The fight for Panjshir Valley reveals the reality of a Taliban government

The group has a choice between conciliation and violence. Many fear they will choose the latter

In a press conference on Monday, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said that Taliban forces had captured the Panjshir Valley, and with it, any expectation, for now, that pockets of the country might withstand the group’s lightning-quick takeover of the country.

Capturing the valley would deliver a major, even historic win for the Taliban. The Soviet Union made nine attempts to do so during its occupation of the country between 1979 to 1989. Only one was successful. After seizing the valley's basin, controlling the region proved even harder, with nearby mountains offering good cover for local resistance forces.

Now, the Taliban appears to have near-total control of Afghanistan. Largely free from the distraction of the National Resistance Front (NRF), as Panjshir’s resistance movement is known, the Taliban will decide the kind of government it wants to form. Taliban officials have been in closed-door discussions over the matter for several days.

Senior Taliban officials have long insisted that they are prepared to govern peacefully, seeking to allay fears that they will bring back the reign of terror for which the group was infamous when it ruled in the 1990s. Whether or not they will do so is a central question determining the future of Afghanistan. The majority of the country’s population is young, and has never lived under Taliban rule.

In an audio recording released shortly after Mr Mujahid’s remarks on Monday, Ahmad Massoud, leader of the NRF, claimed that the Taliban had, in its alleged conquest of Panjshir, violated a call by Afghanistan’s leading religious clerics for a ceasefire. He vowed to continue the resistance, and urged other Afghans to rise up.

Mr Massoud also stressed his belief that the Taliban has not changed. Nearly every day, new evidence emerges suggesting he may be right. Increasing reports of violations raise concerns. In the past fortnight, the group has been accused of hunting down and killing civil servants from the former government. Last week, a group of former soldiers in the process of surrendering to the Taliban were reportedly executed in Daykundi province.

The dissonance between the group’s claims of a new, more tolerant era and the actions of fighters on the ground raises questions about the Taliban's intentions. It could also be a sign of a much more complicated problem, which is that the group's leadership has little control over its foot soldiers. If true, this would be a major barrier on the path towards forming a sustainable government.

Ultimately, the surest step the Taliban’s leadership can take to secure its position of power and to earn the confidence of everyone in Afghanistan is to demonstrate that it understands what peace looks like. This means prioritising discipline, law and order among its own ranks, and pursuing justice most swiftly for the victims of crimes committed in its name. It also means ending any attempts to defeat resistance holdouts such as Mr Massoud’s violently, opting instead only for diplomacy, no matter how long it takes.

The fall of Panjshir would add to the tragedies of Afghanistan. The whole episode is also a reflection of the issues the Taliban will have more widely, ones of popular and international legitimacy, control of the country and the refusal of many Afghans to submit to fundamentalist rule. Most importantly, the group’s choice between ending or continuing bloodshed in the valley will give Afghans an idea of what to expect whenever a new Taliban government is announced.

Published: September 7th 2021, 3:00 AM