Afghanistan’s defiant former vice president, now self-declared ‘caretaker president’, made one thing clear as the Taliban seized control of the capital on August 15 following the collapse of his government — he will not surrender. It appears Amrullah Saleh has retreated to the country’s last remaining holdout: the Panjshir Valley northeast of Kabul.
“I won’t dis-appoint millions who listened to me. I will never be under one ceiling with Taliban. NEVER," he wrote in English on Twitter on Sunday, before going underground.
A day later, pictures began to surface on social media of the former vice president with the son of his former mentor and famed anti-Taliban fighter Ahmed Shah Massoud in Panjshir — a mountainous redoubt tucked into the Hindu Kush.
Saleh and Massoud’s son, who commands a militia force, appear to be putting together the first pieces of a guerilla movement to take on the victorious Taliban, as fighters regroup in Panjshir.
Why Panjshir Didn’t Fell?
The Taliban have not been able to capture Panjshir because of the location of the valley, which makes it a natural fortress. Famed for its natural defences, the valley never fell to the Taliban even during the civil war of the 1990s, nor was it ever conquered by the Soviets earlier.
Its crucial location, being north of Kabul in the Hindu Kush, gives it a geographical advantage. This was a resistance stronghold against the Soviets in the 1980s and then against the Taliban in the 1990s.
Amrullah Saleh was also born in Panjshir province and was trained there. Since it has always remained the resistance zone, it was never conquered by any forces — neither by foreign forces nor by the Taliban, a report in Hindustan Times said.
“We will not allow the Taliban to enter Panjshir and will resist with all our might and power, and fight them," one resident told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Unverified images show that the flag of the ‘Northern Alliance’ or the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan has once again been hoisted in Panjshir. This is a first after 2001.
There are also reports that Afghan soldiers, who managed to evade Taliban troops, have begun arriving in Panjshir at the call of Ahmad Massoud.
Washington Post reporter Ezzatullah Mehrdad tweeted: “Former Vice President Amrullah Saleh, Ahmad Massoud, the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, and coming in former defence minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi are forming a resistance force against the Taliban in Panjshir of Afghanistan".
Valley of ‘Five Lions’
The Panjshir valley means the valley of the five lions. The name goes back to a legend from the 10th century, where five brothers managed to contain the floodwaters. They built a dam for Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni, it is said.
Reports say that the population of the valley is around one lakh and they are mostly Tajiks. The valley has the country’s largest concentration of ethnic Tajiks.
A seasoned soldier
Such a battle would be the latest in Saleh’s long struggle against the Taliban as a onetime insurgent turned spy chief and later vice-premier.
Orphaned at a young age, Saleh first fought alongside guerilla commander Massoud in the 1990s.
He went on to serve in his government before being chased out of Kabul when the Taliban captured it in 1996.
The hardliners then tortured his sister in their bid to hunt him down, Saleh has said.
“My view of the Taliban changed forever because of what happened in 1996," Saleh wrote in a Time magazine editorial last year.
‘We will continue our fight’
After the September 11, 2001 attacks, Saleh — then a part of the anti-Taliban resistance — became a key asset for the CIA.
The relationship paved the way for him to lead the newly formed Afghanistan intelligence agency, the National Security Directorate (NDS), in 2004.
As NDS chief Saleh is believed to have amassed a vast network of informants and spies inside the insurgency and across the border in Pakistan, where Pashto-speaking agents kept track on Taliban leaders.
The intelligence Saleh gathered provided what he alleged was proof the Pakistani military continued to back the Taliban.
Saleh’s rise however has not been without its share of dramatic stumbles.
In 2010, he was sacked as Afghanistan’s spy chief following a humiliating attack on a Kabul peace conference.
Exiled into the political wilderness, Saleh maintained his fight against the Taliban and Islamabad on Twitter, where he fired off daily tweets taking aim at his longtime foes.
A return to favour came in 2018 when he briefly oversaw the interior ministry after sealing an alliance with president Ashraf Ghani, who has now fled to an unknown location.
Saleh went on to become the former leader’s vice premier.
His most recent political revival came as the United States was preparing to exit Afghanistan and coincided with a series of assassination attempts on Saleh by the Taliban.
His latest close call came last September when a massive bomb targeting his convoy killed at least 10 people in Kabul.
Within hours of the attack, Saleh appeared in a video with his left hand bandaged, promising to fight back.
“We will continue our fight," he said.
(With AFP inputs)
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