AfghanistanAfghanistan’s Panjshir Valley: The Last Stronghold of Resistance to Taliban Rule

By Kaweh Kerami

Published 24 August 2021

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 center 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. 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.

After a stunningly rapid offensive, the Taliban has occupied Kabul with minimal resistance and is consolidating its power across Afghanistan. But one unconquered area remains – Panjshir province in the country’s northwest, which has – over more than four decades – proved stubbornly resistant to outside interference and remains defiant in the face of Taliban dominance.

On August 15, as the Taliban were closing in on Kabul, the president, Ashraf Ghani – who had previously promised to “fight to the death” – quietly fled the country, which precipitated the government’s collapse. His vice-president, Amrullah Saleh – a fierce critic of the Taliban – decided to stay on and move to his birthplace, Panjshir.

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 center 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.

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.

The Shape of Resistance
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 mobilize 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.

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