Efforts to strike a peace deal between the two sides have failed and the Taliban are keen to capture the last holdout province that has thus far prevented them from solidifying all-out control of the country since they took Kabul on August 15.
‘The Taliban have a significant advantage,’ said Nishank Motwani, an Afghan analyst based in Australia, saying the Islamists were emboldened by their recent victories.
‘They are very well armed, and they have the psychological factor in their favour in that they precipitated the fall of the government so quickly.’
The Taliban seized an enormous arsenal of weapons and military kit that the now departed US provided to the defeated Afghan army, as well as the support of prisoners they freed from jails.
‘The Taliban also have shock troops, including the use of suicide tactics,’ Motwani added.
Fighters from the National Resistance Front (NRF), made up of anti-Taliban militia fighters and former Afghan security forces, are believed to have significant weapon stockpiles of their own in the valley around 50 miles north of Kabul, which has enabled them to engage in a heavily armed clash with the Islamists.
Fighters from the National Resistance Front (NRF), made up of anti-Taliban militia fighters and former Afghan security forces, are also understood to have significant weapon stockpiles in the valley around 50 miles north of Kabul
The National Resistance Front has managed to hold off the Taliban thus far in a heavily armed clash and are preventing the Taliban from solidifying total control of the nation
Afghan resistance movement and anti-Taliban uprising forces take part in a military training in the Panjshir province, the only remaining hold-out of anti-Taliban forces
Under the leadership of Ahmad Massoud, son of a former Mujahideen commander, the NRF have been holding out in Panjshir Valley, a steep valley that makes attacks from outside difficult
On Wednesday, senior Taliban official Amir Khan Muttaqi issued an audio message to say their forces had surrounded the valley, calling on the people of the Panjshir to tell fighters to lay down their arms.
‘Those who want to fight, tell them it is enough,’ Muttaqi said.
But the NRF are continuing to engage the Taliban in a desperate attempt to prevent them from taking total control, as many Afghans are terrified of a repeat of the Taliban’s harsh rule from 1996 to 2001.
Hours after their warning, Taliban forces launched renewed attacks including from the south of Panjshir from Kapisa, as well as from the Khawak pass to the west of the valley.
Both sides have claimed to have inflicted heavy losses on their rivals, though reports from the valley itself are scarce and communications amid the fighting and terrain are difficult.
The Taliban says the Panjshir valley is surrounded on all four sides and a rebel victory is impossible. The rebels say they will refuse to surrender.
The National Resistance Front (NRF), comprising an ethnic Tajik militia and former Afghan security forces, have vowed to defend the enclave as the Islamist group say they have it surrounded. Between 150,000 and 200,000 live in the valley.
Panjshir Valley (pictured as resistance fighters take up position on patrol, September 1, 2021) has a storied history of fighting in recent history, having been used as a stronghold against the Soviets in the 1980s, and again against the Taliban in the 90s
Pictured: A satellite map showing Panjshir Valley’s proximity to Kabul, which was taken by the Taliban on August 15 amid the withdrawal of US and western forces from Afghanistan
Ali Maisam Nazary, a spokesman for the NRF who is in close contact with leader Ahmad Massoud, said there had been more attacks by Taliban forces overnight.
‘There is heavy fighting in Panjshir,’ Nazary said. ‘He (Massoud) is busy defending the valley.’
Massoud is the son of the late guerrilla commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, dubbed the ‘Lion of Panjshir’ for holding out first against Soviet forces during the Soviet-Afghan War in the 80s and later the Taliban in the 90s.
In a statement on Wednesday, Massoud said that the Taliban had offered them ‘one or two seats’ in their new administration, but he had rejected the deal.
‘The Taliban have chosen the path of war,’ Massoud said, committing to fighting the Taliban at all costs, while another NRF fighter declared they ‘are are ready to defeat [the Taliban] if they dare to invade,’ despite being heavily outgunned and the Taliban controlling the overwhelming majority of the country.
Ahmad Massoud (left), leader of the Northern Alliance and son of ‘the Lion of the Panjshir’, says the Taliban ‘have chosen the path of war’. Massoud was only 12 when his father, Ahmad Shah Massoud (right), was murdered by Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network
The 70-mile-long valley surrounded by jagged snow-capped peaks offers Panjshir fighters a natural military advantage as defending units can use high positions to ambush attacking forces below.
But the conflict appears to be escalating according to Martine van Bijlert of the Afghanistan Analysts Network: ‘Taliban forces have been massing around the entrance to the valley but have been hit in ambushes and have sustained casualties.’
Van Bijlert said that while the fighting thus far had seen both sides incur losses, the Taliban had called on more support from neighbouring provinces which could pose the Panjshir defenders’ resolve to weaken.
Pictured: Afghan resistance fighters take up position during a patrol on a hilltop in Panjshir Valley, September 1, 2021
‘Whereas both sides mainly seemed to be trying to hurt each other in order to strengthen their hand in negotiations without starting an all-out battle, according to the latest reports the Taliban are now summoning forces from other provinces.’
The Panjshir – mainly inhabited by ethnic Tajik people – has immense symbolic value in Afghanistan as the area that has resisted occupation by invaders in the past.
For Afghans opposed to the Taliban, the holdout province stands as a symbol to show the Taliban are not the welcome rulers of all Afghanistan, Motwani said.
‘It gives hope to those Afghans who have lost almost everything in a blink of an eye.
‘It is somewhere where people can go outside Taliban rule.’
Bismillah Mohammadi, Afghanistan’s defence minister before the government fell last month, said the Taliban had launched a renewed assault on Panjshir on Tuesday night.
‘Last night the Taliban terrorists attacked Panjshir, but were defeated,’ Mohammadi tweeted Wednesday, claiming 34 Taliban were killed and 65 wounded.
‘Our people should not worry. They retreated with heavy casualties.’
Residents and fighters in Panjshir, many of whom fought the Taliban when they were last in power from 1996 to 2001, offered a defiant message.
‘We are ready to defend it till the last drop of our blood,’ said one resident.
‘Everyone has a weapon on their shoulder and ready to fire,’ another said. ‘From the youngest to the oldest, they all talk about resistance.’