The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

Is the Panjshir Valley the Taliban’s Achilles Heel?

For a very long time, those living in the valley have enjoyed a special kind of infamy. Once again, a resistance movement is forming there.

Is the Panjshir Valley the Taliban’s Achilles Heel?
Credit: Master Sgt. Michael O’Connor

Panjshir Valley and its inhabitants have a reputation. Situated some 90-odd miles from Kabul in the north central region of Afghanistan, the valley is something of an oddity. Home to the country’s largest ethnic Tajik population, the 100,000 thousand or so inhabitants who populate the valley are famous for being tenacious underdogs. 

For a very long time, those living in they valley have enjoyed a special kind of infamy. Indefatigably, for nearly 50 years, of all the districts and provinces in Afghanistan, it is this region, which successfully defied all malevolent authorities – both internal and external – in its bid to maintain freedom and autonomy for Afghanistan. The Panjshir Valley, for decades, has been the untameable heartland of Afghan guerrilla warfare. To the country’s enemies, if Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires, Panjshir Valley is the heart of that graveyard.

When Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan in 1979, the people of the valley gave them a bloody nose under the leadership of legendary guerrilla commander Ahmad Shah Massoud. The same Massoud stood up against rival militias opposed to the formation of a central government following the departure of the Soviets in 1989. He would again lead his people against the dreaded Taliban until his assassination by al-Qaida on September 9, 2001. 

We ought to turn our attention to this same undefeated and free-spirited Panjshir Valley and its people, as a riposte to Afghanistan’s current crisis. While we talk of the Taliban’s widening control of Afghanistan, we tend to forget, of all the districts and provinces of the country, it is the Panjshir Valley which has defied the Taliban takeover. True to its reputation, it stands alone, undefeated. Little wonder the region is now fast attracting a resurgent anti-Taliban movement. But can the valley rise up, once again, against the Taliban juggernaut and live up to its old fame — as the vanquisher of tyranny? 

A Thorn for the Taliban

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Many routes were taken by the erstwhile leaders of the U.S.-backed Afghan government. While some have fled the country, others have gone underground; a few retreated to the Panjshir Valley. Vice President Amrullah Saleh has made it his refuge and his base.  A former pupil of the Lion of Panjshir, Ahmed Shah Masoud, Saleh is now defiantly claiming under Afghanistan’s constitution to be the legitimate acting president following the flight of Ashraf Ghani. Ensconced in the valley, he also speaks of forming a unified resistance against the Taliban. But can the valley and its people live up to their reputation and prove once again catalysts of a future Taliban rout?

If social media feeds are to be believed, there appears to be a slow but steady gathering of various opposition figures in the valley. Prominent among them is former Defence Minister General Bismillah Mohammadi. Then there is also the presence of Ahmad Massoud, the look-alike, urbane and defiant son of Ahmad Shah Massoud.  

From this pocket of resistance, Saleh and Ahmed Massoud are calling for retaliation against the Taliban. For his part, Saleh vowed on Twitter, “I will never, ever &  under no circumstances bow to d Talib terrorists. I will never betray d soul & legacy of my hero Ahmad Shah Masoud, the commander, the legend & the guide. I won’t dis-appoint millions who listened to me. I will never be under one ceiling with Taliban. NEVER.”

Similarly, as Ahmed Massoud’s recent opinion piece in The Washington Post makes very clear, “No matter what happens, my mujahideen fighters and I will defend Panjshir as the last bastion of Afghan freedom. Our morale is intact. We know from experience what awaits us.” Saleh and Massoud both hope their sworn allegiance and blood ties to Afghanistan’s most famous hero in recent history will galvanize the population into forming a cohort of resistance. Recognizing the valley’s terrain as ideal for defensive mountain warfare and of course its fabled aura of defiance, thousands of former Afghan soldiers have also retreated to the valley.

While they regroup and plan strategy, the foremost challenges that these opponents of the Taliban face are matters of critical military, economic and logistical support necessary to carry out such a mission. For all its glory, the valley is landlocked and inaccessible. Should the resistance take its fight to the Taliban they would need all manners of help from outsiders sympathetic to their cause. Little wonder the Panjshir leader Ahmed Massoud has made it amply clear to the international community, [in order to be an effective resistance to the Taliban they] “need more weapons, more ammunition and more supplies.” Who could possibly come to their aid?

The Spoilers

Already, there is some external regional resistance against the Taliban takeover. Tajikistan, with its ethnic ties to the valley, could offer critical support should it become the eye of the resistance. Afghanistan’s ambassador to Tajikistan, Lt. Gen. Zahir Aghbar, a former security official before assuming his diplomatic position, has already promised Panjshir would form a base for those Afghans who wanted to fight on against the Taliban. As he put it, “Panjshir stands strong against anyone who wants to enslave people.”

India, having been unceremoniously ejected from Afghanistan following its 20-year effort to build ties, would like nothing better than a resistance movement growing out of the Panjshir Valley. During the civil war of the 1990s, it provided critical military and economic support to the Northern Alliance led by Ahmad Shah Masoud. 

The failure of the Taliban to treat fairly the country’s Shia Hazara minority (who have been brutalized by the group in the past), may galvanize Tehran’s anger. Let us not forget, Iran was a key supporter of the Northern Alliance when the Taliban was in power between 1996-2001. Then, there will always be the United States as an option. Should Washington’s interests be undermined by the Taliban, it may again support a domestic front that stands up against the new rulers of Kabul.

A New Civil War?

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It goes without saying, should the Panjshir Valley decide to cross swords with the Taliban and offer a resistance they could seriously complicate the latter’s ability to impose a unified government on Afghanistan’s complex mix of regions and ethnicities. It is worth remembering that the Farsi-speaking Tajiks of western and northern Afghanistan, including the Panjshir Valley, have continually opposed the southern and eastern Pashtuns, constituting the core of the Taliban. A free and fighting Panjshir could also motivate other regional strongmen, militia leaders and warlords, now deposed by the Taliban, to offer resistance. 

Afghans, throughout their history, have rarely remained unified under a centralizing authority. Despite perpetual existential threats to the state, in the past, never have the country’s many different ethnic groups expressed solidarity to the idea of a national cause. To a great degree, it is this perpetual challenge which contributed to the fall of the government of Ashraf Ghani. Under the circumstances, given the enormity of grievances that various characters, actors and the citizenry harbor, it is unlikely that the Taliban will be able to form a “true” and “inclusive” government of national unity in the foreseeable future.  It is this reckoning, that may serve as the ultimate weapon in the arsenal of opponents of the Taliban.