Panjshir Valley, nearly 150km north of Kabul, is home to a largely ethnic Tajik population and through four decades of civil war and Taliban insurgency has been a centre of resistance. Panjshir resisted the Soviet invasion in the 1980s and Taliban rule during the late 1990s. In the past 20 years, it was the only province that the predominantly ethnic Pashtun Taliban seemed unable to penetrate.
Fears of civil war are growing in post-US Afghanistan. In this tortured country it’s hard to think of a period in the past half century when factions weren’t at war.
However, Isis-Khorasan’s attention grabbing atrocities at Kabul airport suggests this group is leading the charge against the Taliban’s control of the country.
Security experts including Raffaello Pantucci at London’s Royal United Services Institute say the Isis-offshoot is will be a magnet for thousands of hardline, dissident Taliban factions.
Panjshir’s elites have played an important role in the post-2001 political order put in place by the US-led intervention. It has been a stronghold to all main opposition presidential contenders since 2004, including Abdullah Abdullah, a senior official in the ousted government. But the widespread allegations of fraud after the elections of 2014 and 2019 have damaged local people’s trust in Kabul leadership, making them suspicious of the central government’s interventions.
Panjshir’s resistance is mobilizing behind Ahmad Massoud, the 32-year-old son of the charismatic leader Ahmad Shah Massoud – dubbed the “Afghan Napoleon” in a recent biography by veteran UK journalist Sandy Gall. Massoud led the campaign of resistance against the Russians, but was assassinated in 2001 by al-Qaeda agents posing as journalists – just two days before the 9/11 attacks on the United States.
Massoud junior is attempting to mobilise local forces, but still has to prove himself as an honest and competent leader to his support base. There is disdain among locals for some of the Panjshiri leaders – including Saleh and Abdullah – who held senior government positions in Kabul but did little to nothing to serve their communities.
But things have changed in ways that will challenge the resistance in Panjshir. Supply lines to the province have been narrowed and Panjshir is effectively under siege. This has created the problem of how to get military and humanitarian supplies into the valley if hostilities break out into open warfare.
The fate of Panjshir is consequential not only for anti-Taliban resistance forces but also for the stability and security of Afghanistan, the region and the west. If Panjshir falls to the Taliban, it makes a rollback of post-2001 gains appear inevitable, with all that implies for the people of Afghanistan.
For the rest of the world, meanwhile, it means losing the last force that can put a check on an Islamic fundamentalist regime that has demonstrated in the past that it can pose a severe threat to global security.
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