The Taliban today claimed they have taken control of Panjshir province – the last holdout of anti-Taliban forces in the country since the group’s blitz across Afghanistan last month.
Thousands of Taliban fighters overran eight districts of Panjshir overnight, witnesses from the area said on Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity over safety fears.
The National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRF) denied the claims, as it announced that two key members had been killed in fighting over the weekend.
In a statement on Monday, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid sought to reassure Panjshir residents as scores of families reportedly fled to the mountains ahead of the Taliban’s arrival: ‘We give full confidence to the honourable people of Panjshir that they will not be subjected to any discrimination, that all are our brothers, and that we will serve a country and a common goal,’ the statement read.
Later on Monday, Mujahid repeated the claims in a televised press conference, saying the NRF ‘gave negative answers’ when the Taliban tried to negotiate.
A spokesman for the NRF told the BBC that the province had not been captured, adding that the rebels ‘continue to fight’ the Taliban and are present in ‘all strategic positions’.
‘The Taliban haven’t captured Panjshir I am rejecting Taliban claims,’ NRF spokesman Ali Maisam said.
The group also tweeted: ‘The struggle against the Taliban & their partners will continue until justice & freedom prevails.’
Two NRF leaders – spokesman Fahim Dashti and General Abdul Wudod Zara – were killed in fighting over the weekend.
The Taliban said on Monday they have taken control of Panjshir province north of Kabul, the last holdout of anti-Taliban forces in the country and the only province the Taliban had not seized during their blitz across Afghanistan last month. Pictured: NRF fighters in Panjshir on Tuesday
NRF forces, seen here in an undated picture, observe from a hill in Panjshir province
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told a news conference on Monday that the group had seized control of Panjshir
Pictured: The Taliban reportedly use American-made handcuffs to restrain Panjshiri prisoners
A spokesman for the NRF told the BBC that the province had not been captured, adding that the rebels ‘continue to fight’ the Taliban and are present in ‘all strategic positions’. Pictured: NRF fighters in Panjshir
Dashti was killed in a battle on Sunday, according to the group’s Twitter account. Dashti was the voice of the group, a prominent media personality during previous governments and an important member of Afghanistan’s Jamiat political party.
He was also the nephew of Abdullah Abdullah, a senior official of the former government who is involved in negotiations with the Taliban on the future of Afghanistan.
The Taliban stepped up their assault on Panjshir on Sunday, tweeting that their forces had overrun Rokha district, one of largest of eight districts in the province. Several Taliban delegations have attempted negotiations with the holdouts there, but talks have failed to gain traction.
However, on Sunday, the NRF offered peace talks to the the Taliban after the militants advanced deep into Panjshir.
But in response, the Taliban warned the National Resistance Front (NRF) that they must surrender or face death as their ‘victory is inevitable’.
The anti-Taliban forces had been led by the former vice president, Amrullah Saleh, and also the son of the iconic anti-Taliban fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud who was killed just days before the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
Nestled in the towering Hindu Kush mountains, the Panjshir Valley has a single narrow entrance. Local fighters held off the Soviets there in the 1980s and also the Taliban a decade later under the leadership of Massoud.
Massoud’s son Ahmad had issued a statement Sunday, calling for an end to the fighting that had been blistering in recent days. The young British-schooled Massoud said his forces were ready to lay down their weapons but only if the Taliban agreed to end their assault. Late on Sunday dozens of vehicles loaded with Taliban were seen swarming into Panjshir Valley.
There has been no statement from Saleh, Afghanistan’s former vice president who had declared himself the acting president after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country on August 15 as the Taliban reached the gates of the capital. The Taliban subsequently entered the presidency building that day.
Ahmad Massoud (pictured centre in 2019), the leader of the Afghan National Resistance Front said he would stop the fighting with the Taliban in the province of Panjshir but the Islamist militants were not willing to talk
The offer of peace talks followed analysis that the resistance could collapse in a ‘fight to the death’, while a top US general warned Afghanistan still faces a wider civil war that could fuel the resurgence of terror groups like ISIS.
The stark warning came as the country’s former vice-president Amrullah Saleh said Afghanistan was on the brink of collapsing into a ‘large-scale humanitarian crisis’, with food and money becoming increasingly scarce.
The Taliban is pushing ahead to crush resistance forces defending the mountainous Panjshir Valley, led by Saleh and Ahmad Massoud – the son of legendary anti-Taliban commander Ahmad Shah Massoud.
Thousands of Taliban fighters moved towards Panjshir from four directions on Sunday in an attempt to claim total rule of Afghanistan after they had defeated the NRF at mountain outposts, reports The Times.
Massoud, the leader of the NRF, said in a Facebook post that he would stop the fighting and instead negotiate with the Taliban but the Islamist militants were not willing to talk.
Massoud said: ‘The NRF in principle agree to solve the current problems and put an immediate end to the fighting and continue negotiations.
‘To reach a lasting peace, the NRF is ready to stop fighting on condition that Taliban also stop their attacks and military movements on Panjshir and Andarab,’ he said, referring to a district in the neighbouring province of Baghlan.
But in response, one of the Taliban’s commanders, Maulawi Mohammed Faruq, told The Times: ‘Our message to the Panjshir resistance leaders is ‘surrender’.
‘We don’t want to kill you… but surrender you must. Our victory is inevitable.’
A suspected ISIS member sits blindfolded in a Special Forces’ car in Kabul, Afghanistan
Damaged Afghan military helicopters inside Kabul airport, which has opened to some flights
Passengers disembark as they arrive in Kabul from Kandahar, following the resumption of some domestic flights to and from Hamid Karzai International Airport
Both Saleh and Massoud have pledged they will never surrender to the Taliban, with Saleh tweeting last month that he would ‘never, ever and under no circumstances bow to the Taliban terrorists.’
At the same time, the country is grappling with an impoverished economy, having been thrown into disarray by the fall of the Ghani government and the Taliban’s seizure of power last month, with many banks in Kabul and other Afghan cities still shut and cash in short supply.
Airport closures have also threatened humanitarian aid getting trough, with one-third of the country facing food and economic insecurity, according to the World Food Programme – although as of Saturday some flights resumed between Kabul and three major provinicial cities.
The Taliban, who rolled into Kabul three weeks ago at a speed that analysts say likely surprised even the hardline Islamists themselves, are yet to finalise their new regime but are seemingly trying to appear more moderate.
In the 1990s, when the group last controlled the country, they enforced strict controls across society. Women and girls were denied work and education, men were forced to grow beards, and television and music were banned.
Taliban’s Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar meets with Martin Griffiths, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, in Kabul, Afghanistan on September 5
Crowds are seen outside exchange offices, which opened for the first time since last month
People exchange foreign currency for the first time on Sunday since the Taliban takeover
In this undated still obtained from a video, members of the National Resistance Front observe a house near Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan, where the Taliban are mounting an offensive
In the weeks since they took power, signals have been mixed: government employees including women have been asked to return to work, but some women were later ordered home by lower-ranking Taliban.
Universities and schools have been ordered open, but fear has kept both students and teachers away.
US General Mark Milley questioned whether they can consolidate power as they seek to shift from a guerrilla force to government.
‘I think there’s at least a very good probability of a broader civil war,’ said Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a bleak assessment.
‘That will then in turn lead to conditions that could, in fact, lead to a reconstitution of Al-Qaeda or a growth of ISIS (Islamic State group),’ he told Fox News on Saturday.
Afghanistan’s new rulers have pledged to be more accommodating than during their first stint in power, which also came after years of conflict comprising the Soviet invasion of 1979, and then a bloody civil war.
They have promised a more ‘inclusive’ government that represents Afghanistan’s complex ethnic makeup, although women are unlikely to be included at the top levels.
But few in Panjshir, a rugged valley north of Kabul which held out for nearly a decade against the Soviet Union’s occupation and also the Taliban’s first rule from 1996 to 2001, seem to trust their promises.
Taliban official Bilal Karimi reported heavy clashes in Panjshir on Sunday, and while resistance fighters insist they have the Islamists at bay, analysts warned they are struggling.
Resistance fighters, pictured on 2 September, say they have the Islamists at bay, but analysts warn that they are struggling and the Panjshir province could fall to Taliban forces
The Italian aid agency Emergency said Taliban forces had reached the Panjshir village of Anabah, where they run a surgical centre.
‘Many people have fled from local villages in recent days,’ Emergency said in a statement on Saturday, adding it was continuing to provide medical services and treating a ‘small number of wounded’.
Anabah lies 15 miles north inside the 71-mile-long valley, but unconfirmed reports suggested the Taliban had seized other areas too.
The Taliban had reportedly gained control of four of the valley’s seven districts and captured administrative buildings in the capital of Bazarak, reports The Times.
Bill Roggio, managing editor of the US-based Long War Journal, said Sunday that while there was still a ‘fog of war’ – with unconfirmed reports the Taliban had captured multiple districts – ‘it looks bad’.
Both sides claim to have inflicted heavy losses on the other.
The Taliban is using weaponry left behind by American troops (pictured: Taliban using US armoured vehicle) to crush the last pockets of resistance to its takeover of Afghanistan
‘The Taliban army has been hardened with 20 years of war, and make no mistake, the Taliban trained an army,’ Roggio tweeted on Sunday, adding that ‘the odds were long’ for the Panjshir resistance.
‘The Taliban army was injected with a massive amount of weapons and munitions after the US withdrawal and collapse of the ANA’ (Afghan National Army), he added.
Former vice-president Amrullah Saleh, who is holed out in Panjshir alongside Ahmad Massoud – the son of legendary anti-Taliban commander Ahmad Shah Massoud – warned of a grim situation.
Saleh in a statement spoke of a ‘large-scale humanitarian crisis’, with thousands ‘displaced by the Taliban onslaught’.
The Panjshir Valley, surrounded by jagged snow-capped peaks, offers a natural defensive advantage, with fighters melting away in the face of advancing forces, then launching ambushes firing from the high tops down into the valley.
A Taliban fighter stands guard at Sarai Shahzada market in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sunday
The United States invaded Afghanistan and toppled the first Taliban regime in 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks by Al-Qaeda, which had taken sanctuary in the country.
Western governments now fear Afghanistan could again become a haven for extremists bent on attacking them.
Washington has said it will maintain an ‘over-the-horizon’ capability to strike against any threats to its security in Afghanistan.
The international community is coming to terms with having to deal with the new Taliban regime with a flurry of diplomacy.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is due to arrive on Monday in Qatar, a key player in the Afghan saga and the location of the Taliban’s political office, though he is not expected to meet with the militants.
He will then travel to Germany to lead a virtual 20-nation ministerial meeting on Afghanistan alongside German foreign minister Heiko Maas.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is also set to convene a high-level meeting on Afghanistan in Geneva on September 13, to focus on humanitarian assistance for the country.