr Masoud conscripted and armed callow young men, including emerald miners, who were mown down. On September 5th Fahim Dashty, an NRF spokesman, was reported to have been killed in battle, alongside other Panjshiri officials. The Taliban deployed thousands of fighters and flew armed drones, according to a person familiar with the battles. “That was the game-changer last night,” he says. Many Afghans blame Pakistan, whose spy chief visited Kabul on September 4th, for enabling the Taliban’s advance.

Mr Masoud had hoped to hold out until the winter, when snowfall would naturally fortify the valley. His apparent aim was to cut a deal with the Taliban to guarantee the area’s long-standing autonomy. In the days after the Taliban’s conquest of Kabul, the group’s representatives met Panjshiri religious and military officials to discuss such a compromise. On September 5th, even as thousands of Taliban troops were assaulting the valley, Mr Masoud called for a mutual ceasefire and negotiations for a “lasting peace”.

That is now unlikely. The Taliban’s control of Panjshir puts them in a commanding political and military position. No force has had as unchallenged a grip on Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion of 1979. Foreign powers have little choice but to deal with them. In recent weeks, a steady stream of foreign spooks and diplomats—the head of America’s CIA, the chairman of Britain’s joint intelligence committee, the head of Pakistan’s spy agency and envoys from several countries—have met senior Taliban figures in Qatar, where the group has an office, or in Kabul. America, Qatar and Turkey are working to re-open the city’s airport, allowing commercial flights to resume.

Yet with victory comes responsibility. The Taliban have repeatedly delayed an announcement of their government, suggesting that the group is still squabbling over how to divide the spoils of victory. The Haqqani network, a semi-autonomous group with close ties to both al-Qaeda and Pakistani intelligence, has burnished its position by taking control of security in large parts of Kabul. Many eastern and northern factions in the Taliban, including those that will have played a big role in the Panjshir offensive, are irked by the domination of Talibs from southern provinces, notably Helmand.

If factional politics within the Taliban are tricky, domestic politics are even harder. In the three weeks since taking Kabul, the Taliban have faced more public demonstrations than they did in five years of government between 1996 and 2001. On September 4th the group violently broke up a protest by Afghan women in Kabul. Similar protests have broken out in Herat and Farah in the west, and Balkh and Mazar-i-Sharif in the north.

And although the Taliban say they want an “inclusive” government, the violent conquest of Panjshir will make this harder. It is “likely to not only galvanise the Tajiks but also other minorities like the Hazara,” says Ibraheem Bahiss of the International Crisis Group, a think-tank. Though the Taliban are no longer as Pushtun-dominated as they once were, and have Tajiks and Uzbeks in their ranks, few senior non-Taliban figures from those ethnic groups are now likely to join the new regime—or to wield any power if they do so. “In the long run, if the Taliban fail to manage ethnic tensions,” warns Mr Bahiss, “we will see simmering tensions in the country with a real possibility of it blowing into a full-scale conflict.”

The Economist


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