The valley, known to be a hub of resistance, has fallen for the first time since the start of Afghanistan’s four decades of conflict
On Monday, in an ominous end to Afghanistan’s resistance, the Taliban claimed victory over opposition forces in the last holdout province of Panjshir, completing their takeover of Afghanistan three weeks after capturing Kabul.
“With this victory, our country is completely taken out of the quagmire of war,” chief spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said on Monday.
The Taliban also published a video of their flag being raised over the governor’s house in Panjshir — underscoring a historic win that has seen the anti-Taliban bastion defeated for the first time during 40 years of conflict.
— Tariq Ghazniwal (@TGhazniwal) September 6, 2021
Deafening volleys of celebratory gunfire resounded all over Kabul and Facebook accounts were full of mentions of the fall of Panjshir.
But as the Taliban claims complete victory and celebrates, it is now to be seen if they can hold on to the valley.
Panjshir’s history of resistance
Home to the country’s largest ethnic Tajik population, the 100,000 or so inhabitants who populate the valley have been the focal point for resistance against the new Taliban rulers and against the Soviets in the 1980s.
The incredibly beautiful 150 km long Panjshir Valley, a strip of land surrounded on three sides by towering mountains with only one narrow route leading to the south toward Kabul, has a mythical hold on imagination as it is where the Soviet army met with fierce resistance for the first time after its intervention in 1980.
From 1980 to 1985, the Soviet army engaged in battle with the Afghan mujahideen under the capable leadership of Ahmad Shah Massoud, also known as the “Lion of Panjshir”.
The goal of these offensives was control of the strategic Panjshir Valley in Afghanistan, during the Soviet–Afghan War of the 1980s.
In the spring of 1984, the Soviet troops organised a large-scale operation to seek out and destroy the famous mujahideen commander Ahmad Shah Massoud and his militants.
The Russians in April began its raid through the Panjshir Valley; the column of 220 soldiers moved deep into the valley without any cover from higher ground. It was then that they came under heavy fire from the heights and the battle, which more resembled a massacre, continued until the evening. Several dozen soldiers ran into the river and swam to safety. The others led a hard fight, suffering heavy casualties.
“I remember perfectly the horrible scene — five or six of our guys were hiding under natural cover. Suddenly they came under machine-gun fire. Then the Afghans came closer and started throwing grenades, one of which landed right where they were concealed. They remained there all together, where death found them,” Private Nikolay Knyazev recalled.
After suffering major losses, the Soviets finally managed to secure a stronghold in the valley for a time — but it didn’t last long.
“The Russians couldn’t see the point of staying and keeping an army there was quite a challenge,” Dr Antonio Giustozzi, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, has been quoted as saying.
Finally, in 1986 Mikhail Gorbachev announced his intention of withdrawing the Soviet contingent from Afghanistan and in June 1988, the last Soviet and Afghan troops present in the lower Panjshir were finally evacuated.
A thorn for the Taliban
The Taliban’s encounter with the resistance forces in Panjshir brings a sense of deja vu.
The valley witnessed fighting during the 1996–2001 civil war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, officially known as the United Islamic National Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, under the command of Massoud, where he again defended it from being overrun by the Taliban. However, even then the Taliban was unable to take control of the region.
And in 2004, years after Ahmad Shah Massoud’s assassination, Panjshir became a separate province from adjacent Parwan Province.
If Taliban control is confirmed it would be the first time the valley has fallen since the start of Afghanistan’s four decades of conflict.
The National Resistance Front in Panjshir — made up of anti-Taliban militia and former Afghan security forces — on Sunday acknowledged suffering major battlefield losses and called for a ceasefire.
But on Monday the group said in a tweet that its fighters were still present in “strategic positions” in the valley.
“Taliban’s claim of occupying Panjshir is false. The NRF forces are present in all strategic positions across the valley to continue the fight. We assure the ppl of Afghanistan that the struggle against the Taliban & their partners will continue until justice & freedom prevails,” it said in one of its Twitter accounts.
The Taliban may have done the unimaginable of conquering Panjshir, but it remains to be seen if the militant group can keep a hold on the area.
The valley — which historically was known for its gems and mining — has benefitted from investment in recent years. In the past two decades, hydroelectric dams and a wind farm have been built, as well as roads and a radio tower.
Some experts believe that controlling Panjshir will be a whole different ball game for the Taliban.
Firstly, the Panjshir Valley comprises predominantly a Tajik population that always receives support from Tajikistan, the valley’s neighbour the North East. Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, relations between Afghanistan and Tajikistan had improved considerably but that progress is likely to be reversed as the latter largely opposes the Taliban.
The rich mineral resources of the valley have allowed the locals to lead a healthy lifestyle and their income is more than the average income of Afghanistan.
With inputs from agencies