Tuesday, October 26, 2021

In Panjshir, few signs of active resistance or any fighting

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PANJSHIR, Afghanistan – In this lush strip of land, protected from possible invaders by high mountain peaks and narrow, ambush-prone passes, ex-Mujahideen fighters and Afghan commandos regrouped in the days after the Taliban overthrew the Afghan government, 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 against the Taliban.

However, by September 6, the Taliban claimed to have captured the entire Panjshir province, a momentous victory in a region that repelled numerous Soviet offensives in the 1980s and had remained out of control of the Taliban during their rule of 1996 to 2001.

On Tuesday, The New York Times traveled to the valley for the first time since the Taliban’s lightning offensive led them to seize power in Afghanistan last month. On the sides of the road, posters of fallen resistance fighters from previous wars had been torn down. The usually busy traffic had been replaced by wandering cattle, and the silence was broken only by Islamic chants that occasionally echoed from the loudspeakers of the few Taliban trucks.

A spokesman for the National Resistance Front said the fighting was far from over.

“Our forces are stationed throughout the valley,” said the spokesman, Ali Maisam Nazary, via WhatsApp. “The Soviets also claimed victory when they would enter Panjshir and see no fighting for days or weeks. But the mujahideen of the 1980s waited and then attacked at the right time. “

But on a 40-mile tour of the province and the provincial capital, Bazarak, it became clear that the fighting had largely ceased, at least for now, and the remaining resistance seemed confined to mountainous areas virtually inaccessible on foot or by vehicle. . Most of the residents had fled before the fighting. Those left behind were struggling with rising market prices and a lack of food.

During those weeks of fighting and even after, reports circulated on social media that the Taliban committed human rights abuses against captured resistance fighters and civilians. However, accounts of door-to-door searches and seizures, as well as public executions, which the Taliban denied, were impossible to verify or discredit.

Electricity and cell phone towers were cut, leaving an information vacuum that quickly filled with conflicting narratives and allegations of massacres, ethnic cleansing and false accusations. A widely shared video claiming that Pakistani drones were operating over the valley turned out to be a graphic from a video game. Another video showed bundles of banknotes and pieces of gold found by the Taliban in a house that allegedly belonged to Amrullah Saleh, the former Afghan vice president. This report was denied by some Taliban officials, while others said it was true.

Patricia Gossman, associate director of Human Rights Watch Asia, said her organization has been tracking numerous atrocity allegations, but has had trouble confirming them. “There is a flood of unverified information on social media, but what is needed is a credible investigation into allegations of summary executions and other abuses,” Gossman said. “There is no other way to establish the truth and press for accountability.”

Earlier this week, Basir Abdul, who spent 40 years living in Germany exporting cars to Afghanistan and the Middle East, returned home through the Panjshir Valley, which he found largely deserted.

“Everybody says ‘Taliban, Taliban,'” he said, “so I said to myself, ‘I have to see this.’

Upon arriving at his home, Mr. Abdul, 58, assessed the damage: some broken windows and signs of intruders who had slept in the rooms. Someone had left a pair of combat boots and an orange scarf hanging from a branch.

“I’m not sure if this was the work of the Taliban or robbers,” he said, “but people broke in while I was gone.”

Outside, Mr. Abdul scanned the horizon. His property was within sight of the grave of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the renowned mujahideen leader of the Northern Resistance who was assassinated by al Qaeda agents 20 years ago.

“The valley looks calm,” Abdul said.

Not far from the road, a group of Taliban fighters were packing up their vans, which still bore the emblems of the now-fallen Afghan security forces. “The fight is over in Panjshir,” said the unit’s commander, Sabawoon, who has only one name. “There will be peace now. We welcomed those who laid down their arms, and those who fought, things did not end well for them. “

His unit of 200 hailed from northern Afghanistan. They fought their way to Panjshir from neighboring Baghlan province and reached Bazarak last week.

Commander Sabawoon said his men were heading to 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. About half a dozen wrecked military vehicles dotted the road.

A maternity and surgical hospital in the valley received 60 to 70 people with conflict-related injuries in recent weeks, said Dr. Gina Portella, coordinator of the medical division for Emergency NGO, an Italian nonprofit organization that manages the facilities.

“We had prepared for a mass casualty situation before the fighting started here,” said Dr. Portella said. “Because many civilians left the valley early, the numbers remained relatively low.”

On the side of the main road, the Taliban formed a human chain and unloaded metal cans of ammunition from parked trucks. Mortars, rockets, cartridges of various calibers and antipersonnel land mines recovered from decades-old weapons depots piled up around a rusting Soviet armored vehicle.

Ahead along the winding road, deep in the Dara-e Hazara side valley, a roadblock stretched across the road, manned by armed fighters with heavy Panjshiri accents. One of them explained that they belonged to units that served under the previous government and that although they no longer resisted, they had not yet surrendered.

He said that Qari Qudratullah, the new provincial governor, was meeting with the elders to discuss a peaceful handover.

An official from the Taliban military commission, Mullah Hafiz Osman, later confirmed this to be true, while Nazary, the resistance spokesman, denied the claim.

Behind the Panjshiri fighters waved the green, white and black flag of the Northern Alliance, reused to signify the National Resistance Front, which is led by Ahmad Massoud, son of Ahmad Shad Massoud, the leader assassinated in 2001. But the leaders Villagers said the Taliban had long been active in the valley, and that some of the residents had negotiated their takeover.

Outside the grave of the elderly Massoud, a young Talib, far from his home in the southern Helmand province, performed his evening prayers.

Days earlier, photos of the partially destroyed grave, in a dramatic hilltop mausoleum overlooking the valley, appeared on social media along with allegations that the Taliban had looted the site. “This was not our job,” said one of the Taliban guards. “The civilians broke in and broke the glass.”

Since then, the site had been repaired by the Taliban and was now in its original condition. A group of guards stood around the tomb and, in late afternoon, 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 her family barricaded themselves in their home, thinking that resistance would eventually drive away the Taliban. But the fight was getting closer and closer.

Neighbors began to flee, said Sahar, whose last name is withheld to protect her identity. His uncle and cousin were detained at a Taliban checkpoint near the village, he said, where they were beaten and ordered to hand over their weapons and the names of the resistance fighters.

Last week, the family escaped into the mountains. They walked for five days, through remote valleys and over mountain ranges. Sahar passed out three times from dehydration, she said, and her mother had blisters and swollen feet. His father, who is diabetic, nearly fainted.

In the end, they managed to be taken to Kabul, the capital of the country, where they had relatives with whom they now live.

“We don’t know what will happen,” Sahar said by phone from Kabul. “We may never be able to go back.”

Farnaz Fassihi contributed reporting from New York, NY Wali arian contributed from Istanbul, Turkey.

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