PANJSHIR, Afghanistan – Mist swirls around the undulating mountains dotted with mud huts, and emerald waters trickle through the narrow, pebble-filled canals. On the surface, Panjshir Valley is a picture of serenity. But one cannot help but feel the uncertainty and tension hidden in the hills.
As we traveled through all eight districts on Friday – under the eye of the Taliban – it seems clear, despite mixed reports and confusion in the past week over whether Panjshir had fallen, that Afghanistan’s new ruling power has secured an undoubtedly tight grip.
Dozens of robed Taliban fighters congregate outside the Panjshir Revenue Department. They all hail from Farah province some 500 miles away and belong to a unit rapidly deployed to places as necessary. Taliban commander Mawlawy Khalid claims that all of Panjshir was fully seized three days earlier, but many Panjshiris have fled to the mountains.
“We will give them a deadline, today or tomorrow or whenever (to surrender),” Khalid said, adding that whoever does not surrender “they shoot them dead.”
The process of surrender, according to Khalid, is that once weapons have been checked and handed over, the individual is then issued “a letter” indicating that they are “free” to return home as normal.
The enclave has earned something of a mythological reputation over the years. First, it was the triumphant hub against Soviet occupation in the 1980s and then the only Afghanistan province not to have fallen to the Taliban during its last 1996-to-2001 rule. Then, as the Taliban rapidly captured the country amid the twilight of the U.S. withdrawal, Panjshir served as the last bastion of anti-Taliban resistance.
Meanwhile, Haji Asad, a fellow Taliban commander, stationed in an office overlooking the eponymous monument in homage to the iconic Northern Alliance Commander Ahmad Shad Masoud, also indicates that the pressure is on and proclaims on average 100 to 200 people surrender per day.
“We have a team of these elders who go to the mountains and talk to [those in the mountains] and tell them to come down and talk to us. Otherwise, we will send through force,” he cautions. “They should come down from the mountains and live in their homes.”
From his purview, the Taliban today has the same policy as it had in the previous reign two decades ago.
“It was the wrong picture given that the Taliban is doing wrong and not practicing human rights,” he claims. “We want a peaceful Afghanistan, a united Afghanistan. We expect neighboring countries not to interfere [here] anymore. We want good relations with everyone, including America.”
Asad says that Panjshiris can visit the Masoud monument freely. Still, on this day, it remains a painfully barren place, guarded by a few original wardens and the Taliban – including their engineer and point person in charge of agriculture across the nation’s north, Raaz Muhammad, who arrived a day earlier.
“We are running clearance operations, and we are asking each and every person to please go to your homes, we want no trouble for anyone,” Muhammad, who says he previously worked for several different World Bank-related agriculture initiatives, tells me.
Yet, photos circulating on social media show the iconic tomb desecrated. The Taliban leadership doesn’t deny this happened but asserts that local looters are responsible. The Taliban claims they are safeguarding the helicopters and the rusted old plane and cars that once belonged to the late Masoud and are quick to show us that they remain untouched. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan white-and-black flags are everywhere, flying high even atop faded billboards featuring Commander Masoud.
According to Asad, there are roughly 8,000 Taliban members now stationed throughout Panjshir.
Almost every shop alongside the main, dusty road that snakes through the province is firmly shuttered, and nearly every vehicle – and foot soldier – I see belongs to that of the Taliban from places far away, leathery faces from endless days on the battlefield and almost all with a rifle in hand.
In the Marshal Fahim sports stadium, three helicopters – two Blackhawks and one attack helicopter – belonging to the Panjshiri leadership remain grounded. The Taliban move with various weapons, primarily American M4 and M16s and the occasional SAW and PKM. A couple of .50 calibers are also on display. Some have armored trucks likely inherited from the defunct Afghan security forces. Their supplies are secured to the back with tarpaulin decorated by the United Nations logo, and others push battered cars with broken clutches.
Deeper into the valley is Asad’s Taliban team from Kandahar, led by 34-year-old Hussein Ahmad, who has been fighting for years and says simply that he grew up around the Taliban. Asad has an office in the Presidential Palace, he notes, and vows that despite chatter that the Taliban will move its capital to Kandahar, only their political office will be there while all other ministries will remain in Kabul.
In any case, the distrust both inside and outside Panjshir remains palpable. I see spatterings of local men – usually huddled in small groups outside dark and abandoned storefronts. Some jump to their feet at the sight of an armored Taliban truck rolling through, and some wave in a commixture of fear and curiosity.
Nonetheless, frightened families are still fleeing. We spot a van stuffed with people and piles of belongings strapped to the top in one case. Taliban Commander Hussein Ahmad waves the driver over – his face ashen with apparent nerves – to ask why they are leaving and vowing that the Taliban will not hurt them.
“Everyone has gone; our families have gone to Kabul,” the man says. “But maybe we will be back.”
From my lens, the central province remains largely intact. The most jarring evidence of fighting exists via the daubs of decimated vehicles – including Humvees, Rangers and one mine-proof armored vehicle, the MX-Pro.
The Taliban commanders say they have put in place additional checkpoints to “ensure security,” but they have instructed guards not to stop any vehicles carrying a woman.
I observe only a few small children inside the ghost-like province. A couple are beggars who roam aimlessly looking for spare change or spritely kids excitedly following the herd of goats moving through amid the final vestiges of daylight. I spot only one woman, moving upward toward a clay home in the distance.
Much of the information vacuum in recent weeks has been sucked away by an almost total media blackout due largely to the embattled communications situation. However, the Taliban themselves appeared to make calls and use their phones in and around the artery. When asked, they said they used the Emirati-based Etisalat provider. Yet, there is no coverage deep in the mountains.
Despite the heavy Taliban presence from the beginning to end, many analysts point out that the next few weeks are crucial in determining the outcome of the NRF. The Panjshiri tribal leader, Ahmad Masoud – the son of Ahmad Shad Masoud, who was assassinated by al Qaeda two days before the September 11 attacks – has remained firm in his call to keep fighting.
Much of Masoud’s reluctance to negotiate with the Taliban has centered on concerns that the new government would not be inclusive. However, in due course, the announcement of the new interim government earlier this week – consisting entirely of Taliban members – has drawn condemnation from the Panjshiris and much of the international community.
I do not know what will become of the majestic Panjshir and cannot say for sure if and when the fighting has stopped. I do not see nor hear any skirmishes, except for what sounds like two rockets launched in the distance as the sun begins to set.
Yet NRF activists continue to raise the alarm over the fate of the famed province and fear for the fate of those on the mountains without adequate food and humanitarian aid coming in as the winter months loom, and what will become of them whether they do or do not surrender.
I meet some Panjshiris who say they are committed to staying in their beloved enclave and others who admit they have nowhere else to go.
For others, the pain of conflict across their country is wearing thin.
“This has been going on for years,” adds Abdul Hay, who guards a mosque in the provincial capital of Bazarak and claims the religious building was damaged by bullets days earlier. “People are bored of it, and other people are afraid.”