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The Panjshir Valley, surrounded by the high peaks of the Hindu Kush 125km (78 miles) north of Kabul, is living up to its history as a bastion of resistance as two Tajik leaders – Ahmad Massoud and Amrullah Saleh – send out their call of anti-Taliban resistance from there.
Saleh, 48, is defiant, declaring himself the acting president of the country after President Ashraf Ghani fled the Taliban’s dramatic entry to Kabul. He has called on his followers to converge in Panjshir to fight the Taliban.
Saleh – who served as first vice president since February 2020 – had been a member of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in the 1990s along with Massoud’s father, the late Ahmad Shah Massoud.
Ahmad Shah Massoud became known as the Lion of Panjshir after he successfully defended the area during the Soviet-Afghan War in the 1980s. He later, in the Northern Alliance, led fierce resistance against the Taliban until he was assassinated by al-Qaeda in September 2001.
Massoud, leader of the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, asserts that his forces are ready to fight the Taliban.
The 32-year-old says he will follow in his father’s footsteps and never surrender.
“I write from the Panjshir Valley today, ready to follow in my father’s footsteps, with Mujahideen fighters who are prepared to once again take on the Taliban,” he wrote in the Washington Post newspaper.
“We have stores of ammunition and arms that we have patiently collected since my father’s time because we knew this day might come.”
He added, however, that his forces – which reportedly numbered more than 6,000 – would need international support. He called on aid from France, Europe, the US and the Arab world, saying they had helped in his father’s fight against the Soviets and the Taliban 20 years ago.
While he is prepared to fight, Massoud said he still hoped to hold peaceful talks with the Taliban.
“We want to make the Taliban realise that the only way forward is through negotiation,” he told Reuters by telephone from his stronghold in Panjshir, where he has gathered remnants of regular army units and special forces as well as local militia fighters.
“We do not want a war to break out.”
The Tajik leader has called for an inclusive, broad-based government in Kabul representing Afghanistan’s different ethnic groups and said a “totalitarian regime” should not be recognised by the international community.
Meanwhile, Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, said there had been no fighting in Panjshir yet and that his group is seeking a “peaceful solution” to the standoff. The Taliban, which has been engaged in government formation, has promised a government inclusive of the country’s diverse ethnic groups.
Born in 1989 in Piyu in the province of Takhar in northeast Afghanistan, Massoud finished his secondary school education in Iran and then spent a year on a military course at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, the UK.
In 2012, he commenced an undergraduate degree in War Studies at King’s College London where he obtained his bachelor’s degree in 2015.
He obtained his master’s degree in International Politics from City, University of London in 2016. He officially entered politics in March 2019.
Leading the resistance with Ahmad Massoud, Saleh will likely be a key figure in any peace talks that ensue with the Taliban.
He is equally steadfast in his commitment to fight and follow in the legacy of Ahmad Shah Massoud, sparking unconfirmed reports that more Afghan politicians were regrouping in the Panjshir Valley.
“I will never, ever & under no circumstances bow to d Talib terrorists,” Saleh wrote on Twitter.
“I will never betray the soul & legacy of my hero Ahmad Shah Masoud, the commander, the legend & the guide. I won’t disappoint millions who listened to me. I will never be under one ceiling with Taliban. NEVER,” he vowed.
Saleh is among a group of Panjshiri politicians who took up important roles in the Afghan government after the fall of the Taliban.
— Yalda Hakim (@BBCYaldaHakim) August 23, 2021
Formerly head of the Afghan intelligence service, Saleh rose to the position of vice president in 2020.
He has survived several attempts on his life, including a suicide attack on his office in Kabul in 2019. Saleh escaped unhurt but more than 20 of his colleagues were killed in the attack for which he blamed the Taliban.
Saleh has relocated to Panjshir and declared himself the caretaker president of Afghanistan, in accordance with the Afghan constitution.
He served as the minister of interior in 2018 and 2019, and as head of the National Directorate of Security from 2004 to 2010. After resigning from national security, Saleh created a pro-democracy, anti-Taliban movement called Basij-e Milli (National Mobilisation).
Saleh had joined the Mujahideen resistance under Ahmed Shah Massoud as a young man and was appointed by Massoud to serve as the Northern Alliance’s liaison office inside the Afghan Embassy in Tajikistan in 1997.