How Panjshir's resistance fell to the Taliban

Outgunned and alone: How Panjshir's resistance fell to the Taliban

The charred and twisted wrecks of more than a dozen Taliban vehicles are testimony to their intense struggle

Taliban fighters stand next to ammunition along a road in Malaspa area, Bazark district, Panjshir. Credit: AFP Photo

An old man in the Panjshir Valley sadly describes the last stand resistance fighters made against the Taliban's relentless sweep of Afghanistan: "There were too many of them."

Leaning against the door of a closed shop in the village of Khenj, Abdul Wajeed said the group's forces massed in September at the mouth of the valley, north of the capital Kabul.

The sight of dozens of armoured Taliban vehicles powering through the narrow gorge is burned into his memory.

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"There was nothing more we could do," he said.

For three days his village and the National Resistance Forces (NRF) -- a mix of Panjshiri fighters and remnants of the defeated national army -- had fired "with heavy weapons" from the rugged cliffs above the valley.

The charred and twisted wrecks of more than a dozen Taliban vehicles are testimony to their intense struggle.

But the hardline Islamists continued their relentless advance, emboldened by sweeping victories across the rest of the country and armed with an enormous weapons arsenal seized from the Afghan army.

"We were surprised, we did not know what to do," said one NRF fighter, who remains hidden in Panjshir. "We did not have enough weapons."

In Malaspa, a farming village surrounded by lush fields, 67-year-old Khol Mohammad said the Islamists convoy had been so large it seemed like "a thousand vehicles full of Taliban" had swept in.

Panjshir fighters earned a legendary reputation for resistance, defending their mountain homes first from the Soviet military for a decade, throughout the following civil war, and against the first Taliban regime from 1996-2001.

The 115-kilometre (70-mile) valley surrounded by jagged snow-capped peaks offers defenders a natural advantage.

But two decades since the late veteran fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud led the Panjshiris to victory, the province is no longer as isolated.

On August 30 the Taliban launched a multi-pronged offensive -- with some residents claiming the Panjshiri fighters were outnumbered three-to-one.

Many of the Panjshiri guns were decades old, Taliban commander Mullah Sanaullah Sangin Fatih told AFP, as he showed off a huge cache of weapons and rockets he said was abandoned as resistance fighters fled.

"It dates mainly from the time of the Soviet occupation," Fatih said.

That stands in stark contrast to the modern arsenal the Taliban had at their disposal.

One Panjshiri fighter said the Islamists used a drone, "which enabled them to easily locate and bomb our positions".

Multiple witnesses reported aerial bombardments, but it was not clear who carried them out.

Some in Panjshir accuse neighbouring Pakistan of air strikes against them, claims Islamabad has rejected outright.

Others criticise the lack of leadership, saying that the 32-year-old Ahmad Massoud -- the son of the legendary fighter -- lacked both experience and international backing.

The other leader, ex-vice president Amrullah Saleh, did little to galvanise support.

"When he came in August to call on people to fight with him, the elders criticised him for never having done anything for Panjshir," a local journalist said.

It is unclear what remains of the resistance, and whether its leaders are even still in the country.

On September 6, the Taliban seized the Panjshir's capital of Bazarak and raised their white banner.

Today, the valley appears calm, with Taliban rule going "well", according to several residents interviewed by AFP.

As a sign of respect, the group have repaired the tomb of Ahmad Shah Massoud, which some of their fighters damaged when they seized Bazark.

They say they want to bring "peace and security" to Panjshir, while continuing to hunt down remaining resistance fighters.

But Khair Mohammad, an elder from Peshjrur village, said it reminded him of the Soviet occupation.

"It was exactly the same. They came, they told us at the beginning that we could be friends, and we said yes of course," he said with a smile.

"And you know what happened next."

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