After President Ashraf Ghani fled Afghanistan and the Taliban took Kabul in a single day and without spilling a drop of blood, the long civil war in the country seemed to be over. But a few hours later, a group of fighters and politicians vowed otherwise, pledging to fight from the last area of the country where the extremist group has not seized power.
The Panjshir Valley, north of Kabul in the Hindu Kush region, was a hotbed of resistance for decades, first against Soviet soldiers in the 1980s and then against the Taliban in the 1990s. It still has rusting tanks left over from those clashes.
Vice President Amrullah Saleh, born and trained for battle there, has vowed to resume his role as a fighter after declaring himself the “protective” head of state under the constitution that the Taliban have reportedly successfully displaced.
In Afghanistan, many hate the new rulers. The history of the past 20 years is a reminder that the Taliban should not believe that, just by controlling most of the country, they are completely settled.
The group seemed finished after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, before reforming and slowly returning to power. In part, the movement’s strength lies in the fact that there are those in Afghanistan who do share its extremist views, even as they repel so many others.
Any resistance movement would adopt the same dynamic in the long run. There are many people who, no matter how much they are forced to live under Taliban law, will never accept it as their own.
In recent days there have been women’s protests in Kabul, as well as demonstrations in the east of the country in favour of the republican flag of Afghanistan. These people took to the streets despite a long history of killings and ruthless repression of dissenting voices. In the city of Jalalabad, one person was killed in aona was killed by gunmen who attacked a group that had lowered the Taliban flag.
Afghanistan’s ambassador to Tajikistan, Lieutenant General Zahir Aghbar, who used to be a senior security officer before being appointed diplomatic envoy, has vowed that Panjshir would be a base for those who wish to continue fighting. “Panjshir remains strong in its fight against anyone who wants to enslave the people,” he says.
“I cannot say that the Taliban have won the war. No, it was Ashraf Ghani who gave up his power after his disloyal deals with the Taliban,” he tells Reuters in an interview.
Videos posted on social media appear to show possible opposition members gathered in what is currently the only province administered by opponents of the Taliban. Defence Minister General Bismillah Mohammadi, Ahmad Masud, son of slain Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Masud, and Vice President Saleh have been seen together.
A natural fortress
The geography of the Panjshir Valley, located at the foot of the Himalayas, makes it a natural stronghold. So far the Taliban have not attacked it, despite their rapid onslaught across Afghanistan and their hoarding of huge quantities of arms, ammunition, vehicles and other military supplies.
They may not have invaded the area yet because they are concentrating on setting up their new government, after the previous one collapsed so quickly that it took them by surprise.
But it may also be because the retreat around Panjshir seems, at least for now, as much political as military. It is possible that the current leaders of the historic anti-Taliban group, the Northern Alliance, based in Panjshir and determined to fight back, are bidding to be part of the new government, as well as planning a guerrilla military campaign.
After 20 years at the helm of an insurgency, some Taliban have admitted that moving into governing a country will be a challenge. There may also be those within the group whoThe government’s “inclusive” government could help them achieve greater legitimacy and something closer to peace.
The Taliban have asked the health minister and the mayor of Kabul to remain in office. Former President Hamid Karzai, who along with peace envoy Abdullah Abdullah Abdullah is leading negotiations to shape a new government, is rumoured to have been offered a Cabinet post.
Aghbar has anticipated the possibility of a deal and said the Taliban could be part of a coalition government representing all Afghan factions if they “let the others live in peace and common accord”.
If that fails, the option remains to fight again, though any anti-Taliban resistance will face more challenges than the fundamentalist movement faced in its long struggle against Kabul and its allies in the West.
The Taliban had a permanent base across the border in Pakistan, where its leaders operated and its fighters rested. It is unlikely that any of Afghanistan’s other neighbors would support an anti-Taliban resistance movement, at least for now.
The Panjshir Valley is a fortress, but what defends it at the same time isolates it. Supplying an insurgency movement there will therefore be a challenge. Perhaps most importantly, for their part, the Taliban have financed themselves not only through the drug trade, but also with covert support from various allies, including many of America’s rivals in the region.
Washington has made it clear that it will leave Afghanistan almost entirely. Saleh and his allies are likely to have a hard time finding significant international support.
Translation by Julian Cnochaert