DOHA, Qatar — The Taliban on Monday seized Panjshir province, a restive mountain region that was the final holdout of resistance forces in the country, cementing the group’s total control over Afghanistan a week after U.S. forces departed the country.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the Islamist group had “completely conquered” the Panjshir Valley. In a statement, he stated that “our last attempts to establish peace and security within the country have yielded results.”
A senior official of the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan confirmed that the Taliban had captured the valley, which was neither conquered by the Taliban in the 1990s nor by the Soviet Union in its nearly decade-long occupation in the 1980s. “Yes, Panjshir has fallen. Taliban took over government offices. Taliban fighters entered into the governor’s house,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter
The official added that Amrullah Saleh, a senior anti-Taliban leader who had served as vice president of the ousted government, had fled for Tajikistan.
But on Twitter, the NRF said its forces remained “in all strategic positions across the valley to continue the fight” and that the “Taliban’s claim of occupying Panjshir is false.” And in a video recorded Friday, Saleh said reports at the time that he had fled the country were “totally baseless,” although he added that the situation was “difficult.”
- A brutal weekend for women in Afghanistan saw a pregnant policewoman reportedly killed by the Taliban, while the Islamist group violently suppressed a women’s rights demonstration in Kabul.
- The Taliban said at a Monday news conference that the announcement of a new Afghan government would come soon and that its shadowy supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, was slated to appear publicly in the near future.
- Taliban officials met Sunday with the United Nations undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, who promised to maintain assistance, a spokesman for the Islamist group said. A spokesman for the Taliban said that the group met Monday with the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The Taliban gains followed an extended period of heavy fighting between resistance guerrillas and Afghanistan’s new rulers. After the Taliban took control of Kabul, last month, resistance fighters established a Panjshir Valley base.
On social media, Taliban officials shared a photo Monday that purported to show their fighters taking control of local administrative buildings.
In a voice message posted on his Facebook page, Ahmad Massoud, the leader of the last pocket of resistance forces in Panjshir, called for a national uprising against the group. He said that the Taliban had attacked Panjshir in recent days, killing “a record amount of people and resistance troops,” as well as his family. He accused the Taliban of using foreign fighters and said a country ruled by the group would be “isolated, in darkness, away from art.”
As he called on Afghans, both home and abroad, to oppose the Taliban, Massoud decried what he saw as efforts to repaint the Taliban’s public image. He stated that the Taliban had not changed. “It has become even more brutal, radicalized, hateful, and fanatic.”
In a Facebook post, the NRF said that “the people of Afghanistan should be assured that the resistance will continue until the freedom and justice is achieved by God’s help.”
Meanwhile, at a news conference in Kabul, Mujahid said that Afghan troops who had been trained by Western governments in the past two decades would be asked to rejoin the country’s security forces alongside Taliban fighters. Some Afghan soldiers fled Kabul to Panjshir following the Taliban’s capture of Kabul.
“The forces that were trained by the previous government must rejoin,” he said. “In the upcoming system, all the forces that were previously trained and are professional will be reintegrated with our forces, because our country needs a strong army.”
Mujahid also said that Haibatullah Akhundzada, the hard-line cleric who leads the Taliban, “is alive [and] we will see him soon.” Akhundzada is expected to be named the country’s supreme leader.
Over the weekend, concerns over the Taliban’s treatment of women were again in the spotlight. A policewoman was beaten and shot dead by Taliban militants in front of relatives at her home in central Ghowr province on Saturday, the BBC reported, citing eyewitnesses. According to media reports, the Taliban claimed that the victim was innocent and was still investigating.
Separately, a Taliban spokesman told the Guardian that the group had detained four men who allegedly struck female protesters during a Saturday demonstration against the Taliban’s extreme interpretation of Islamic law, which sharply curtails women’s political rights.
As the Taliban swept to power last month, the group sought to convince skeptics that it wouldn’t return to the harsh rule it imposed when it last controlled the country, from 1996 to 2001. These latest developments are in addition to reports that there have been reprisal murders throughout the country. This array of human rights issues could make it more difficult for the Taliban and other world leaders to allow the return of aid, which has been largely frozen since its takeover of Afghanistan.
Taliban officials met in Kabul on Sunday with the United Nations undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, who promised to maintain assistance for the Afghan people, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said.
The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross also arrived in the country on Sunday to visit aid operations. In a video message, Peter Maurer said he would talk to authorities about ensuring that “neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian action” continues. A Taliban spokesperson tweeted Monday that Maurer had met officials in Kabul.
The United Nations has warned of an impending humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, where foreign aid made up much of the previous Western-backed government’s budget.
On Monday, meanwhile, the State Department helped four U.S. citizens leave Afghanistan over ground, a senior State Department official said, marking the first overland evacuation it has facilitated since the U.S. military withdrew from Afghanistan last week. According to the official who spoke under anonymity because it was sensitive, the Taliban were aware of their operation but did not hinder them safe passage.
The four Americans were part of the group that Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) had initially tried to evacuate from the country, said the official. Ground evacuations are a very rare way to leave the country, until they can return at Kabul’s Airport.
The departures happened just before Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Qatar, which has become a transit point for more than 55,000 people fleeing Afghanistan and resettling in the United States and elsewhere. Blinken’s top aides said that the visit was intended to show gratitude to the U.S. officials and Qatari officials for their assistance in the evacuation efforts. However, it comes at a time when the Biden administration is facing a variety of problems related to Afghanistan. Blinken was joined by Lloyd Austin, Defense Secretary of the United States, for dinner with Qatari Emir Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani shortly after his arrival.
In Mazar-e Sharif, airplanes with Americans and interpreters have been waiting on the ground for days amid conflicting reports that they are being held up either by the Taliban or awaiting State Department clearance for departure.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.)
A State Department spokeswoman said the agency no longer has personnel on the ground after the U.S.-led evacuation mission ended last month, and it doesn’t control the airspace “whether over Afghanistan or elsewhere in the region.”
“Given these constraints, we also do not have a reliable means to confirm the basic details of charter flights, including who may be organizing them, the number of U.S. citizens and other priority groups onboard, the accuracy of the rest of the manifest, and where they plan to land, among many other issues,” the spokeswoman said.
The United States will, however “hold the Taliban to its pledge to let people freely depart Afghanistan,” she added.
Mehrdad reported from Doha, Khan from Peshawar, Pakistan, and Pannett from Sydney. This report was contributed by Susannah George, Shaiq Hussain, John Hudson, Sammy Westfall, and Shaiq Hussain, Islamabad.