Fighting continues in Afghanistan's Panjshir valley as anti-Taliban resistance vows to hold out
- The Taliban have claimed victory over Afghanistan's last holdout province, but resistance groups there have vowed to keep fighting.
- Fighting was continuing as of late Tuesday, according to a member of the National Resistance Front, who spoke to CNBC from Panjshir on condition of anonymity due to security risks.
- A complete Taliban victory over the holdout Panjshir valley would be a devastating and symbolic blow, regional experts say.
The status of the Panjshir Valley in the east of Afghanistan remained unclear Tuesday, following Taliban statements that the militants had taken the last holdout province in the country even as anti-Taliban resistance members vowed to keep fighting.
If the claims of victory are true, it means that the whole of Afghanistan is now under control of the Taliban, who through a series of stunning battlefield gains and Afghan military surrenders through July and early August took over the country of nearly 40 million as the U.S. withdrew its forces.
It would also mean an unprecedented and profoundly symbolic defeat for a province known for its thus far undefeated fighters, who over the last several decades successfully withstood both Taliban and Soviet invasions and who were vital allies to the U.S.
Fighting was continuing as of late Tuesday, according to a member of the National Resistance Front, who spoke to CNBC from Panjshir on condition of anonymity due to security risks. The NRF is a multi-ethnic group of tribes, militias and Afghan military personnel who oppose the Taliban.
While the Taliban have entered the historically crucial valley, there is no evidence that they have taken control of it, says Kamal Alam, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, who was in the Panjshir just last month.
"Taliban have claimed they took Panjshir before without evidence. This time one thing is clear: they have definitely entered Panjshir," Alam told CNBC on Tuesday. "Taking it entirely is another matter, and yet to be proven. They have only taken parts of it at a minimal level for now, that much is certain."
First the Soviets, then the Taliban: A legacy of resistance
Alam is senior advisor to the Massoud Foundation, an organization that promotes the legacy of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the anti-Taliban resistance leader who was assassinated days before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Massoud's son Ahmad is the leader of the National Resistance Front. He is also CEO of the Massoud Foundation.
In a prepared statement posted to social media on Monday, Ahmad Massoud vowed to fight on and sought to rally others to do the same: "In no way military pressure on us and our territory will lessen our resolve to continue our fight," he said.
"Wherever you are… we appeal to you to rise up in resistance for the dignity, integrity, and freedom of our country. We, the NRF, will stand firmly with you."
The mountainous Panjshir was a den of anti-Soviet resistance in the 1980s and later persisted as one of the only parts of Afghanistan the Taliban were not able to seize.
That resistance was led almost solely by Ahmad Shah Massoud, who became known as the "Lion of Panjshir." Ahmad Shah Massoud worked with CIA paramilitary forces in the 1990s to galvanize and train local tribes to combat the Taliban, but was assassinated by the group's militants just two days before the al Qaeda terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon that precipitated the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan.
Now, Ahmad Shah Massoud's son, the 32-year-old Sandhurst Military Academy and King's College London-educated Ahmad, has pledged to carry on his father's legacy and resist the Taliban.
Ahmad Massoud has criticized the Taliban for not abiding by a resolution reached by Afghanistan's Council of Ulema, or top religious scholars, calling for a cessation of hostilities. The NRF supported the resolution.
"We considered it final and non-violable, waiting for the other side's response. Yet the Taliban revealed their true nature by discarding the resolution's demand" with their continued offensive into the Panjshir, Ahmad Massoud said.
Taliban victory would be 'huge psychological defeat'
The implications and the significance of losing the Panjshir to the Taliban would be huge, said Alam. "Not just for Afghanistan, but the world — 9/11, the end of the Cold War and guerilla warfare folklore all collide in Panjshir."
For the last two and a half decades, "the Taliban were beaten time and again, every time they tried to enter the northeast; not just Panjshir," Alam said. "However now if God forbid Panjshir was to fall, it will be a huge psychological and tactical defeat with a strategic change for the future of Central Asia too."
Emily Winterbotham, director of the terrorism and conflict group at the Royal United Services Institute in London, echoed that sentiment.
"If confirmed, the Taliban's victory over the small province of Panjshir is deeply symbolic," Winterbotham said. "It ends, at least for now, the last strand of resistance to the Taliban, a feat not achieved by the regime the first time around in the 1990s."
It would also demonstrate just how much stronger the Taliban are compared to 20 years ago. The Taliban have not only grown in size and in terms of support or acceptance in parts of the country; they also now have possession of billions of dollars worth of U.S. weapons and two decades of experience fighting Western militaries.
While the Taliban have said they intend to establish a more inclusive and conciliatory leadership than in the past, the behavior of its fighters in recent weeks tell a different story. Taliban members have killed and beaten civilians — particularly protesters — including women and children.
"Concerns are mounting that the Taliban will seek to exact harsh retribution for the resistance against the inhabitants of the valley," Winterbotham said. "How the Taliban responds is an indicator of how much the group has actually changed."
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