Why Afghanistan's Panjshir Valley remains out of Taliban reach

The mountainous region has an illustrious history of never being captured by an outside force, may it be the Soviets in the 1980s or the insurgent group in the 1990s

FP Staff August 23, 2021 19:57:56 IST
Why Afghanistan's Panjshir Valley remains out of Taliban reach

Panjshir Valley. AFP

The stage for Afghanistan's battle is all set to be played out in the Panjshir Valley — just 113 kilometres to the north of Kabul — with the Taliban sending hundreds of its fighters to the region, which has become the bastion of resistance against the insurgent group.

“Hundreds of Mujahideen of the Islamic Emirate are heading towards the state of Panjshir to control it after local state officials refused to hand it over peacefully,” conveyed the Taliban via their Arabic Twitter account on Sunday.

The mountain region now hosts deposed Afghanistan vice-president Amrullah Saleh, who had earlier declared himself to be a “care-taker president” and rebel commander Ahmad Massoud.

In fact, Ahmad Massoud, son of the legendary mujahideen commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, wrote in The Washington Post on 19 August, "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.

"We have stores of ammunition and arms that we have patiently collected since my father's time, because we knew this day might come."

What do we know about this resistance stronghold and why is it considered to be a thorn for the Taliban?

The history of Panjshir Valley

Home to the country’s largest ethnic Tajik population, the 100,000 or so inhabitants who populate the valley are famous for being tenacious underdogs.

In the 19th century, the region was untouched by the British Empire as they attempted to conquer Afghanistan.

Panjshir Valley, which also means the 'five lions', also proved to be a formidable place for the Soviets to conquer during their occupation of the country in the 1980s.

During this time, the invading Russians encountered fierce fighters from the then resistance led by a man known as the "Lion of Panjshir." Headed by Ahmad Shah Massoud during the ten years of war that the country experienced, the Panjshir Valley remained unconquered.

"The Lion Tames the Bear in Afghanistan" was how one book described Shah Massoud's defence of this strategic region.

Ahmad Shah Massoud also led his people against the dreaded Taliban until his assassination by Al Qaeda on 9 September, 2001, two days before the 9/11 attacks in the United States.

Why hasn’t Panjshir fallen to the Taliban yet?

Its geographical location isolates it from the rest of the country, with only one access point through a narrow passage created by the Panjshir River. This makes it easy to defend and the Hindu Kush mountain range act as a natural defense against incursions.

Why Afghanistans Panjshir Valley remains out of Taliban reach

As Col Ronnie Rajkumar in the Financial Express described, "Panjshir Province is a defender’s dream and an attacker’s nightmare."

Retreating to the family's safe haven and surrounded by the Taliban, the younger Massoud is seeking to rally an armed opposition by stirring the memory of his father and the region's history.

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" as well as Saleh and Defence Minister General Bismillah Mohammadi.

Why Afghanistans Panjshir Valley remains out of Taliban reach

On Monday, Saleh, who has taken refuge in Panjshir, took to Twitter warning the Taliban to avoid entering Panjshir province. He wrote, "Talibs have massed forces near the entrance of Panjshir a day after they got trapped in ambush zones of neighboring Andarab valley & hardly went out in one piece. Meanwhile Salang highway is closed by the forces of the Resistance. "There are terrains to be avoided". See you."​

Speaking to The National newspaper, Massoud said that scores of Afghan military had fled to Panjshir, bringing hundreds of Humvees, armoured cars and five helicopters with them.

And as the week has drawn on, more and more Afghan commandos have publicly announced their support for the "Resistance 2.0".

This feeling appears to be reflected by Panjshiris online. Local Facebook groups in the valley are filled with outpourings of support for Ahmad Massoud. The anti-Taliban sentiment had been intensifying in the region even before the insurgents captured Kabul.

Can it be a serious threat to Taliban?

Analysts doubt Panjshir can become a serious threat to the Taliban.

Security experts opine that the Panjshir resistance is outnumbered as well as outgunned with the Taliban now in possession of vast quantities of western weaponry, including artillery and aircraft either captured from government forces or handed over to them.

Abdul Sayed, an independent researcher based in Lund in Sweden, said he did not share Massoud's optimism for the chances of resistance.

“The Taliban surround Panjshir from all sides and I don't think Massoud's son can resist much more than a couple of months. For the moment, he does not have any really strong support,” said Sayed.

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