The 'Unconquerable' Valley That's the Last Holdout Against the Taliban

An armed group including former members of the Afghan National Army is holed up in the practically-impregnable Panjshir Valley. Clashes with the Taliban are intensifying, after talks failed. 
September 3, 2021, 5:27pm
The 'Unconquerable' Valley That's the Last Holdout Against the Taliban
A resistance fighter patrols a hilltop within Panjshir province. Photo: AHMAD SAHEL ARMAN/AFP via Getty Images

Clashes between the Taliban and the final remnants of armed opposition in Panjshir Valley have increased in recent days, after a futile initial round of talks to form an “inclusive” government. 

Both sides have claimed to have inflicted heavy casualties without providing any further details, and the claims are almost impossible to verify. The situation is incredibly fluid: on Friday celebratory gunfire erupted in Kabul amid rumours Panjshir had fallen to the Taliban, but in an interview with Afghanistan’s TOLOnews, former vice president, Amrullah Saleh, who has sought refuge in the valley and joined the resistance, said the reports were false.

Panjshir Valley was once an epicentre of the resistance against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan led by the legendary commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, who also kept the Taliban out of the valley until he was assassinated by al Qaeda operatives two days before 9/11 terror attacks.

The valley still basks in the symbolism of being the only area free of the Taliban across Afghanistan, and Ahmad Massoud, 32, the son of the slain commander, has managed to rally hundreds behind him under the banner of the National Resistance Front. So far, he has managed to keep the Islamist fighters at bay.

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An armed group made of mainly ethnic Tajik fighters from the Afghan National Army and Special Forces, and local militiamen who have fought fiercely against the Pashto dominated Taliban in the past decades, could pose a serious challenge for the Taliban, particularly in the valley, the physical geography of which makes it very difficult for attackers to seize.

The 115km long valley offers massive natural military advantages with its high peaks and narrow passages, forcing any advancing forces into positions that are extremely vulnerable to ambushes. The young Massoud, who has been stockpiling weapons, has made it clear he wants the region under his control to enjoy autonomous status within Afghanistan. Despite overtures to the US for assistance, none has been forthcoming and seems extremely unlikely.

Anti-Taliban forces assembled in Khenj District in Panjshir province. Photo: AHMAD SAHEL ARMAN/AFP via Getty Images

Anti-Taliban forces assembled in Khenj District in Panjshir province. Photo: AHMAD SAHEL ARMAN/AFP via Getty Images

But helping Taliban fighters are the large numbers of weaponry they have captured during their takeover of the country, including armed vehicles and machine guns left behind by the Afghan National Army after fleeing their positions. The group’s spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, confirmed that negotiations with the delegation from Panjshir have failed and that they have started an operation to take the valley.

Footage of mass armed convoys of Taliban fighters heading toward the valley was circulated on social media yesterday, and heavy clashes were reported by Taliban-friendly local media.

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Fahim Dashti, a spokesperson of the resistance front from Panjshir, denied that claims of any major advance by the Taliban fighters to the valley and said: “In the past 40 hours the Taliban launched some offensives on Khawak from the Andarab valley of Baghlan. From our side, there were local forces of various districts of Andarab, local forces of Panjshir as well as the Afghan National Security forces. They fought back very well; they defeated the Taliban on that front. The Taliban lost 40 of their personnel, another 35 of them were wounded.” 

Communications have been particularly difficult to the valley during the past few weeks, and VICE World News could not verify the exact number of casualties on the ground from both sides.

Despite a general amnesty by the Taliban, the old foes of the Islamist group have hesitated to agree to a deal like the rest of the country’s warlords. The sporadic clashes could continue, putting a serious challenge to the new government that is meant to be announced this weekend.

Amir Khan Muttaqi, a senior Taliban leader, urged the rebel groups to put down their arms in a recorded video after talks to reach a peaceful agreement failed on Wednesday, and said: “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is home for all Afghans.

“But we are still trying to ensure that there is no war and that the issue in Panjshir is resolved calmly and peacefully.”