Taliban says hundreds of fighters heading to take Panjshir Valley

Anti-Taliban leader Ahmad Massoud calls for talks but says forces ready to fight if Taliban attempts to take stronghold.

Taliban fighters patrol in Kabul, Afghanistan [Rahmat Gul/AP Photo]

The Taliban has said “hundreds” of its fighters were heading to the Panjshir Valley, one of the few parts of Afghanistan not yet controlled by the group.

Since the Taliban overran Afghanistan, flickers of resistance have begun to emerge with some ex-government troops gathering in the Panjshir, north of Kabul, long known as an anti-Taliban bastion.

“Hundreds of Mujahideen of the Islamic Emirate are heading towards the state of Panjshir to control it, after local state officials refused to hand it over peacefully,” the group wrote on its Arabic Twitter account on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Ahmad Massoud, whose forces control the last significant anti-Taliban holdout, said on Sunday he hoped to hold talks peacefully with the group that seized power in Kabul a week ago but that his forces were ready to fight.

“We want to make the Taliban realise that the only way forward is through negotiation,” he told the Reuters news agency by telephone from his stronghold in the Panjshir Valley, where he has gathered forces made up of remnants of regular army units and special forces as well as local militia fighters.

“We do not want a war to break out.”

Massoud, son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, one of the main leaders of Afghanistan’s anti-Soviet resistance in the 1980s, said his supporters were ready to fight if Taliban forces tried to invade the valley.

“They want to defend, they want to fight, they want to resist against any totalitarian regime.”

Ahmad Massoud, son of Afghanistan’s slain anti-Soviet resistance hero Ahmad Shah Massoud [File: Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

However, there was some uncertainty about whether the operation by Taliban forces had begun. A Taliban official told Reuters that an offensive had been launched on Panjshir. But an aide to Massoud said there were no signs that the column had actually entered the narrow pass into the valley and there had been no reports of fighting.

A short video showed a column of captured trucks with the white Taliban flag but still bearing their government markings moving along a highway.

In the only confirmed fighting since the fall of Kabul on August 15, anti-Taliban forces took back three districts in the northern province of Baghlan, bordering Panjshir, last week.

However, Massoud said he had not organised the operation which he said had been carried out by local militia groups reacting to “brutality” in the area.

Massoud called for an inclusive, broad-based government in Kabul representing all of Afghanistan’s different ethnic groups and said a “totalitarian regime” should not be recognised by the international community.

Taliban fighters stand guard at a checkpoint in the Wazir Akbar Khan neighbourhood in the city of Kabul, Afghanistan, August 22, 2021 [Rahmat Gul/AP Photo]

Meanwhile, Khalil Ur-Rahman Haqqani, a leading Taliban figure currently in charge of security for Kabul, has echoed the group’s claims that “all Afghans” should feel safe under their Islamic Emirate, and that a “general amnesty” has been granted across the nation’s 34 provinces.

Speaking to Al Jazeera on Sunday, Haqqani, whose associates are also taking a leading role in establishing security in the capital, said the Taliban is working to restore order and safety to a nation that has seen more than four decades of war.

“If we can defeat superpowers, surely we can provide safety to the Afghan people,” Haqqani, who is also a veteran of the Afghan-Soviet war, said.

But many Afghans are sceptical that Haqqani – a leader of the Haqqani Network, known to be the most brutal and violent group associated with the Taliban and a man labelled a “terrorist” by the United States and the United Nations – will bring peace and security to Afghanistan.

Victoria Fontan, professor of peace studies at the American University of Afghanistan, told Al Jazeera she had heard from staff and students in Kabul who are worried about searches by the Taliban in their neighbourhoods.

“There have not been any direct threats, but there have been house searches being carried out to figure out who is working for whom and who had links with coalition forces,” she said, speaking from Paris.

“And then people are placed on a list and they are afraid that when the eyes of the international community are elsewhere, there is going to be the beginning of a massive wave of repercussions against those people.”

Chaos, deaths at Kabul airport

Meanwhile, thousands of people continued to mass at Kabul airport on Sunday, desperately hoping to flee the Taliban rule.

The Taliban fired in the air and used batons to force people to form orderly queues outside Kabul airport, witnesses said, a day after the British army said seven people were killed in a crush at the gates.

A NATO official said at least 20 people have died in the past seven days in and around the airport. Some were shot and others died in stampedes, witnesses have said.

On Sunday, there were no serious injuries as gunmen beat back the crowds, according to witnesses, and Washington said it was now able to get large numbers of Americans into the airport.

President Joe Biden said on Sunday the US-led evacuation of Americans, at-risk Afghans and others from the Kabul airport accelerated this weekend, although it remains vulnerable to threats posed by the ISIL (ISIS) group.

Biden said discussions are under way among military officials about potentially extending the airlift beyond Biden’s August 31 deadline. “Our hope is we will not have to extend, but there are discussions,” he said, suggesting the possibility that the Taliban will be consulted.

Earlier on Sunday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called a virtual meeting of leaders of the G7 wealthy nations for Tuesday to “ensure safe evacuations, prevent a humanitarian crisis and support the Afghan people”.

US Air Force security forces raven maintains a security cordon at Hamid Karzai International Airport [Taylor Crul/US Air Force/AFP]

The US on Sunday ordered six commercial airlines to help transport people after their evacuation from Afghanistan.

The Pentagon said it called up 18 commercial aircraft from United Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air and others to carry evacuees from temporary locations, including a dozen countries across Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia.

Army Major General William Taylor said in the past week the US has evacuated 17,000 people, including 2,500 Americans, from Kabul.

The United Kingdom’s ambassador to Afghanistan said British authorities had managed to evacuate more than 5,000 people.

In a statement on Twitter, Laurie Bristow said the “huge effort” to move evacuees out of Afghanistan is “gathering pace” but that there is still “a huge amount of work to do”.

Australia ran four flights into Kabul on Saturday, evacuating more than 300 people, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.

The Netherlands said it would increase its military presence in Afghanistan to help evacuation efforts.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies