The Taliban has made several decisive gains but it'll be too early to conclude that the resistance forces have completely lost the battle.
It has been a week now since the Taliban sent their forces to the Panjshir Valley north of Kabul from at least three directions in a bid to defeat the resistance forces and seize the last province holding out against the group’s rule.
This came after negotiations between the Taliban and a delegation representing resistance forces in Panjshir, led by Ahmad Massoud, failed.
Soon after the Taliban took control of Kabul on 15 August 2021, Ahmad Massoud announced that he and the people of Panjshir would resist the Taliban’s advance towards the province. The resistance was also endorsed by other anti-Taliban figures such as former Vice President Amrullah Saleh and former Minister of Defense Bismillah Khan Mohammadi.
Subsequently, the Taliban sent thousands of its fighters from Kabul, including special forces or the Badri 313 Unit, to take a position at the entrance of Panjshir Valley from the direction of Kapisa province.
Hekmatullah Zaland, Executive Director of the Center for Strategic and Regional Studies in Kabul, believes that the prospect of building a strong anti-Taliban resistance in Panjshir is unrealistic because of several reasons ranging from the Taliban capturing their weapon depots to lack of supplies and unwillingness of many influential Tajiks in the province to go for another gruelling war.
“Considering Taliban’s decisive fight so far and the fact that some elders in the province did not want to fight Taliban from the beginning, it is difficult to say that a tough resistance will be formed in Panjshir in near future.”
Zaland, however, thinks that the anti-Taliban politicians who fled Afghanistan may push for a country-wide opposition to the Taliban.
Panjshir is located north of Kabul in the Hindu Kush mountains. The long, narrow valley is divided by the Panjshir River. The valley is covered by steep mountains on both sides, with only one major point of exit and entry connecting it with Kabul and the rest of the world. For any incoming soldiers, it's a difficult terrain as entering the province means navigating a narrow gorge.
On August 17, two days after the fall of Kabul, Ahmad Massoud commissioned a delegation of four religious scholars to start negotiations with the Taliban for a peaceful surrender of the province. The delegation, on behalf of Ahmad Massoud, presented 12 “suggestions” to the Taliban.
The Taliban’s delegation included Mawlawi Hassan, Shaikh Khalid, Mawlawi Turabi and Amir Khan Muttaqi, who did not attend the formal meetings of the delegations.
Taliban agreed to all suggestions except for one, suggestion number 6, which proposed surrender of the province after the formation of the Taliban’s government. Taliban argued that they will first announce officials for the province and then people can come up with their suggestions, which will be addressed accordingly.
No tangible results
The resistance forces delayed the surrender while waiting for the Taliban to announce a new government. But this did not go down well with the Taliban. Instead of declaring the names of its new governors and administrators, the Taliban went for the battle to completely capture Panjshir.
Other suggestions included no disarming in the province, the appointment of local authorities from the people of Panjshir for a period of time and recognition of Ahmad Shah Massoud as the National Hero of the country.
Senior Massoud was a leader of the Northern Alliance until he was assassinated in 2001 allegedly by Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Mawlawi Mazharudin Fayez, a religious scholar and independent mediator from Panjshir who attended some of these meetings, said the delegations held up to 20 formal and side meetings in Kabul but did not succeed to reach a positive result.
In the process of these talks, a separate political delegation was formed, including Senator Mohammad Alam Ezidyar, MP Abdul Hafiz Mansoor, former Advisor to the President Haji Almas and 9 other MPs and politicians from several northern provinces. The delegation held one meeting with the Taliban’s delegation at Charikar with no tangible results.
The second delegation was not officially appointed by Ahmad Massoud but was endorsed by the resistance leader.
Meanwhile, on Sunday, religious scholars in Kabul called on the Taliban and resistance leaders to resume talks and resolve their differences through peaceful efforts. The scholars also asked the people of Panjshir to “pressure the resistance for talks”.
On the morning of September 6, the Taliban claimed to have captured the entire Panjshir province in an official statement by their spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid.
Three days prior to the statement, many pro-Taliban social media accounts were already posting about the Panjshir's seizure, which was followed by celebratory gunfire by Taliban soldiers in Kabul and several other provinces.
At least 17 people were reportedly killed and 41 others injured in aerial shooting by Taliban fighters in Kabul that night.
The Taliban officials did not confirm the news then and it was vehemently rejected by social media accounts associated with the resistance in Panjshir.
Noorullah Mujahid, a resident of Panjshir living in Kabul, told TRT World that the Taliban might have taken control of Panjshir or might be able to do so in a few days but this only means that the Taliban are in control of areas close to the main road. “The resistance forces and armed civilians still remain in small valleys within the province and mountains that will take months to be cleared.”
People who have initially been in contact with family and friends inside Panjshir claim that the Taliban blocked humanitarian access to the valley, not allowing food, medicine and other necessities for the last three weeks. For the last one week, communications have been completely shut and the province has had no electricity.
The fighting strength on both sides
Sources close to the resistance in Panjshir claim over 10,000 Taliban fighters attacked the province while there are at least 5,000 resistance forces fighting the Taliban. However, independent sources estimate the number of Taliban fighters to be somewhere around 4 to 7 thousand fighters. On the resistance side, it is around two to four thousand fighters. As per several local accounts, they have recruited and armed child soldiers and civilians, too.
While there is no precise information shared by any side about the casualties, it can amount to up to a few dozen on both sides. The number of casualties might be a little more on the resistance side because they are outnumbered.
During the last clashes between the Taliban and Panjshir resistance before capturing the province, two key members of the resistance Fahim Dashty, the resistance’s spokesperson, and General Abdul Wudod Zara were killed.
Some pro-resistance social media accounts claim over a thousand casualties on the side of the Taliban, which seems exaggerated.
Taliban appear to be firm in their decision about capturing Panjshir before announcing a new government. In a sound clip attributed to a Taliban senior leader Amir Khan Muttaqi, he said the Taliban held meetings with leaders of Panjshir but they failed to achieve results.
“Why should the people of Panjshir be separated while we accomplished such a big victory”, he said in his voice message that circulated on social media.