Panjshir Commander Ahmad Massoud offers deal to the Taliban

The remote valley is famous for being almost impossible to conquer through military force

An Afghan military helicopter is pictured in Panjshir province in Afghanistan on August 16, 2021. AFP
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Operatives working for Ahmad Massoud, the 32-year-old resistance leader commanding anti-Taliban forces in the Panjshir valley in north-eastern Afghanistan, have contacted the new Taliban government in Kabul and proposed a deal, a representative of Mr Massoud told The National.

The precise terms of Mr Massoud’s proposal to the Taliban are confidential, said Mahdi Housaini, an aide to Mr Massoud authorised to speak on his behalf.

But the broad outlines include a commitment from the Taliban not to attempt entry to the valley, and to give other political parties a say in their new government.

Mr Massoud commands a force of several thousand men, who are holed up in Panjshir, which is surrounded on all sides by Taliban-held territory.

They have been joined by upwards of 100 soldiers from the Afghan National Army Commando Corps, who retreated to the valley last weekend, as it became clear that the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul was assured.

They have brought with them a fleet of armoured personnel carriers and attack helicopters, Mr Housaini says.

He also stated that Afghanistan’s former vice president, Amrullah Saleh, is in the valley. Mr Saleh has not publicly confirmed that he is in Panjshir, though he has written on social media channels that he is still inside Afghanistan.

Panjshir is the only one of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces that has not been taken by the Taliban.

On Tuesday, Mr Saleh invoked the Afghan constitution to declare himself President, in the wake of former president Ashraf Ghani’s unexpected departure from Kabul.

Mr Saleh’s claim, which has not yet been publicly recognised by Mr Massoud, may be a “possible negotiating tactic” designed to strengthen Mr Saleh’s hand in any future talks with the Taliban, Mr Housaini suggests.

But Mr Housaini insists that Mr Massoud and Mr Saleh form a united front.

It is unclear how Taliban officials have reacted to Mr Massoud’s proposal, though Mr Housaini indicated that they have reached out with a proposal of their own, the details of which remain confidential.

According to Mr Housaini, Mr Massoud is prepared to resist the Taliban militarily, but would prefer a diplomatic solution to the present stand-off. He has not ruled out joining a Taliban-led government, under the conditions of his proposal.

“He is willing to forgive the assassination of his father if the Taliban are sincere and want peace,” Mr Housaini said. Mr Massoud’s father, Ahmad Shah Massoud, was a famed Afghan resistance commander during the Afghan-Soviet war in the 1980s. He was assassinated in 2001 at the hands of Taliban-allied Al Qaeda operatives posing as television journalists.

The Panjshir Valley, which is home to a population of 200,000 people, hosts more than 20 small “military bases”. There, sources say, Mr Massoud’s commanders are training young men from the province for any future combat.

The Panjshiris are confident that the Taliban will refrain from any attempts to take the valley militarily, but Mr Massoud has not ruled out the possibility.

There is talk among the province’s leaders about how to secure vulnerable segments of the population, should fighting break out. Among the options is a plan to evacuate women and children to areas outside the province, even if they are under Taliban control.

At the same time, Panjshir is taking in refugees from elsewhere in Afghanistan, including members of the ethnic Hazara population, who were previously persecuted by the Taliban, provided they are able to reach the province via the valley's main road or the few mountain passes that are traversable by foot.

Refugees, Mr Housaini says, have already arrived via roads on which the Taliban has not yet set up checkpoints, and are currently being sheltered by Panjshiri families in their homes. He emphasises, however, that the humanitarian situation is fragile, and will need outside support in order to be sustainable.

The Taliban is currently outmaneuvering the Panjshiris on the public relations front. National news channels, which are now regulated by the Taliban, have made little reference to the ongoing resistance in the valley.

The Taliban is also at an advanced stage in its efforts to establish diplomatic relations with neighbouring states, some of whom had supported the Panjshiris financially and militarily in past anti-Taliban resistance efforts.

Mr Housaini says that the Panjshiris have established their own lines of communication with foreign powers, including Central Asian countries, in part for the purpose of ensuring that aerial supply lines remain open, but that they are aware that foreign support is not as assured as it has been in the past.

Virtually every household in the province is armed, and Mr Massoud’s men are braced to defend the valley indefinitely, should talks between Mr Massoud and the Talban fail. Nonetheless, Mr Housaini says, “we need all the help we can get”.

Updated: August 19, 2021, 6:53 AM