After the Taliban swiftly swept away, without much of a resistance, the Afghan Army and government on the heels of the U.S.-led coalition’s withdrawal from the country, chaos has gripped Afghanistan.
Panicked Afghan civilians, desperate to leave a country under Taliban rule, have flooded the Kabul airport. Meanwhile, the U.S. and Western countries are airlifting out thousands of Afghans as well as their own citizens.
But one province is still holding out and gathering anti-Taliban forces.
The Panjshir Resistance
The group known as the Panjshir resistance, National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, or the Second Resistance, has de facto control over Panjshir Province and Panjshir Valley.
The group is a military coalition of former Northern Alliance members and anti-Taliban fighters, who refer to themselves to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
They are led by the Afghan politician and military leader Ahmad Massoud and the first vice president of Afghanistan Amrullah Saleh, who was born in Panjshir. Massoud is the son of famous Northern Alliance warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud, a powerful guerrilla commander during the resistance against the Soviet invasion and occupation between 1979 and 1989.
In the 1990s, Ahmad Shah Massoud led the fight against the Taliban until his assassination in 2001, two days before the 9/11 attacks against the United States.
The younger Massoud was educated at the British military academy at Sandhurst, as well as King’s College in London. He obtained his master’s degree in international politics from City, the University of London in 2016. Although educated and politically astute, he doesn’t have his father’s charisma.
The Panjshir Valley is located about 150 miles northeast of Kabul and is surrounded by the Taliban on all sides.
During the Soviet occupation, and later under the Taliban, Massoud’s father and the Northern Alliance kept the narrow and nearly impenetrable valley clear of enemies. The high, steep mountains surrounding Panjshir make reaching the lower valley difficult for an invading force.
However, this time the task may prove more daunting.
The Prospects for the Second Resistance Against the Taliban
Flush from their lightning-quick takeover of the country, the Taliban are reportedly sending hundreds of fighters to the edge of the Panjshir Valley, in an attempt to crush the only remaining province not under their control.
Yet, the Taliban are now running into many of the same issues the U.S.-led coalition faced.
The Taliban, despite the speed at which they seized the country, have only about 75,000 fighters. Trying to exert control, with so few fighters, over a country of 38 million people, won’t be easy. Kabul alone has a population of 4.5 million people. Additionally, displaced Afghans are streaming into it further intensifying the situation. The Taliban will be unable to maintain a strong presence throughout the country. Already there are scattered reports of fighting on the western outskirts of Kabul.
Nevertheless, the Taliban can surround Panjshir Valley and slowly cut off its supply flow.
The besieged province only has the Salang highway connecting it to the rest of the country and no airport, so supplying the resistance will be difficult. Massoud’s forces claim that they have blocked the highway but the Taliban deny this.
Further, the Taliban, unlike in the late 1990s and early 2000s, are flush with American weapons and vehicles that had been supplied to the Afghan Army by the United States. Hundreds of millions of dollars of modern military equipment, which was turned over or abandoned, is now at the Taliban’s hands.
The Taliban have artillery and aircraft, although it is unknown if they have any trained pilots to fly them.
Resistance Prefers Negotiations Than War With the Taliban
Massoud has made it clear that although he is prepared for war, he wants negotiations with the Taliban. He hopes for an inclusive, broad-based government in Kabul, which will represent all of Afghanistan’s different ethnic groups and not a “totalitarian regime.”
“Make this known: There is no question of giving up the fight,” Massoud said in a statement to The Wall Street Journal. “Here in Panjshir, our resistance is just beginning.”
“We will never accept an imposed peace,” he said, “and we will resist until we achieve justice and freedom.” Massoud further added that many Afghans were flocking to the resistance but did specify, “as any human being, I prefer peace over war.”
The resistance has to communicate the image of a unified Afghan people. Currently, the vast majority of the resistance are Tajiks and anti-Pashtun; the Taliban get the majority of their fighters from Pashtuns.
Massoud remained hopeful that “the wind may shift” and of support from anyone, but particularly the West and specifically, the United States.
Resistance, Don’t Look to the West
However, the prospects of assistance from the West are very slim as the Biden administration is trying to negotiate with the Taliban and withdraw all Americans from Afghanistan. Therefore, supplying the Second Resistance would immediately provoke a reaction by the Taliban endangering the evacuation at Kabul’s airport.
Future prospects of U.S. support seem even bleaker. In a speech last week, President Biden made it abundantly clear that the U.S. isn’t interested in being involved in Afghan affairs any longer. Therefore, covert assistance to the Panjshir, contrary to that provided during the Soviet occupation and the Taliban’s first reign, does not seem likely.
The neighboring countries will likely not step in, either. Pakistan has played both sides of the conflict, giving the U.S. bases to conduct the fight while being the Taliban’s prime sponsor. Russia and China have extended promises of legitimacy to the Taliban, and the Chinese are after the rich mineral rights in the north. Iran, in its anti-U.S. stand, has provided aid to the Taliban. The neighboring countries of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan have already rejected U.S. overtures for counter-terrorism bases, and following a Russian lead are unlikely to help Panjshir.
But Hope Still Remains
The Second Resistance is not considered militarily strong and has limited weapons and ammunition. Yet, while the prospects seem daunting, all is not lost.
The Taliban are helping the cause of the resistance by their own heavy-handed actions. By executing former soldiers, interpreters, security, and government officials, the Taliban are driving numbers right into the resistance. Resultantly, there have been reports of large numbers of troops with vehicles and weapons streaming toward the Panjshir Valley, something hinted at by Massoud.
Furthermore, Massoud has been stockpiling arms and ammunition since the U.S. first began the withdrawal talks two years ago.
He has said that his forces are bolstered by a few thousand Afghan army soldiers and commandos who refused to surrender. These troops brought with them many Humvee vehicles, a handful of Soviet-era tanks, and even a few helicopters and Russian-made BM-21 Grad rocket launchers.
There have also been reports that the resistance has garnered the support of Yar Mohammad Dostum, the son of Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum. The militia forces of Dostum are believed to have flown several Mi-35 helicopters (the export version of the Mi-24 Hind gunship) and A-29 attack aircraft to Uzbekistan. Although getting the helicopters back across the border may prove to be problematic.
Knowing that supplies will be a big issue the resistance hopes to hold on until the winter when Taliban attacks will taper off due to the decreased mobility.
Finally, the Second Resistance may hope for assistance from India. India might decide to recognize the legitimacy of the resistance as it seeks to disrupt the activities of China, Turkey, and Pakistan.