The Taliban’s lightning offensive, which began immediately after President Joe Biden’s announcement of withdrawal on April 14, 2021, has resulted in a near total takeover of Afghanistan. However, resistance to the Taliban rule has emerged in the remote and mountainous province of Panjshir.
The Taliban will likely seek to crush this last bastion of resistance, the so-called last “free” region in Afghanistan.
Prospects for this resistance, led by former Vice President and National Directorate of Security chief Amrullah Saleh, make it a decided longshot. Saleh has a formidable task ahead of him and his prospects are bleak. The Taliban dominates the security situation and has been infused with an arsenal of weapons as spoils from the now-defunct Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, which were supplied by the United States and NATO allies. Additionally, the Taliban holds strategic terrain and Panjshir is surrounded. Morale in the rank and file of the Taliban’s army is also buoyed by its stunning victory that saw 32 of 34 provinces and their capitals collapse in the span of just 11 days.
Only Panjshir remains, while the status of neighboring Parwan province is unclear. Saleh’s forces have reportedly attempted to expand their control beyond Panjshir in the neighboring province of Parwan.
The Taliban, while ascendent, has its own challenges. It is attempting to secure Kabul, a city of 4.5 million people flooded with refugees. The Taliban must commit significant resources to do so. There are reports of fighting in western Kabul, and that will tie down Taliban military assets. The Taliban must decide if wants to divert forces from Kabul and elsewhere to put down the emerging threat in Panjshir. The Taliban does not want a repeat of the 1990s, when it battled the Northern Alliance, which halted the Taliban’s goal of dominance in all of Afghanistan’s provinces.
It is unclear if Saleh and his Panjshir resistance has any support from the outside. The U.S. is fearful of upsetting the Taliban as it evacuates American citizens via Hamid Karzai International Airport, which is inside Taliban-controlled Kabul. Additionally, President Biden signaled in his Aug. 16 speech that he no longer has the desire or will to help the Afghan people. Russia and China have extended ties to the Taliban; Iran has been friendly with the group and has provided aid; and Pakistan has always been the Taliban’s prime sponsor. Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are at the mercy of following Russia’s lead.
While the power brokers in Panjshir no doubt stock up on critical supplies such as fuels, weapons, ammunition and food, those provisions will deplete up over time. Without outside support and supplies, the Panjshir resistance will be hard pressed to sustain itself. Unconfirmed reports indicated that the Panjshir resistance has taken control of Chahikar and is fighting for the strategic Salang Pass, which would give Saleh a lifeline to the outside world.
Saleh fled to Panjshir after the fall of Kabul and the collapse of the Afghan government on Aug. 15. He joined Ahmad Massoud, the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the famed commander of the Northern Alliance who was assassinated by Al Qaeda suicide bombers just two days prior to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. Two days later, he declared himself president when Arshif Ghani, the last president, fled the country.
Saleh said that he would “under no circumstances bow” to the Taliban and will continue to fight.
The nascent Panjshir resistance has been bolstered by remnants of Afghan forces that refused to surrender and fled the Taliban takeover of the provinces of Kunduz, Badakhshan, Takhar, and Baghlan. Many of these forces regrouped in Andarab district in Baghlan. Andarab is a known hub for anti-Taliban activity. In 2011, The New York Times Magazine described Andarab as “an entirely Tajik district that is staunchly anti-Pashtun,” the ethnic group that makes up a significant portion of the Taliban.
In addition to keeping supply lines open, Saleh is staring down the tall task of rebuilding Afghan security forces that were ground down by years of fighting with the Taliban. As former NDS chief, Saleh is in possession of contacts throughout the country. Tens of thousands of former soldiers and NDS personnel are in danger of Taliban reprisals. The Taliban has already executed numerous soldiers, policemen, intelligence personnel, interpreters, and a host of Afghans who have helped the former Afghan government and the U.S. It remains to be seen if Saleh organize them to resist an ascendant Taliban.
The first step for Saleh is to hold Panjshir.
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