Taliban fighters today advanced deep into the last holdout province of Panjshir, with analysts believing the resistance could collapse in a ‘fight to the death’, while a top US general has warned Afghanistan still faces a wider civil war that could fuel the resurgence of terror groups like ISIS.
His 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 in an attempt to claim total rule of Afghanistan after they had defeated the National Resistance Front (NRF) at mountain outposts, reports The Times.
Afghan resistance forces, seen here in an undated picture, observe from a hill in Panjshir province, as reports suggest Taliban forces have moved deeper into the region on Sunday
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.’
Massoud, the leader of the NRF, said in a Facebook post that he would stop the fighting and instead negotiate with the Taliban but said 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.
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.
Members of the Taliban Special Forces enter the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan
Destroyed Afghan military aircraft is seen inside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul
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
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.
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.
The Taliban is seeking to crush resistance forces defending the mountainous Panjshir Valley
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.