Rebels clash with Taliban forces in last region to resist Islamists

‘Heavy casualties on both sides’ in the battle for Afghanistan’s last bastion of freedom: Thousands of rebel troops clash with Taliban forces in last region to resist the Islamists

  • Rebels are held up in Panjshir Valley which begins 50 miles north of Kabul
  • Both sides claim they inflicted heavy casualties in fighting on Thursday
  • Afghan NRF resistance fighters are loyal to local rebel leader Ahmad Massoud 
  • Massoud is the son of a famed former anti-Soviet Mujahideen commander 

Pictured: Afghan resistance fighters take up position during a patrol on a hilltop in Panjshir Valley, September 1, 2021

Some of the thousands of resistance fighters amassed in Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley clashed with Taliban forces again on Thursday, with both sides claiming to have inflicted heavy casualties.

It comes after the the rebel group – the National Resistance Front (NRF) – said yesterday it had killed dozens of Taliban who tried to advance into a narrow gorge at the entrance to the valley.

Following the fall of Kabul on August 15, several thousand rebels from local militias and the remnants of Afghan army and special forces units have massed in the last province resisting Taliban rule.

The rugged snow-capped valley, which begins around 50 miles north of Kabul, is the last bastion of freedom in Afghanistan.

Under the leadership of Ahmad Massoud, son of a former anti-Soviet Mujahideen commander, they have been holding out in the province, a steep valley that makes attacks from outside difficult and that has a reputation for having never been taken.

The valley has a storied history of fighting in recent years, having been used as a stronghold against the Soviets in the 1980s, and again against the Taliban in the 90s.

Efforts to negotiate a settlement between the rebels and Taliban appear to have broken down, with each side blaming the other for the failure of talks as the new Afghan rulers prepared to announce a government.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the group’s fighters had entered Panjshir and taken control of some territory.

‘We started operations after negotiation with the local armed group failed,’ he said. ‘They suffered heavy losses.’

However a spokesman for the NRF said it had full control of all passes and entrances and had driven back efforts to take Shotul district at the entrance to the valley. 

Panjshir Valley (pictured as resistance fighters take up position on patrol, September 1, 2021) has a storied history of fighting in recent history, having been used as a stronghold against the Soviets in the 1980s, and again against the Taliban in the 90s

‘The enemy made multiple attempts to enter Shotul from Jabul-Saraj, and failed each time,’ he said, referring to a town in the neighbouring Parwan province.

The spokesman said NRFA forces had also killed large numbers of Taliban fighters on two fronts since clashes first broke out earlier in the week.

‘It has been proven to the other side that they cannot resolve this issue through war,’ the spokesman said in reference to the Taliban’s losses.

Resistance fighters in the Panjshir Valley on Wednesday scope out the roads below as the defend their homeland from the Taliban

Under the leadership of Ahmad Massoud, son of a former Mujahideen commander, they have been holding out in Panjshir Valley, a steep valley that makes attacks from outside difficult

Pictured: A satellite map showing Panjshir Valley’s proximity to Kabul, which was taken by the Taliban on August 15 amid the withdrawal of US and western forces from Afghanistan

Both sides provided varying figures for the other’s casualties, without offering evidence. It was not possible to verify the numbers of fighters on either side killed.

The Taliban says the Panjshir valley is surrounded on all four sides and a rebel victory is impossible. The rebels say they will refuse to surrender.

The National Resistance Front (NRF), comprising an ethnic Tajik militia and former Afghan security forces, have vowed to defend the enclave as the Islamist group say they have it surrounded. Between 150,000 and 200,000 live in the valley.

The resistance yesterday said they had killed dozens of Taliban fighters in fighting around Shotul and Golbahar, villages at the southern end of the river valley where steep slopes provide protection from invaders. 

Video showed explosions atop the mountains amid skirmishes between the opposing forces, while others showed militia members boasting of the number of Taliban scalps claimed in the fighting. 

One man said his men had killed eight of the terrorists around Shotul, while another claimed that they had driven the Taliban from the Shalang Pass, another major strategic artery through the region. 

Pictured, file photo: Ahmad Massoud, son of the slain hero of the anti-Soviet resistance Ahmad Shah Massoud, speaks to his supporters in Bazarak, Panjshir province, September 5, 2019

Ahmad Massoud (left), leader of the Northern Alliance and son of ‘the Lion of the Panjshir’, says that no Taliban fighter has yet dared to enter the narrow gorge into the valley. Massoud was only 12 when his father, Ahmad Shah Massoud (right), was murdered by Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network.

The Northern Alliance tweeted today: ‘Don’t believe the propaganda of enemies! All the attacks from 6 sides in Panjshir were successfully defended by NRF, Taliban casualties so catastrophic that they cannot take all the bodies that lying around the border areas of the province. They have modern weapons but dumb minds.’

The Taliban earlier appealed to people in the Panjshir to lay down their arms following a night of fierce fighting around the valley. 

‘My brothers, we tried our best to solve the Panjshir problem with talks and negotiations… but unfortunately all in vain,’ senior Taliban official Amir Khan Muttaqi said, in an audio message to the people of the Panjshir posted on Twitter.

‘Now that the talks have failed and Mujahiddin (Taliban) have surrounded Panjshir, there are still people inside that don’t want the problems to be solved peacefully,’ he added.

‘Now it is up to you to talk to them,’ the Taliban message to the Panjshir people said. ‘Those who want to fight, tell them it is enough.’

Bismillah Mohammadi, Afghanistan’s defence minister before the government fell last month, said the Taliban had launched a renewed assault on Panjshir on Tuesday night.

‘Last night the Taliban terrorists attacked Panjshir, but were defeated,’ Mohammadi tweeted Wednesday, claiming 34 Taliban were killed and 65 wounded.

‘Our people should not worry. They retreated with heavy casualties.’

Residents and fighters in Panjshir, many of whom fought the Taliban when they were last in power from 1996 to 2001, offered a defiant message.

‘We are ready to defend it till the last drop of our blood,’ said one resident.

‘Everyone has a weapon on their shoulder and ready to fire,’ another said. ‘From the youngest to the oldest, they all talk about resistance.’

Afghan resistance movement and anti-Taliban uprising forces gather in Khenj District in Panjshir province on August 31

As the last US soldiers boarded their flight out of Afghanistan in the Kabul dark late Monday, residents of Panjshir said the Taliban had attacked the valley on two fronts – the Khawak pass in the west, and from Shotul to the south.

‘Perhaps they wanted to try their luck,’ NRF official Fahim Dashti said in a video posted Tuesday by the US broadcaster Voice of America’s Dari language service.

‘By the grace of God, luck wasn’t on their side.’

Dashti reported seven or eight Taliban fighters were killed in Monday’s clashes along with one or two resistance fighters.

The Panjshir has immense symbolic value in Afghanistan as the area that has resisted occupation by invaders.

‘We defended it during the era of the Russians, the era of the British, the previous era of the Taliban… we will continue to defend it,’ one fighter said.

Ahmad Massoud, one of the NRF’s leaders, is the son of the late guerrilla commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was dubbed the ‘Lion of Panjshir’ for holding out, first against Soviet and then Taliban forces.

The valley has limited entry points and its geography offers a natural military advantage – defending units can use high positions to effectively target attacking forces. 

Afghan resistance movement and anti-Taliban uprising forces gather in Panjshir 

This week, Panjshir fighters held military training in a show of force, with men carrying heavy logs on their shoulders crossing chest-deep icy rivers.

Above their armoured vehicles and over their bases fluttered their flag, a challenge to the Taliban’s white banner now hauled up across the rest of the country.

Many Afghans are terrified of a repeat of the Taliban’s initial rule from 1996 to 2001, which was infamous for their treatment of girls and women, as well as a brutal justice system.

The NRF has set up machine gun nests, mortars and surveillance posts fortified with sandbags in anticipation of a Taliban assault.

Communications are difficult with the valley, with Taliban forces on three sides. Internet into Panjshir has been on and off repeatedly in recent days.

Reports of fighting in the region come as the Taliban are set to unveil their new government today. Meanwhile, the country’s economy teeters on the verge of collapse amid food shortage warnings.

Pictured: Taliban fighters take control of Afghan presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, August 15, 2021. Now, Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers are set to unveil their new government as the country’s economy is on the verge of ruin

The impending announcement comes more than two weeks after the Islamist militia captured Kabul and brought a chaotic and deadly end to 20 years of war, with the Taliban now back in control of the country as they were from 1996 to 2001.

Taliban official Ahmadullah Muttaqi said on social media a ceremony was being prepared at the presidential palace in Kabul after the US withdrawal, while private broadcaster TOLONews said an announcement on a new government was imminent.

Meanwhile, one-third of the country is facing food insecurity and is in desperate need of funds, according to the World Food Programme amid warnings of a humanitarian crisis in the country. 

The legitimacy of the new government in the eyes of international donors and investors will be crucial for the economy as the country battles drought and the ravages of a conflict that took the lives of an estimated 240,000 Afghans.

But the Taliban are unlikely to get quick access to around $10 billion of assets held  abroad by the Afghan central bank, and are struggling to reassure banks that the economy under the group will be fully functional.

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