In Panjshir, few signs of active resistance or fighting at all
PANJSHIR, Afghanistan – In this lush swath of land – isolated from potential invaders by high mountain peaks and narrow passes conducive to ambushes – former Mujahideen fighters and Afghan commandos regrouped in the days following the overthrow of the government Afghan by the Taliban, vowing to fight for the last man. With its history of resistance and its reputation for impenetrability, the Panjshir Valley seemed an ideal place for a determined force of renegades to found an insurgency.
On September 6, however, the Taliban claimed to have captured the entire Panjshir province, a momentous victory in an area that repelled many Soviet offensives in the 1980s, and had remained out of Taliban control during their 1996 rule in 2001.
The New York Times visited the valley for the first time on Tuesday since the Taliban’s lightning offensive led to their seizure of power in Afghanistan last month. On the sides of the road, posters of resistance fighters who had fallen in previous wars had been torn down. The usually heavy traffic had been replaced by stray cattle, and the silence was broken only by Islamic chants occasionally echoing through loudspeakers on the few Taliban trucks.
A spokesperson for the National Resistance Front said the fight was far from over.
“Our forces are stationed throughout the valley,” spokesman Ali Maisam Nazary said via WhatsApp. “The Soviets also claimed victory when they entered Panjshir and saw no combat for days or weeks. But the mujahedin of the 1980s waited and attacked at the right time. “
But during a journey through 40 miles of the province and the provincial capital, Bazarak, it became clear that the fighting had largely ceased, at least for now, and that the resistance that remained appeared to be contained. in mountainous areas practically inaccessible on foot or by vehicle. Most of the inhabitants had fled before the fighting. Those who remained were grappling with soaring market prices and lack of food.
During these weeks of fighting and even after, reports of human rights violations committed by the Taliban against resistance fighters and captured civilians circulated on social media. Yet accounts of door-to-door searches and seizures and public executions, which the Taliban all denied, were impossible to verify or debunk.
Electricity and cell phone towers were cut, leaving an information void that quickly filled with conflicting accounts and allegations of massacres, ethnic cleansing and false accusations. A widely shared video claiming Pakistani drones were operating over the valley turned out to be graphics from a video game. Another video showed bundles of banknotes and gold coins found by the Taliban in a house believed to belong to Amrullah Saleh, the former Afghan vice president. This report has been denied by some Taliban officials, while others have said it is true.
Patricia Gossman, associate director of Human Rights Watch Asia, said her organization had followed many atrocity allegations but struggled to confirm them. “There is an avalanche of unverified information on social media, but what is needed is a credible investigation into the allegations of summary executions and other abuses,” Ms. Gossman said. “There is no other way to establish the truth and to hold it to account.”
Earlier this week, Basir Abdul, who spent 40 years in Germany exporting cars to Afghanistan and the Middle East, returned home via the Panjshir Valley, which he found largely deserted.
“Everyone says ‘Taliban, Taliban’,” he said, “So I was like, ‘I have to see this.’ “
Arriving home, Mr Abdul, 58, assessed the damage: some broken windows and traces of intruders who had slept in the rooms. Someone had left behind a pair of combat boots and an orange scarf hanging from a branch.
“I don’t know if it was the work of the Taliban or the thieves,” he said, “but people broke in while I was away.”
Outside, Mr. Abdul scanned the horizon. His property was prominent in the tomb of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the notorious Mujahedin leader of the Northern Resistance who was assassinated by members of Al Qaeda 20 years ago.
“The valley appears calm,” said Abdul.
Nearby, a group of Taliban fighters were putting away their vans, still bearing the emblems of the now fallen Afghan security forces. “The fight is over at Panjshir,” said unit commander Sabawoon, who has only one name. “There will be peace now. Those who laid down their arms, we welcomed them, and those who fought, things did not end well for them.
His unit of 200 people was from northern Afghanistan. They made their way into Panjshir from neighboring Baghlan province and reached Bazarak last week.
Commander Sabawoon said his men were heading towards Mazar-i-Sharif, the capital of Balkh province, where they would provide security.
Along the main road south of Bazarak, signs of heavy fighting were rare. Some buildings had broken windows or bullet marks, but structural damage was hard to find. Half a dozen destroyed military vehicles dot the road.
A surgical hospital and maternity hospital in the valley have taken in 60 to 70 people with conflict-related injuries in recent weeks, said Dr Gina Portella, coordinator of the medical division of Emergency NGO, an Italian non-profit organization that manages the establishment.
“We had prepared for a situation of many casualties before the clashes started here,” said Dr Portella. “Because many civilians left the valley in advance, the numbers have remained relatively low. “
Along the main road, the talibés formed a human chain and unloaded metal cans of ammunition from parked trucks. Mortars, rockets, cartridges of various calibers and anti-personnel landmines recovered from decades-old weapon caches piled up around a rusty Soviet armored vehicle.
Further along the winding road, deep in the side valley of Dara-e Hazara, a blockade spanned the road, held by armed fighters with thick Panjshiri accents. One of them explained that they belonged to units that served under the previous government and that if they no longer resisted, they had not yet surrendered.
He said Qari Qudratullah, the province’s new governor, was meeting with elders to discuss a peaceful handover.
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An official with the Taliban’s military commission, Mullah Hafiz Osman, later confirmed this to be true, while Mr. Nazary, the resistance spokesman, denied the claim.
Behind the Panjshiri fighters floated the green, white and black flag of the Northern Alliance, reused to signify the National Resistance Front, led by Ahmad Massoud, son of Ahmad Shad Massoud, the leader assassinated in 2001. But the villagers said the Taliban had long been active in the valley, and that their takeover had been negotiated by some residents.
In front of the grave of the elder Massoud, a young talibé, far from his home in the province of Helmand in the south, was performing his evening prayers.
Days earlier, photos of the partially destroyed tomb, in a spectacular hilltop mausoleum overlooking the valley, appeared on social media alongside accusations that the Taliban had ransacked the place. “It wasn’t our job,” said one of the Taliban guards. “Civilians broke in and smashed the glass. “
The site had since been repaired by the Taliban and was now in its original state. A group of guards stood around the tomb, and as evening fell, they spread a green shroud over it and closed the doors for the night.
Outside the valley, those who had fled wondered if they could ever return.
When the Taliban first entered Panjshir, 17-year-old Sahar and his family barricaded themselves in their home, believing the resistance would eventually drive out the Taliban. But the fighting was gradually approaching.
Neighbors have started to flee, said Sahar, whose last name is withheld to protect his identity. Her uncle and cousin were arrested at a Taliban checkpoint near the village, she said, where they were beaten and ordered to hand over their weapons and the names of resistance fighters.
Last week the family fled through the mountains. They walked for five days, through remote valleys and mountain ridges. Sahar passed out three times from dehydration, she said, and her mother had blisters and swollen feet. Her father, who is diabetic, almost collapsed.
Eventually, they hitchhiked to Kabul, the country’s capital, where they had relatives they now live with.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” Sahar said by phone from Kabul. “We may never be able to come back. “
Farnaz Fassihi contribution to reporting from New York, NY Wali Ariane contributed from Istanbul, Turkey.