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Why Afghanistan's Panjshir remains out of Taliban's reach

Rodion Ebbighausen
August 20, 2021

The Panjshir Valley is Afghanistan's last remaining holdout where anti-Taliban forces seem to be working on forming a guerrilla movement to take on the Islamic fundamentalist group.

A Mujahadeen guard armed with an AK47 assault rifle
Most of the valley's inhabitants belong to the Tajik ethnic group, while the majority of the Taliban are PashtunsImage: picture alliance/Photoshot/J. Harper

After the Taliban's swift seizure of power in Afghanistan, the Panjshir Valley in the north is the last place that might offer any real resistance to the Islamist extremist group.    

The region, located 150 kilometers (93 miles) northeast of the capital, Kabul, now hosts some senior members of the ousted government, like the deposed Vice President Amrullah Saleh and ex-Defense Minister Bismillah Mohammadi.

Saleh has declared himself the caretaker president after ousted President Ashraf Ghani fled the country.

"I will never, ever and under no circumstances bow to the Taliban terrorists. I will never betray the soul and legacy of my hero Ahmad Shah Mas[s]oud, the commander, the legend and the guide," Saleh wrote on Twitter.

A decisive role in Afghan military history

The Panjshir Valley has repeatedly played a decisive role in Afghanistan's military history, as its geographical position almost completely closes it off from the rest of the country. The only access point to the region is through a narrow passage created by the Panjshir River, which can be easily defended militarily. 

Panjshir valley map

Famed for its natural defenses, the region tucked into the Hindu Kush mountains never fell to the Taliban during the civil war of the 1990s, nor was it conquered by the Soviets a decade earlier.

Most of the valley's up to 150,000 inhabitants belong to the Tajik ethnic group, while the majority of the Taliban are Pashtuns.

The valley is also known for its emeralds, which were used in the past to finance the resistance movements against those in power.

Before the Taliban seized power, the Panjshir province had repeatedly demanded more autonomy from the central government.

Long history of resistance

Panjshir Valley was among the safest regions in the country during the time of the NATO-backed government from 2001 to 2021.

This history of the valley's independence has been closely linked to Ahmad Shah Massoud, Afghanistan's most famed anti-Taliban fighter, who led the strongest resistance against the Islamic fundamentalist group from his stronghold in the valley until his assassination in 2001.

Born in the valley in 1953, Ahmad Shah gave himself the nom de guerre "Massoud" ("the lucky one," or "the beneficiary") in 1979. He went on to resist the communist government in Kabul and the Soviet Union at the time, eventually becoming one of the country's most influential mujahedeen commanders.

After the withdrawal of the Soviet Union in 1989, civil war broke out in Afghanistan, which the Taliban ultimately won. However, Massoud and his United Front (also known as the Northern Alliance) succeeded in controlling not only the Panjshir Valley but almost all of northeastern Afghanistan up to the border with China and Tajikistan, thus protecting the region from the Taliban.

Massoud also espoused conservative Islam but sought to build democratic institutions and personally believed that women should be given an equal place in society. His goal was a unified Afghanistan in which ethnic and religious boundaries would be less clear. However, the Human Rights Watch organization accused Massoud's troops of committing massive human rights violations in the battle for Kabul during the civil war.

In 2001, Massoud was assassinated by suspected al-Qaeda militants.

20 years in Afghanistan – Was it worth it?

Son following in 'father's footsteps'

Now, the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, Ahmad Massoud, says he is hoping to follow in his "father's footsteps."

Massoud, who closely resembles his father in appearance and habits, commands a militia in the valley.

He said he has been joined by former members of the country's special forces and soldiers from the Afghan army "disgusted by the surrender of their commanders."

Social media images show the ousted vice president, Saleh, meeting with Massoud, and the duo appear to be assembling the first pieces of a guerrilla movement to take on the Taliban.

Massoud also called on the United States to supply arms and ammunition to his militia.

In an op-ed published Wednesday in The Washington Post, Ahmad Massoud said "America can still be a great arsenal of democracy" by supporting his fighters.

"I write from the Panjshir Valley today, ready to follow in my father's footsteps, with mujahideen fighters who are prepared to once again take on the Taliban," he said.

Russia also emphasized on Thursday that a resistance movement was forming in the Panjshir Valley, led by Saleh and Massoud. "The Taliban doesn't control the whole territory of Afghanistan," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

Taliban 'will win quickly and easily'

It is, however, not clear how strong this new anti-Taliban resistance movement is and how the new rulers in Kabul will react to it.

"If we can take the Taliban at their word, then Panjshir should be safe because the war in Afghanistan is over. The Taliban have pledged to stop using force, which suggests that they will leave areas not controlled by the Taliban alone. But we will have to wait and see," Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Wilson Center, told DW.

He added: "But if an organized military resistance forms in the region, I don't think it's out of the question that the Taliban will go against it. And if they do, they will win quickly and easily."

This article has been translated from German.

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