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Resistance fighters who flocked to Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley say they are preparing for the worst as the Taliban surround the province.
Militias and other fighters opposed to the insurgents have sought refuge in the region, the only territory not under Taliban control.
Among their commanders are Ahmad Massoud and Amrullah Saleh, who was vice president in the previous administration.
Both men are from Panjshir; the former is a son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, who battled the Soviets in the 1980s and became a leading opponent of the Taliban.
The Taliban have reportedly sent hundreds of fighters to surround the valley, 65 kilometres north-east of Kabul.
As of Monday morning, however, none appeared to be approaching, said Mahdi Housaini, a close aide to Mr Massoud.
Entry to the valley is by a narrow road; it is the only major route in and out of the province.
Mr Housaini lives in Bazarak, Panjshir’s capital district. He told The National that people in the province “have read and heard the reports” of Taliban fighters surrounding the valley.
“They worry, to an extent, but that is human. They are worried about their kids and the Taliban coming to burn their homes,” he said.
“But they are determined to turn this beautiful valley into a mass grave” for the insurgents.
Mr Housaini manages an orphanage in the area. On Sunday, he escorted the children to relative safety in Kabul, passing through several Taliban checkpoints en route.
“They do not suspect a van full of children as being a potential threat, but otherwise they search all vehicles and sometimes interrogate passengers,” he said.
On Monday, Ahmad Massoud told Reuters that “negotiations are the only way forward”.
In an interview with The National last week, he confirmed his team was in contact with the Taliban and sought a deal that would “allow the people of Afghanistan to be a part of the government and have an inclusive government”.
But he also said his forces were preparing to fight.
“As soon as war breaks out in the Panjshir Valley, then there is no going back,” he said.
Three districts in Baghlan province, which shares a border with Panshir, were seized briefly by local resistance forces on Sunday.
But they were recaptured by the Taliban, a spokesman for the group said on Monday.
Ahmad Massoud said the resistance forces were not under direct Panjshiri command.
The group claimed to have captured the Talib governor of Baghlan and killed both the deputy governor and the deputy head of the area’s special forces.
Ali Maisam Nazary is the head of foreign relations for the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, the faction Massoud commands.
He said the Taliban had attempted an incursion into Panjshir the previous night but were forced to retreat.
Taliban representatives confirmed on social media that their fighters had been sent to the area, “to control it”. But they have not confirmed Mr Nazary’s account of battles in Panjshir itself.
Mr Nazary, who is based in the US, on Monday released more details of the Panjshiri leader’s proposed conditions for a deal.
He said they include “decentralisation of power and resources, multiculturalism, democracy, moderate Islam and equal rights and freedom for all citizens”.
The Taliban have not responded publicly to those conditions, some of which are antithetical to their cause.
Ahmad Wali Massoud is a brother of Ahmad Shah Massoud, an uncle of Ahmad Massoud and a political figure in the Panjshiri resistance movement.
He told The National: “What [Ahmad Massoud] has asked is the same thing every Afghan has asked. We are not going to go backwards.”
He said his nephew has not sought a political office for himself as part of the deal. Rather, “he is asking to stick to the principle that Afghanistan be part of today’s world, which includes the idea of ‘democracy’”.
There are, however, political differences within the resistance forces. Last week, Mr Saleh declared himself President of Afghanistan, but Ashraf Ghani, who has fled the country, has yet to rescind the title. Mr Massoud has yet to recognise Mr Saleh’s assertion.
“I really don’t understand his claim,” Mr Massoud said. “If anything, it’s about a dispute between him and his president [Ashraf Ghani], but there is no Ashraf Ghani and no interest in that government any more.”
Mr Massoud said the forces converging to form a resistance movement are diverse.
Anti-Taliban political and military figures, such as Abdul Rashid Dostum and Atta Mohammed Noor, both thought to be in Uzbekistan, continue to command loyal forces “in different parts of the country,” he said.
“If, in Kabul, there is not an inclusive government, then the resistance will pop up everywhere.”
Yet many Afghans, particularly young people, remain wary of such figures and others in the resistance movement. They note that several of them have been accused of human rights breaches in the past.
But Mr Massoud said whatever they had done more than 20 years ago had occurred “in a time of war”.
“In the past 20 years, several of them have been in government, where they showed they do respect the principles of human rights,” he said.
In 2016, during his tenure as Afghanistan’s vice president, Mr Dostum was investigated over the kidnapping and beating of a provincial governor.
Mr Massoud emphasised that the resistance stretches far beyond the fighters holed up in Panjshir Valley and the anti-Taliban militias rising up elsewhere.
He said it also includes many people who will face the most extreme oppression under Taliban rule and who had never experienced it before.
“Young people, who make up 70 per cent of the population, are part of the resistance. Women who have different values to the Taliban are part of the resistance. Civil society is part of the resistance.”
“The geography of the resistance has expanded” beyond those who carry weapons, he said. “It’s not about power. It’s about the plight of a nation.”