Taliban fighters broke out into prayers as their banner fluttered from a flagpole in Panjshir yesterday, after the Islamist group announced the capture of the last pocket of resistance to their rule.
In videos circulating on pro-Taliban social media, fighters passed underneath portraits venerating their old enemy, the late Panjshir resistance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud.
Three weeks after seizing Kabul, the Taliban claimed to have conquered the rugged valley – a historic blow to the province.
Under Massoud, the Panjshir fighters earned a legendary reputation for resistance, defending their mountain homes first from the Soviet military for a decade, then throughout a civil war, then the last Taliban regime from 1996-2001.
“With this victory, our country is completely taken out of the quagmire of war,” the Taliban’s chief spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement.
Soon after, in a photograph released by Taliban official Bilal Karimi, the same picture of Massoud is seen with his face ripped out.
Taliban gunmen then stand posing in front of the ragged portrait.
The National Resistance Front (NRF) – made up of anti-Taliban militia and former Afghan security forces – have admitted to suffering heavy losses, and have called for a ceasefire.
On Sunday, the NRF said that spokesman Fahim Dashty – a well-known Afghan journalist – and a top commander, General Abdul Wudod Zara, had been killed.
However, they also said that their fighters were still present in “strategic positions” across the valley, and that they were continuing the struggle.
The Taliban completed a stunning two-week offensive across Afghanistan on August 15, taking the capital, Kabul, without a fight.
Remnants of the Afghan army then retreated to the Panjshir Valley, north of Kabul, to create the NRF.
The 115km-long (70-mile-long) valley surrounded by jagged snow-capped peaks offers defenders a natural military advantage, allowing them to use the high positions to ambush attacking forces below.
However, they faced Internet shutdowns by the Taliban and supply roads were blocked.
Previously, Panjshir’s fighters melted away in the face of advancing forces, hiding in canyons off the main valley, then launching guerilla raids.
This time the Taliban have been emboldened by their sweeping victories across the rest of the country, where they seized an enormous arsenal of weapons and military kit that the now-departed US provided to the defeated Afghan army.
The NRF is led by Ahmad Massoud – the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud – as well as ex-officials who fled to the valley from the toppled government, including former vice-president Amrullah Saleh, a fierce Taliban critic.
It is unclear where those senior Panjshir leaders are now based.
Massoud, in an audio message yesterday after the Taliban declarations of victory, called for Afghans to “rise up”.
The Panjshir – mainly inhabited by ethnic Tajik people – has immense symbolic value in Afghanistan as the area that has resisted occupation by invaders in the past.
The Taliban warned yesterday that anyone who “tries to start an insurgency” against them “will be hit hard”.
The Taliban assured the people of the valley that there would be no “discriminatory act against them”.
“They are our brothers and would work together for a joint purpose and welfare of the country,” chief spokesman Mujahid said.
He said he had been told that Massoud and former vice president Saleh had escaped to neighbouring Tajikistan.
Massoud’s message in reply was one of fighting bravado.
“For those who want to take up arms, we are with you,” he said in a call for resistance. “For those who will resort to protest, we will stand next to you.”
The Taliban have repeatedly sought to reassure Afghans and foreign countries that they will not reimpose the brutal rule of their last period in power, when they carried out violent public punishments and barred women and girls from public life.
However, more than three weeks after they swept into Kabul, they have yet to announce a government or give details about the social restrictions they will now enforce.
Mujahid denied there were any disagreements within the movement about the formation of a new government and said it would be announced soon, but he did not set a date.
He also said women were back at work in the health and education sectors and “other fields will be provided, one by one, once the system has been established for them”.
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