The Panjshir Valley north of Afghanistan’s capital Kabul is the final major centre of resistance to the Taliban, but analysts say the fighters gathered there will struggle if the Islamist hardliners launch a full-scale attack.
Surrounded by the high peaks of the Hindu Kush north of Kabul, the Panjshir has long had a reputation as a bastion of resistance; legendary military commander Ahmad Shah Massoud successfully defended it during the Soviet-Afghan War and the civil war with the Taliban up to his death in 2001.
Amrullah Saleh, the country’s vice president and a key powerbroker under the Western-backed governments of the last two decades, and Ahmad Massoud, the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, have both taken refuge in the area and called for an uprising against the Taliban.
“The resistance for the moment is just verbal because the Taliban have not yet tried to enter the Panjshir," Afghan specialist Gilles Dorronsoro from Sorbonne University in Paris told AFP.
“The Taliban only need to lock down the Panjshir, they don’t even have to go in there," he added.
Abdul Sayed, an independent researcher based in Lund in Sweden, said he did not share Massoud’s optimism for the chances of resistance.
“The Taliban surround Panjshir from all sides and I don’t think Massoud’s son can resist much more than a couple of months. For the moment, he does not have any really strong support," Sayed told AFP.
Analysts are also sceptical about whether modern-day anti-Taliban forces would be able to take on the victorious militant group, which has added the government’s US-supplied military hardware to its armoury.
“It’s not easy to walk in [to Panjshir], it is high peaks and passes, but the Taliban military are far stronger,” said a person with knowledge of the province’s security situation to Financial Times. “The resistance forces are absolutely no match,” he added.
Romain Malejacq, author of Warlord Survival, a book on Afghanistan’s militia leaders, said the younger Massoud had “charisma and ability” as well as “the legitimacy of his name”, but he was “extremely young and has no experience fighting”.
Meanwhile, Ahmad Massoud said on Sunday he hoped to hold peaceful talks with the Islamist movement that seized power in Kabul a week ago but that his forces were ready to fight.
“We want to make the Taliban realise that the only way forward is through negotiation," he told Reuters by telephone from his stronghold in the Panjshir valley northwest of Kabul, where he has gathered forces made up of remnants of regular army units and special forces as well as local militia fighters.
“We do not want a war to break out."
The comments came as a statement on the Taliban’s Alemarah Twitter feed said hundreds of fighters were heading towards Panjshir “after local state officials refused to hand it over peacefully". A short video showed a column of captured trucks with the white Taliban flag but still bearing their government markings moving along a highway.
However, there was some uncertainty about whether the operation by Taliban forces had begun or not. A Taliban official said an offensive had been launched on Panjshir. But an aide to Massoud said there were no signs that the column had actually entered the narrow pass into the valley and there had been no reports of fighting.
In the only confirmed fighting since the fall of Kabul on Sunday, anti-Taliban forces took back three districts in the northern province of Baghlan, bordering Panjshir last week.