Samson tearing open the lion’s mouth: will Panjshir fall to the Taliban?

11:09 06.09.2021 • Alexander Sheffner , expert of International institute for Political Information

In their effort to demonstrate their strength to the international community, the Taliban have announced that the country will be governed by a 12-member political council. Seven candidates have been agreed so far, among them the country’s former president, Hamid Karzai. This is obviously an attempt by the Taliban to show that they are no strangers to compromises with their recent foes. Secondly, Ahmad Massoud, the son of the onetime leader of the Northern Alliance, Ahmad Shah Massoud, who has moved to Panjshir Valley, calling for resistance against the Taliban, was given four hours to surrender. The ultimatum was rejected, and the clout of the Taliban regime now depends on its ability to bring this northern province to heel.

Experts doubt that Panjshir will be able to organize effective resistance to the Taliban. Right now, it is very hard to understand what exactly is happening in the Afghan provinces, since there are neither media offices there nor any credible sources of information to rely on. The conflicting parties give conflicting information about what is happening. The situation is unstable, with both sides claiming to be gaining the upper hand. Reuters writes, citing three sources in the Taliban, that Taliban forces have taken control of all of Afghanistan, including the Panjshir Valley.

"By the grace of Allah Almighty, we control the whole of Afghanistan. The troublemakers have been defeated, and Panjshir is now under our command," the agency quotes one of the Taliban commanders. It was not possible to confirm these reports from independent sources. Meanwhile, former Vice President Amrullah Saleh, who, following the flight of President Ashraf Ghani said that he would keep fighting on, has denied rumors circulated by social networks that he had fled the country. As proof, he sent a video message where he dismissed the reports about his flight as “totally baseless.”

“There is no doubt that the situation is difficult, we are under an invasion by the Taliban,” Saleh said. "They had victims, and we had victims. Yesterday I attended the funeral of my fallen brothers who died in this sacred and holy defense of Afghanistan. But we will not surrender," he added, tweeting that the resistance continues.

The Panjshir Gorge is more than just Afghanistan’s gateway to China – it is also a zone predominantly populated by Afghan Tajiks. Afghanistan is an ethnic patchwork with Tajiks traditionally living in the North and Pashtuns - in the South. Until recently, many generations of Afghans peacefully coexisted for centuries. No longer. The Taliban are mostly ethnic Afghans or Pakistani Pashtuns. Many Arabic-speaking extremists from al-Qaeda and ISIS, who have arrived from Syria and Iraq, have joined forces with the Taliban. Supporters of Massoud and the part of the army that remains loyal to the democratic government of Afghanistan, led by former Vice President Amrullah Saleh who, after the flight of President Ghani, declared himself the country’s lawful new leader, are mostly Tajiks. There are many other people in Afghanistan, who do not want to live under the control of radical Islamists, however, but it is the Tajiks who have become the Taliban’s number one enemy. Saleh and Massoud are both Tajiks, as are the indigenous inhabitants of Panjshir. The Taliban do not want to repeat the mistake they made 25 years ago, because it was from this mountain valley that the Northern Alliance troops launched an offensive against Kabul back in 2001, which, by the way, was captured with little ground support from the international coalition forces. This time, the leaders of the Taliban and their allies will try to clear out the rebel provinces no matter what.

Why doesn't Massoud give up and swallow the Taliban's bait? It's simple: he knows full well that radical Islamists are planning a total genocide of the recalcitrant valley. The Russians did not think about this when they fought the lion cub's "father," but for radical extremists this is normal behavior. Moreover, Panjshir is a relatively prosperous province, which has long been spared the horrors of war and so it could be an ideal place for Afghan and Pakistani Pashtuns to settle in. Local residents would either die or flee to overpopulated and impoverished Tajikistan, leaving their homes to new owners. That is why Massoud's people are fighting for their lives. And so far, they have been successful.

Meanwhile, Washington’s new policy regarding the Taliban is a serious problem for the defenders of Panjshir. Indeed, by surrendering the country to the Islamists, the Americans recognized them as negotiable partners. The White House even described the Taliban as being "completely different" from the 2001 terrorists. The new rulers in Kabul are now counting on international recognition and are even ready to pretend that they seek a dialogue with all of the country’s political forces. Shooting musicians and killing former employees of US military bases point to the exact opposite though, but the West is ready to ignore this. After all, the Taliban allowed a peaceful evacuation from the Kabul airport. Therefore, the radical Islamist leaders offered Massoud Jr. and his supporters peace talks, declaring their readiness to give the National Salvation Front a couple of seats in the government.

If the defenders of Panjshir had agreed to such conditions, they would have been disarmed and eliminated. The Taliban leaders were well aware of how their proposal would be perceived. The only reason why they made the offer was to show everyone their desire to negotiate in order to achieve international recognition as soon as possible. In fact, the Haqqani Network, a Taliban ally, began fighting in Panjshir without even waiting for the ultimatum to expire despite the fact that Massoud and his supporters had not abandoned the negotiations and proposed their candidacies for the new government. This did not sit well with the Taliban, of course.

However, taking control over the Panjshir Gorge has never been an easy matter. Massoud fought back and even went on the offensive. His supporters in Andarab rebelled and seized a number of key points. By the morning of September 4, the advancing radical extremists had been cut off and trapped by the forces of the National Resistance Front with Massoud announcing the loss of 1,200 enemy fighters. The future of the Afghan Tajiks’ last stronghold remains unclear though, since the Taliban now control 90 percent of the country’s territory and have at their disposal billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment. Meanwhile, the last remaining defenders of the legal regime are trapped in the north of the country, with the pro-Taliban Pakistan on the southern side. Their Western allies have simply forgotten about them and are now ready to negotiate with the Taliban. Moreover, they obviously will not discuss the independence or broad autonomy of Panjshir and Andarab. It looks like Massoud will be forsaken!

Meanwhile, Tajiks are not the only ethnic minority ready to stand up to the Taliban. An equally unenviable fate awaits the Uzbeks, who account for almost ten percent of the country population. They even have their own leader, a combat general, and now Marshal Dostum, who, unlike Massoud Sr., studied in the Soviet Union and served in the government troops of the old republic. With the father of the "lion cub" they alternately fought each other or acted as allies, united by their hatred of the Taliban. The problem is, however, that in mid-August the old soldier suddenly fled to Uzbekistan along with his loyal units! Although a very controversial figure (suffice it to mention his alleged predilection for alcohol, which is taboo in a country with Islamic traditions), Dostum is very popular in the non-Pashtun north. And still, the onetime hero of the country's liberation movement has disappeared from the media’s radar, although, together with Massoud Jr., he could try to protect the Uzbek regions of Afghanistan. Something has forced Dostum to keep a low profile though.

Along with the “lion cub,” Vice President Abdullah Saleh, an ethnic Tajik, is the only one ready to share the fate of his people. Their National Resistance Front can hold out in the gorges of Panjshir for a very long time even in the conditions of modern war, though not indefinitely. And for much shorter without ammunition and outside support. With the fall of the National Resistance Front the world will face a new unprecedented genocide, which may well go unnoticed, and the Taliban, having cleared the country of ethnic minorities and rebels, will set their sights on their neighbors, because, despite its love of ethnic cleansing, radical Islamism knows no borders...

The Taliban’s quick seizure of Afghanistan is an exact replay of what happened there 25 years ago, albeit in a "quick view" mode. Just like then, radical Islamists have managed to gain control over the entire territory of the country, except for the Panjshir Valley and its environs. It was there that part of the army, who did not like the idea of living according to medieval rules imposed by the Taliban and al-Qaeda, fell back to. And it is where the betrayed "lion cub of Panjshir" - Ahmad Massoud Jr., the son of the legendary leader of the Northern Alliance, is now fighting. Time will show if he can become a lion like his father.

Many observers of the situation in Afghanistan are also doubtful of the United States’ and European Union’s desire to resolve the "Afghan issue." Moreover, judging by the statement already made by the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, who noted that Russia and China should not be allowed to fill the vacuum created in Afghanistan, Western politicians are behaving provocatively and unconstructively. Well, the impression is that the tragic events of September 11 have been forgotten.