The Hindu Profiles | On Hibatullah Akhundzada, Panjshir and Haqqani Network

Panjshir | The valley of resistance

When the Taliban took Kabul in 1996, President Burhanuddin Rabbani and Defence Minister Ahmad Shah Massoud, along with their allies, retreated to northern Afghanistan. The Taliban had captured much of Afghanistan, except the north. Massoud, who was called ‘the Lion of Panjshir’, built a united front of anti-Taliban forces in the Panjshir Valley, and continued the resistance against the Taliban regime.

Massoud was assassinated by al-Qaeda on September 9, 2001, two days ahead of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. But the Northern Alliance he had commanded played a critical part in the U.S.-led attacks on the Taliban that saw a quick collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001.

After 20 years, the Taliban are back in Kabul. The Taliban are now controlling almost all of Afghanistan—except Panjshir. In the province, located in the northeast of the country, Ahmad Massoud, the 32-year-old son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, is leading the new resistance against the Taliban. Amrullah Saleh, the First Vice President of the Ghani administration, is believed to be with Mr. Massoud in Panjshir. Last week, Mr. Saleh declared himself the ‘legitimate caretaker President of Afghanistan’ as per the Afghan Constitution. While the Taliban are trying to tighten their grip on Afghanistan, early signs suggest a resistance to their rule is taking shape in Panjshir.

When Afghanistan became a republic in 1973, the 20-year-old Ahmad Shah Massoud was a student in Kabul University. Muhammad Daoud Khan, backed by the communist People’s Democratic Party, became the first President of the country. Massoud, who was a member of the Muslim Youth, the student wing of the Jamiat-e Islami, started an uprising in Panjshir that was backed by the Pakistani intelligence. Initially Daoud Khan’s regime put down the protests and Massoud had to flee to Pakistan. But he would return to Panjshir after the communists took over Kabul in 1978 through the ‘Saur Revolution’. In the Panjshir Valley, literally the valley of five lions, Massoud built a guerrilla resistance against the communists. After the Soviets came to Afghanistan in 1979, Panjshir emerged the hotbed of the anti-Soviet communist, with help coming from the U.S.

Mountainous terrain

Located 150 km north of Kabul, the Valley is near the Hindu Kush mountain range. It’s divided by the Panjshir river and ringed by the Panjshir mountains in the north and the Kuhestan mountains in the south. The mountain tops are covered by snow throughout the year. This difficult terrain makes the Valley a nightmare for invaders. It allowed Massoud to keep the Valley away from first the communist government and then the Taliban regime. Earlier, Panjshir was part of Parwan Province. In 2004, the Valley and the surrounding region became an independent province. Roughly 1,50,000 people are living in Panjshir, a huge majority of them ethnic Tajiks. When the Taliban started taking provinces after provinces, many fled to Kabul. Some others fled to Panjshir, hoping that the Valley, the traditional capital of the Tajik mujahideen, would hold off the Taliban onslaught. During the anti-communist war, the Mujahideen were backed by the U.S. with military and financial aid coming via Pakistan. When the Taliban were in power in the 1990s, the Northern Alliance was backed by India, Iran and Russia. And much of the country’s north, including Badakhshan and parts of Takhar, besides Panjshir, was outside the control of the Taliban. This time, the Taliban appear to be stronger. Panjshir is the last province standing. The Taliban have also established contacts with Iran, Russia and China. It’s not clear whether the resistance would gain regional or international support. In an article in The Washington Post on August 18, Ahmad Massoud said he’s “ready to follow my father’s footsteps”. “But we need more weapons, more ammunition and more supplies,” he wrote, in a direct call for help.

The more immediate questions Mr. Massoud and Mr. Saleh face is whether they can muster the kind of support among Afghans that the Northern Alliance did in the 1990s and whether Panjshir can survive as an island of resistance in an Afghanistan tightly controlled by the Taliban.

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Printable version | Sep 6, 2022 2:20:09 pm |