2021-09-17 18:31:12 In Panjshir, Few Signs of an Active Resistance, or Any Fight at All

In Panjshir, Few Signs of an Active Resistance, or Any Fight at All

PANJSHIR, AFRICAN REPUBLIC — Former mujahedeen fighters and Afghan commandos regrouped in this lush strip of land, walled off from potential invaders by high mountain peaks and narrow, ambush-prone passes, in the days after the Taliban toppled the Afghan government, vowing to fight to the death. The Panjshir Valley, with its history of resistance and reputation for impenetrability, appeared to be an ideal location for a determined force of renegades to launch an insurgency against the Taliban.

However, by September 6, the Taliban claimed to have captured the entire province of Panjshir, a significant victory in a region that had repelled numerous Soviet offensives in the 1980s and had remained outside the Taliban’s control during its rule from 1996 to 2001.

The New York Times visited the valley on Tuesday for the first time since the Taliban’s lightning offensive led to their takeover of power in Afghanistan last month. Posters of fallen resistance fighters from previous wars had been torn down on the sides of the road. The normally busy traffic had been replaced by wandering cattle, and the only sound was Islamic chants blaring from speakers on the few Taliban trucks.

The National Resistance Front’s spokesman insisted that the fight was far from over.

“Our forces are stationed throughout the valley,” Ali Maisam Nazary, the spokesman, said via WhatsApp. “When the Soviets entered Panjshir and saw no fighting for days or weeks, they declared victory. However, in the 1980s, the mujahedeen would wait and then attack at the appropriate time.”

However, a 40-mile journey through the province and the provincial capital, Bazarak, revealed that combat had largely ceased, at least for the time being, and what resistance remained appeared to be confined to mountainous areas practically inaccessible by foot or vehicle. The majority of the residents had fled prior to the fighting. Those who remained were confronted with rising market prices and a scarcity of food.

During and after the fighting, reports of the Taliban committing human rights violations against captured resistance fighters and civilians circulated on social media. However, accounts of door-to-door searches and seizures, as well as public executions, which the Taliban denied, were impossible to verify or refute.

Electricity and cellphone towers were turned off, creating an information void that was quickly filled with opposing narratives and claims of massacres, ethnic cleansing, and false charges. A widely circulated video purporting to show Pakistani drones flying over the valley turned out to be graphics from a video game. Another video showed the Taliban discovering wads of cash and gold pieces at a house allegedly belonging to Amrullah Saleh, the former Afghan vice president. Some Taliban officials denied the report, while others said it was true.

Human Rights Watch Asia associate director Patricia Gossman said her organization has been tracking numerous claims of atrocities but has been unable to confirm them. “There is an avalanche of unverified information on social media,” Ms. Gossman said, “but what is needed is a credible investigation into claims of summary executions and other abuses.” “There is no other way to get to the truth and hold people accountable.”

Basir Abdul, who spent 40 years in Germany exporting cars to Afghanistan and the Middle East, returned home earlier this week through the Panjshir Valley, which he found mostly deserted.

“Everyone goes, ‘Taliban, Taliban,’” he explained, “so I thought to myself, ‘I have to see this.’”

Mr. Abdul, 58, arrived at his home and assessed the damage: a few shattered windows and signs of intruders who had slept in the rooms. Someone had left a pair of combat boots and an orange scarf dangling from a tree branch.

“I’m not sure if this was done by the Taliban or by thieves,” he explained, “but people broke in while I was away.”

Mr. Abdul looked out the window at the horizon. His property was directly across the street from the tomb of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the renowned mujahedeen leader of the Northern Resistance assassinated by Al Qaeda operatives 20 years ago.

“The valley appears to be quiet,” Mr. Abdul observed.

A group of Taliban fighters was packing up their pickup trucks, which still bore the emblems of the now-defunct Afghan security forces, not far down the road. “The fight has ended in Panjshir,” said Sabawoon, the unit commander who goes by only one name. “Now there will be peace. We welcomed those who laid down their weapons, but those who fought did not fare well.”

His 200-man unit was from northern Afghanistan. They fought their way into Panjshir from neighboring Baghlan Province last week and made it to Bazarak.

Commander Sabawoon stated that his men were on their way to Mazar-i-Sharif, the capital of Balkh Province, to provide security.

There were few signs of heavy fighting along the main road south of Bazarak. Some buildings had broken windows or bullet holes, but structural damage was rare. The road was littered with a half-dozen wrecked military vehicles.

According to Dr. Gina Portella, medical division coordinator for Emergency NGO, an Italian nonprofit that runs the facility, a surgical and maternity hospital in the valley has received 60 to 70 people with conflict-related injuries in recent weeks.

“We had planned for a large number of casualties before the clashes began here,” Dr. Portella said. “Because many civilians had already left the valley, the numbers remained relatively low.”

Talibs formed a human chain on the side of the main road and unloaded metal cans of ammunition from parked trucks. Mortars, rockets, various caliber cartridges, and anti-personnel land mines were recovered from decades-old weapons caches piled up around a rusted Soviet armored personnel carrier.

A blockade spanned the road further along the winding road, deep in the Dara-e Hazara side valley, manned by armed fighters with thick Panjshiri accents. One of them explained that they were members of units that had served under the previous administration and that, while they were no longer resisting, they had not yet surrendered.

He stated that the new provincial governor, Qari Qudratullah, was meeting with elders to discuss a peaceful handover.

Recognize the Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan

What exactly are the Taliban? The Taliban arose in 1994, in the midst of the upheaval that followed the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. To enforce their rules, they used brutal public punishments such as floggings, amputations, and mass executions. Here’s more on their history and record as rulers.

What are the Taliban’s top leaders’ names? These are the Taliban’s top leaders, men who have spent years on the run, in hiding, in prison, and avoiding American drones. Little is known about them or their plans for governance, including whether or not they will be as tolerant as they claim. According to one spokesman, the group wanted to forget its past, but there would be some constraints.

Mullah Hafiz Osman, a Taliban military commission official, later confirmed this, while Mr. Nazary, the resistance spokesman, denied the claim.

Behind the Panjshiri fighters flew the Northern Alliance’s green, white, and black flag, repurposed to represent the National Resistance Front, led by Ahmad Massoud, son of the assassinated leader, Ahmad Shad Massoud. However, villagers claimed that the Taliban had been active in the valley for a long time and that their takeover had been negotiated by some of the residents.

A young Talib prayed outside the tomb of the elder Massoud, far from his home in Helmand Province in the south.

Photos of the partially destroyed tomb, in a dramatic hilltop mausoleum overlooking the valley, had surfaced on social media days earlier, along with claims that the Taliban had ransacked the place. “This wasn’t our job,” one of the Taliban guards explained. “Civilians broke into the house and smashed the glass.”

The Taliban had since repaired the site and it was now back to its original state. As evening fell, a group of guards stood around the tomb, stretching a green shroud over it and closing the doors for the night.

Those who had fled the valley wondered if they would ever be able to return.

Sahar, 17, and her family barricaded themselves in their home when the Taliban first arrived in Panjshir, believing that the resistance would eventually drive the Talibs out. But the fighting got closer and closer.

Neighbors began to flee, according to Sahar, whose last name has been withheld to protect her identity. According to her, her uncle and cousin were stopped at a Taliban checkpoint near the village and beaten before being ordered to hand over their weapons and the names of resistance fighters.

The family fled through the mountains last week. They walked for five days, passing through remote valleys and over mountain ridges. According to Sahar, she fainted three times due to dehydration, and her mother’s feet were blistered and swollen. Her diabetic father nearly passed out.

They eventually hitched a ride to Kabul, the country’s capital, where they now reside with relatives.

“We have no idea what will happen,” Sahar said over the phone from Kabul. “We might never be able to return.”

Farnaz Fassihi contributed reporting from New York, New York, and Wali Arian from Istanbul, Turkey.
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In Panjshir, Few Signs of an Active Resistance, or Any Fight at All