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Only one of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces has managed to resist the Taliban takeover: Panjshir, located in northeastern Afghanistan, 100 km from Kabul, is the stronghold of resistance commander Massoud, succeeded by his son, Ahmad. Images online show how resistance fighters have prepared to battle the Taliban, which in turn has shared propaganda images as a show of force. The FRANCE 24 Observers team was able to talk to a politician close to the resistance movement.
With an area of 3,610 km², Panjshir is the smallest province in Afghanistan. However, the region is surrounded by mountains reaching up to 5,768 metres, and home to 145 glaciers. This hostile environment is connected to the rest of the country by only four roads, two to the north and two to the south.
It was here that the “Lion of Panjshir”, commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, stood up to the Soviets (from 1979 to 1989) and then the Taliban (from 1996 to 2001). Massoud was head of the Panjshir resistance movement, called the Northern Alliance, before his assassination on September 9, 2001.
Today, the Northern Alliance is led by his son, Ahmad Massoud. The group has allied with several other movements to form the National Resistance Front, which aims to protect Panjshir from Taliban occupation.
‘We stockpiled weapons because we feared this day would come’
Fahim Fetrat is an Afghan politician close to Northern Alliance forces in Panjshir.
I can’t talk about the military specifics for obvious reasons, but I can assure you that we have what it takes to hold out for a long time.
We still have a large stockpile of weapons from the war against Soviet occupation, and the first wave of resistance against the Taliban in the 1990s, because we feared this day would come.
In this video published on August 24 on Instagram and Facebook, we can see the Northern Alliance’s military equipment, including three helicopters and a dozen military vehicles. The video was taken in the Marshal Fahim Stadium in Panjshir.
Thousands of mujahideen from the Panjshir region, as well as Afghan soldiers, special forces and police officers, have come to Panjshir after their towns were captured by the Taliban. They came with weapons and ammunition.
At the moment we have 10,000 trained troops [Editor’s note: there are “several thousand” fighters in Panjshir, according to BBC] and thousands of local volunteers – men from 20 to 70 years old from Panjshir – who are training in camps in the region.
There are people here from all parts of Afghanistan: from Jalalabad, from Helmand, everywhere from the north to the south of the country… That’s why we call this a national resistance, because all Afghans in Afghanistan are involved in this struggle, not just Tajiks and Panjshir.
Two Northern Alliance commanders discuss security measures in the Panjshir mountains. Video published on August 23.
‘When the Taliban say Panjshir is under siege, that’s a lie’
As for fuel, we have what we need. We don’t especially need petrol in Panjshir, the area is mountainous and you can’t really move around with cars. You need animals, donkeys or horses, or you have to walk to get around.
We get our food rations from the Salang district [Editor’s note: a mountainous district at 3,600 metres above sea level, neighbouring Panjshir in Afghanistan’s Baghal province] just like we did in the 1990s. There’s a road from Panjshir to Salang that we control. The Taliban do not have an effective presence here, since the geographic conditions are hostile and it’s hard to get around.
Even in the neighbouring districts of Kapisa and Parwan, the Taliban presence is limited to a few prisoners who were recently released [Editor’s note: after Taliban attacks in these provinces].
It takes at least fourteen hours to reach the borders of Panjshir from neighbouring provinces, and there are no places to hide. When the Taliban say that Panjshir is under siege, that’s a lie.
In this video, published by Taliban Twitter accounts on August 22, a convoy of Taliban fighters is said to be heading towards Panjshir.
However, the FRANCE 24 Observers team was able to verify two other videos published by the Taliban, claiming they were taken in Panjshir. The Taliban fighters in these videos are actually by the Gulbahar bridge in the Parwan district, around 1.7 km south of the Panjshir border. Therefore, these videos do not prove that the Taliban has penetrated Panjshir.
طالبان کے دستے وادی پنج شیر کے قریب پل پر تعینات۔ حالات کشیدہ pic.twitter.com/VjQXfTRORz
— افغان اردو (@AfghanUrdu) August 23, 2021
In this video posted on Twitter on August 23, we hear, “It is better for the people of Panjshir to find a peaceful solution, otherwise we will come in by force… We will blow up all the roads leading to Panjshir.” This clip was actually filmed at Gulbahar bridge in Parwan district, 1.7 km south of the border with Panjshir.
طالبان وادی پنجشیر میں داخل ہو گئے ہیں
شہر کے باہر کے علاقے میں موجود اعلی قیادت کے اگلے حکم کا انتظار کر رہے ہیں pic.twitter.com/CJ76b2nBKC
— افغان اردو (@AfghanUrdu) August 25, 2021
This video posted on August 25 by pro-Taliban Twitter accounts claims that fighters have reached the Panjshir Valley, and are just waiting for a signal to launch an assault. In reality, it was also filmed on the Gulbahar bridge.
On this map, the border of Panjshir is marked in blue. The bridge where the Taliban can be seen in the two videos above is marked in red.
Capacity for resistance in doubt
Although our Observer, close to Northern Alliance forces, is optimistic about the group’s ability to resist the Taliban, some analysts of the situation in Afghanistan have a different understanding. There is still doubt about the real capacity for Northern Alliance forces to hold out against the Taliban – the group has weak reserves and a lack of combat experience, while the Taliban has learned valuable lessons from their past failures to take Panjshir.
Moreover, while Ahmad Shah Massoud had international support coming from Iran and the United States, his son seems to lack it. In the 1990s, only Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates recognised the Taliban regime. This time around, China and Russia have said they are ready to work with the Taliban, while Iran and the US have already signed agreements with the extremist group.
Meanwhile, The Northern Alliance has found itself without public support from the international community. On August 18, Ahmad Massoud Jr. appealed to Western governments for aid for the Panjshir resistance against the Taliban.
For Fahim Fetrat, the Taliban have not changed since 2001, but he believes there may still be a chance for a peaceful resolution:
We are ready for a long-term conflict, but we have always preferred to achieve our goals through peaceful means. The late Ahmad Shah Massoud’s goal was to establish a peaceful system both inside and outside Afghanistan. That is, a government that guarantees equality and peace for every Afghan, regardless of religion or ethnicity. If this can be achieved through negotiations, why not?
Since August 26, a dozen men from the Northern Alliance have been negotiating with members of the Taliban in Charikar, the capital of Parwan province. They have agreed to a ceasefire until the talks are over.