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EXPLAINED: As Taliban Claims Win Over Resistance Bastion, Here's All You Need To Know About Panjshir

Ahmad Massoud, the son of legendary resistance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, is leading the front against the Taliban in Panjshir Valley

Ahmad Massoud, the son of legendary resistance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, is leading the front against the Taliban in Panjshir Valley

The Taliban have declared victory in Panjshir Valley, although the resistance has denied the claims and says that the fight is very much on

The Taliban claims it is now in full control of Panjshir Valley, the last pocket of resistance against the group following its return to power in Afghanistan. But the National Resistance Front (NRF) says that it is still standing and its forces are committed to keep up the fight. As the US would attest, defeat in Afghanistan seldom has the ring of finality that normally closes out military engagements elsewhere. NRF says it is still in control of the heights while Taliban claims to have raised its flag in the Panjshir provincial capital. Amid this fresh twist in the Afghan tale, here’s a look at the Valley and the resistance that it has sprung.

Who Leads The Panjshir Resistance?

Amrullah Saleh, vice president under the now absent Ashraf Ghani who declared himself caretaker president, and Ahmad Massoud, son of the legendary ‘Lion of Panjshir’ Ahmad Shah Massoud, joined hands to put up a resistance against the Taliban. Saleh had said they will prevent the country’s conversion into “Talibanistan" while the junior Massoud appealed for support from the international community against the “terrorist" takeover of the country. While talks were being explored between the two sides, any prospects they may have held out for conciliation appear to have been torpedoed by the Taliban’s campaign to seize control of the Valley.

How Does Panjshir Valley Provide An Advantage?

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Located in the Hindukush mountains and surrounded by snow-capped peaks, the Panjshir Valley provides a natural redoubt for the Panjshir resistance, also known as the National Resistance Front (NRF) of Afghanistan and the Second Resistance.

It is a narrow valley with steep mountain walls running down from all sides, but it is not remote, lying only 80km away from Afghan capital Kabul. However, there is only one major approach road and fighters perched on the heights can easily hold off an invading force. Which is the main factor behind how the Northern Resistance led by Ahmad Shah Massoud fought off wave after wave of attacks by Soviet forces during their occupation of Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989 and also prevented the Taliban from overrunning the province during their first stint in power in Afganistan in the mid 1990s.

The name ‘Panjshir’ is said to mean ‘five lions’ but some say it denotes five high peaks that surround the valley, whose limited entry points and geographical location effectively shut it off from the rest of Afghanistan. The Panjshir Valley was mostly untouched by the US occupation as well, which means its inhabitants have enjoyed 40 years of being in full control of their home.

What Is The Fighting Strength Inside Panjshir Valley?

Panjshir Valley is home to about 150,000-200,000 mostly Tajik people. While there is no exact count available of the fighters who are standing between the Taliban and the last, major bastion against the group in Afghanistan, a spokesman was quoted by BBC as saying that there were “thousands of forces ready for the resistance". Ali Nazary, head of foreign relations for the NRF said that members of the now defunct Afghan military had reached the valley and joined the militia fighters there.

To marshal troops there is also Saleh, and Bismillah Khan, a former chief of the Afghan national forces.

“Talibs have massed forces near the entrance of Panjshir a day after they got trapped in ambush zones of neighbouring Andarab valley and hardly went out in one piece. Meanwhile, the Salang highway is closed by the forces of the Resistance. ‘There are terrains to be avoided’. See you," Saleh had said in a tweet earlier this week.

Photos shared on social media following the Taliban takeover have shown groups of fighters in army fatigues manning positions and undergoing training in Panjshir Valley and Nazary said that fighters from across the country who were opposed to the Taliban had moved in to join the resistance.

What Is The Size Of Their Arsenal?

In an piece in The Washington Post, the junior Massoud had said that the resistance has “stores of ammunition and arms that we have patiently collected since my father’s time because we knew this day might come", referring to the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul.

Reports say that the anti-Taliban fighters and Afghan army personnel who had landed up in Panjshir Valley had brought with themselves fresh stores of mainly light weapons and ammunition. The Afghan troops had also brought military vehicles like humvees and pickup trucks with machine guns mounted on them. And, at least one report said that, following the fall of Kabul, Afghan government officials had dispatched “helicopters and armoured vehicles to be sent to Panjshir before the equipment could be seized by the Taliban". However, it is not immediately clear if the resistance has any access to air power.

Writing in the Post, the junior Massoud, however, noted that “more weapons, more ammunition and more supplies" would be needed.

“The flag of the National Resistance Front will fly over every position that they attempt to take, as the National United Front flag flew 20 years ago. Yet we know that our military forces and logistics will not be sufficient. They will be rapidly depleted unless our friends in the West can find a way to supply us without delay," he wrote.

With the Taliban sending down fighters to tackle the resistance, reports say that machine gun nests, mortars and surveillance posts have been set up to counter any assault.

What Is The Situation With Supplies?

Experts say that one point to ponder is that Panjshir Valley’s greatest strength can also work against the fighters holed up inside. What makes the valley so notoriously tough to get into also means that getting out can prove to be equally tough. That is, the Taliban can easily block supply routes into the valley in a bid to starve the opposition. In fact, a tweet from Saleh suggests that is exactly what is happening.

Amid reports of clashes between the Taliban and resistance fighters in the Andarab region near Panjshir Valley and claims by the former that they have taken control of at least three areas around Panjshir, Saleh tweeted about an unfolding humanitarian crisis.

“Talibs aren’t allowing food and fuel to get into Andarab valley. The humanitarian situation is dire. Thousands of women and children have fled to the mountains. Since the last two days Talibs abduct children and elderly and use them as shields to move around or do house search," he said.

Is Any Help Forthcoming From Outside Afghanistan?

The biggest factor behind the Taliban being able to see off the American troops is said to be the support they had available across the border from the Pakistani establishment. From shelter to possibly supplies, Taliban could count on a safe retreat where the fighters could regroup and plot their next steps.

When the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan, it was American help — again, funneled via Pakistan and its Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) — that is said to have been seen the mujahideen beat back the occupation forces. The resistance has already appealed for weapons and assistance, but experts are not sure that they will immediately have any backers pitching in with support. That is because Washington has already said it is out of Afghanistan for good and its foreign policy focus has increasingly shifted to the Asia Pacific as it seeks to counter China’s rise.

While there may be sympathetic neighbours, experts say it is not clear how much they would be willing to extend military help at the cost of riling the Taliban. In these circumstances, Stratfor said that “we are likely to first see anti-Taliban forces move to the north to open up the border with Tajikistan and establish lines of communication outside Afghanistan to ensure resupply and perhaps even personnel and training".

(An earlier version of this article was published on August 25)

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first published:September 06, 2021, 12:56 IST