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As Taliban battles Massoud-led resistance in Afghanistan's Panjshir, civilians in the line of fire | Deep Dive

India Today logo India Today 21-05-2022 Saikiran Kannan

Panjshir is once again proving to be a hotbed of resistance against the Taliban in the latest round of fighting between the National Resistance Front (NRF) and the fundamentalist group, resulting in loss of lives on both sides.

The Panjshir province is to the north of Kabul and has been at the receiving end of severe war crimes allegedly being committed by the Taliban. This is owing to the demographics of the region, predominantly housing the Tajiks. The Ahmad Massoud-led National Resistance Front in Panjshir provided the last resistance to the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan in 2021. Ahmad Massoud is the son of legendary Tajik military commander Ahmad Shah Massoud.

India Today got in touch with locals and experts who track these events closely to get a microscopic view of the events unfolding in the region.

The Taliban has denied all allegations and also that its fighters died while reclaiming parts of Panjshir and other areas such as Andarab.

Speaking exclusively to India Today, Tariq Ghazniwal (@TGhazniwal), a spokesperson of the Taliban, the Taliban's media head and the current Director-General of the state-run Bakhtar News Agency, says, "There is no fighting; the situation is normal; no incident has taken place; some journalists based abroad and their political leaders want to promote themselves through such conversations and seek refuge and citizenship abroad."

Ghazniwal was being asked about the tweet shared by Frud Bezhan, a journalist working for Radio Free Liberty covering Afghanistan.

Ghazniwal, however, did acknowledge that there were some issues a few weeks ago and that the Taliban had cleared the areas of any NRF presence, owing to the NRF fighters surrendering themselves to the Taliban.

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What is the current situation in Panjshir?

India Today spoke to Shafi Karimi (@karimi_shafi), a freelance journalist who follows the events unfolding in Afghanistan, specifically focusing on updates from Panjshir and Andarab battles. On the current situation, Shafi says, "The fighting is taking place in parts of Dara, Panjshir and Andarab. According to the news coming to me from local sources, the members of the Resistance Front are present in the Panjshir districts; Dara district, Shaba base, Arezoo valleys, Shotol, Andarab and in the areas of Deh Salah, Banu, and Pol Hesar."

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India Today also managed to interview a member of the NRF Youth Association. He calls himself "Sha"

(@UnitedNRF - an alias) to protect his and his family's identity. He mourns the lack of support his people (Tajiks) have received and deeply regrets the spate of incidents that have occurred in Panjshir and Andarab. He feels if not for the NRF, the world may have never gotten to know the war crimes happening in the region. It is them who are documenting the events unfolding. The Taliban have been looking to limit the information that goes out of these regions by enforcing "food blockades, travel ban, cutting electricity, phone and Internet communications".

Natiq Malikzada (@natiqmalikzada), an international relations expert in the Middle East based in Afghanistan, adds that the fighting has been going on in these areas since the beginning of spring and the end of Ramadan. "In terms of control of geographical areas, in Panjshir, which has dozens of sub-valleys, the NRF forces have the upper hand, and the Taliban control only the Panjshir main valley and its road, which is the only road to and from Panjshir, and the provincial office is also located there. The rest of the valleys in Panjshir are in control of NRF, and it has been the same since August last year even after Taliban were able to get inside the valley."

Habib Khan, (@HabibKhanT), founder of the Afghan Peace Watch (@APWORG) and an award-winning journalist from Kabul, shares his views with India Today via a voice call. He says, "A lot of human rights violations have been committed in this region by the Taliban fighters. Arrests and torture of local populations have also taken place. The Taliban has also sent strong reinforcements to create a military base in between the mountains of Andarab and Panjshir."

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Faran Jeffery (@Natsecjeff), director general of Operations & Head Consultant at Midstone Centre for International Affairs, an independent policy research and advocacy institute for international affairs, says the Taliban is currently winning the battle but things were pretty bad for the Taliban until last week.

"The Taliban have largely succeeded in pushing back NRF rebels from some locations. But clashes are still reported from time to time in some areas where NRF still has cells active. While this is the biggest assault by NRF since the fall of Panjshir to the Taliban, it doesn't appear likely that NRF will be able to capture and then hold even a few districts in Panjshir unless there's direct foreign intervention in their favour," he says.

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Is the NRF resurgence really happening?

Journalist Shafi Karimi comments that before the first clash between the Taliban and Resistance Front in the Panjshir Valley, the Taliban had always denied the existence of this front and even when the Resistance Front was able to take control of the Dara district for a while, the Taliban still rejected it. "But the reality is that there is a Resistance Front, and its forces are also fighting the Taliban in the Hindu Kush mountains. The Resistance Front spokesman said several former Afghan security forces have joined them, and this front is getting stronger."

NRF Youth Association member Sha feels there is a definite resurgence of the NRF, and the offensive has been so powerful that the Taliban have had to deploy its "Badri suicide squads in Panjshir". "Commander Khaled Amiry reported that his team alone has killed more than 200 Taliban fighters in the last 3 weeks."

The Taliban have also been meeting the NRF leadership to negotiate the peace process. "More recently, Ahmad Massoud, the leader of the National Resistance Front, sent a delegation to Tehran to talk and discuss the situation in Afghanistan with the Taliban. Unfortunately, the Taliban are not autonomous, they could not decide the next steps after this meeting. They only follow orders from Pakistan ISI," he adds.

International relations expert Natiq Malikzada adds, "Well, I don't call the ongoing situation as 'resurgence', I call it escalation or intensification. I have been closely monitoring the situation in northern Afghanistan, especially after the Taliban came to power. The NRF has been active all over the area, especially in Panjshir and Andarab, thanks to the geographical areas that they hold. They continuously attacked the Taliban positions. For a while, during winter the NRF activities had decreased due to the cold weather of northern areas and Hindu Kush mountains, but they had repeatedly stated that with the beginning of spring and the end of Ramadan, their spring offensive will begin, and they would extend the war to other provinces. Right now, the war is going on in full scale in Panjshir, Andarab and Warsaj, and to a minimum level than those three mentioned areas, in Badakhshan, Kapisa and Kunduz."

Habib Khan, founder of the Afghan Peace Watch, agrees that there has been a resurgence in NRF's actions, especially in the Tajik-dominated areas. "The Panjshir resistance is led by son of the late Ahmed Shah Masood and the Andarab resistance is led by Gen. Khair Mohammad. There are several other anti-Taliban fronts, in addition to the Islamic State. Among those, the Freedom Front of Afghanistan consisted of former military officers and led by Gen. Yasin Zia, the former military chief of staff of the republic. There is the Islamic National Movement for Afghanistan's Freedom led by Pashtun General, Abdul Matin Sulimankhil. A few other new fronts are also emerging, including the one announced by the former general of the ANA in the south, Gen. Sami Sadat and another one by the former chief of Afghan intelligence, Nabil Wardak."

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How has the Taliban reacted to this?

Journalist Shafi spoke to a few locals in the Dara district. "The locals spoke to me about the fierce battles between the Taliban and the NRF forces resulting in more than 30 Taliban fighters killed and a number of them wounded and therefore the district was out of control. The Taliban eventually withdrew, only to send more troops from Kabul and other provinces to engage the NRF. When the new Taliban forces arrived in Panjshir, they killed several people on charges of complicity with the NRF and then transferred some to local prisons. Similarly, in Andarab, the Taliban killed a number of farmers and students for allegedly collaborating with the Resistance Front."

Sha feels the story of his people has been somewhat overshadowed by events happening elsewhere. "Once again, our pain and suffering were overshadowed, this time by Russia-Ukraine war. There has not been enough airtime for our misfortune and misery."

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Natiq speaks more about the complex geographical nature of Panjshir valley and its surroundings. "Panjshir is a very complex place geographically. If you do not have the experience of living in the valleys and mountains of Panjshir, you will face many problems, something that the Taliban are currently suffering from. The Taliban have tried many times to find their way into the mountains and the valleys, but each time they have been ambushed and attacked by the NRF forces, which resulted in heavy casualties for the Taliban.

Just four days ago, they were ambushed by NRF forces in the Hauz Lalan area, one of the highest places in Panjshir, and sources in NRF confirmed to me that more than a hundred Taliban were killed in that ambush. Hence, the Taliban just stay in the main valley. If they do enter the inner areas, they take civilians as hostages to use their houses as shelters and prevent NRF forces from any attack or ambush. I spoke with a family whose two sons have joined NRF.

When the Taliban found out about this, they came early in the morning to their house and arrested their father and younger brother. The father added that his younger son in prison forced him to swear that he will not ask his two other sons to surrender as if they surrender, they will be killed."

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Habib Khan adds: "The Taliban recently released a video and said numerous resistance fighters have surrendered to them in Panjshir. But the video does not show any of the weapons captured as all of them were in fact civilians. Family members of these civilians could have had contact with the resistance forces but that doesn't mean that all of them were fighting against the Taliban. They have killed many civilians across Afghanistan following the takeover. This targeting of civilians doesn't just happen in the north but happens across Afghanistan, including in Kandahar. Former police and military staff and their families have been systematically targeted."

In the below post, Aamaj News reports: "Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement that 'a large number of gardeners in Dara district of Panjshir province have laid down their weapons and joined the forces of the Islamic Emirate.' But a resident of the valley says the Taliban gathered local youths and filmed them under the guise of resistance."

He further adds that "Revenge killings have been happening throughout the Taliban 2.0 regime. Our organisation Afghan Peace Watch (APW) has documented more than 1200 instances of human rights violations, revenge killings, torture, abductions and disorder under the Taliban rule."

Faran Jeffrey too adds the Taliban's stronghold on the local media has made it near impossible to get real-time updates but adds that "there are many allegations of war crimes being committed by the Taliban, including allegations of extrajudicial killings, extreme torture of civilians and use of civilians as human shields to bait the rebels."

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Why the sudden escalation?

The fight or the escalation initially started owing to the local defiance of the Taliban's declaration that Eid al-Fitr is to be celebrated on May 1. Locals marked the Islamic holiday on May 2 instead of May 1 after a prominent local imam criticised the Taliban's decision as politicised and issued a fatwa calling for it to be celebrated in keeping with the date set by Mecca. This led to differences between the locals and the Taliban with the NRF launching a new offensive.

Natiq adds: "Last month, the Taliban ordered the arrest of all Panjshir men to take guarantee from them that they will not join the NRF." Failure to fall in line, the locals often get arrested in prisons and executed if they fail to comply with the Taliban. "Similarly, they arrested dozens of civilians, including children, last week from Abdullah Khil Valley. According to Hasht Subh Daily newspaper, all of them, including two children, were shot dead by Taliban just because NRF forces started an attack from their village."

Is this a typical ethnic genocide being committed by the Taliban against the Tajiks?

Shafi says, "The Taliban send their new forces from Helmand, Urzgan, Khost and Kandahar to Panjshir and all of them are Pashtuns. So what's going on in Panjshir and Andarab: it's Tajik genocide. You see, when Pakistan launches rockets on Afghan soil in Kunar, no one raises their voice. But the same people of Kunar went to Panjshir to fight against the Tajiks, so this is a clear example of the Tajik genocide."

Sha adds that this is a trend. "There are recent reports about the Hazaras in the Hazarajat areas; when they were displaced by the Taliban, the Kuchi Pashtuns (nomads) seized the lands of the displaced. The Taliban, also Pashtun, gave the Kuchi full authority and legal papers to possess the lands of the Hazaras. Many people are concerned that the people of Panjshir are facing a similar fate as the Hazaras. Not to mention the entire Panjshir valley is full of resources, gemstones, minerals, life, water, and everything a tribe of nomads needs to survive."

He adds that "the Taliban are an ethnic nationalist terrorist group, not an Islamic emirate or whatsoever. They have changed university and cultural sites into the Pashto language. They have even changed the curriculum of the schools in the north, imposing a language to people who don't even speak or read Pashto."

Natiq, on the other hand, has a different point of view. He feels Tajiks are not minorities, but rather one of the majorities. "Tajiks are the largest population in Afghanistan. There haven't been any censuses in Afghanistan's history and there is no exact information on which ethnic groups are majority or minority, but one thing is for sure from an ethnic perspective, there is no majority. Afghanistan is the land of minorities, and Pashtuns and Tajiks are the two largest ethnic groups. But from a language perspective, it can be easily said that Farsi - Tajik people's language - is the majority. Farsi is the medium of conversation among different ethnic groups. Even if two non-Tajiks, non-Tajik-Pashtun are talking to each other. If Pashtuns go to areas where Uzbeks live, they speak Farsi, and in return, if Uzbeks go to Pashtun populated areas, they speak Farsi as learning Pashto is difficult. Therefore, the genocide of the largest population like the Tajiks, who are deeply rooted in every aspect of Afghanistan, is impossible, and the Pashtun Taliban cannot even dare to think about it. For this, I prefer to call it war crimes."

Habib Khan feels there is systematic targeting of the Tajiks in Panjshir and surrounding areas. "Ethnic Tajiks live in many provinces across the country in western and southern Afghanistan too. But since the NRF and other Tajik-dominated resistance forces are mainly concentrated on Panjshir and other surrounding provinces, the focus of the Taliban is more on these areas."

"The Taliban is being backed by their Pakistani masters to target other ethnicities too like the Hazaras. Their intent is to create ethnic divisions, use the Islamic card and implement the 'divide and conquer policy of the pre-independence British forces. Such ideas are being planted by the ISI." He also adds it does not mean that the Taliban are any softer to the Pashtuns, but it is Pakistan that wants the Taliban to showcase that it represents the Pashtuns for political reasons.

"There are a lot of Pashtuns who are against the Taliban. There are also new Pashtun-based fronts and resistant forces that are targeting the Taliban in Nangarhar, Paktia, Helmand and other Pashtun dominated provinces."

Faran adds that as a strategy, the Taliban have deployed many non-local fighters in these areas, and they have a very aggressive and discriminatory attitude towards non-Pushtun locals.

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How do you see this ending? Will TTP get into the picture?

Natiq explain the events that are already unfolding. "TTP is already in the picture. According to several sources, TTP members are already fighting alongside the Afghan Taliban in Panjshir and Andarab. Several locals have also told me that they have seen Taliban members in Panjshir who cannot even speak any languages of Afghanistan except Urdu. As far as I know and several other journalists have also reported, more than 500 TTP members are present only in Panjshir."

The below video shows thousands of new Taliban fighters from Kandahar, Khost, Helmand and Uruzgan provinces entering Panjshir to join the existing groups.

"And I think not just TTP, Pakistan's ISI is also involved. I think the Taliban play a two-sided game. On one hand, they use TTP force in Panjshir because they are familiar with how to fight in mountainous regions, on the other hand, they get ISI support on intelligence. Several news media have reported that the Taliban biometric people at checkpoints inside Panjshir as well as at the entrance and exit of Panjshir, identify, and arrest previous government army members. And several credible news sources have reported the arrest of former army forces/personnel in Panjshir during the last seven days. And many locals have told me that those who run biometric machines are not Afghan Taliban or from Afghanistan."

Sha signs off by depicting the typical double-sided politics of the Taliban. "On the one hand, the Taliban are using religion to spark sentiments and abuse the grievances of Muslims in Kashmir to recruit more soldiers in Pakistan and Afghanistan. On the other hand, the Taliban are using Pashtunwali, Pashto language, and Loy Pashtunistan to merge the Pashtuns from the other side of the border. They are very successful in that."

Habib Khan feels that Afghanistan will become an epicentre for global terrorists. Groups like the Islamic State and TTP are thriving in Afghanistan today ever since the Taliban took over. The TTP has been targeting the Pakistani military, and the ISKP has been targeting Central Asian nations via rockets into Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. There are reports that Al Qaeda has also been regrouping in the region. "Afghanistan could soon become a no man's land where terrorists could nurture themselves and use it as a backyard for carrying out terror activities. Afghanistan will become a pariah state. The country will go back to becoming anarchy and this is what Pakistan wants. "

He feels this will make the world turn against Afghanistan once again. The current situation has given a morale boost to international jihadists. "The former head of the ISI was in Afghanistan mediating between Pakistan and the TTP. This resulted in a temporary ceasefire. But the problem is even Afghan Taliban members (close to 400) are joining the TTP, owing to religious motivation and want the imposition of Sharia in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is something that the Taliban are not able to stop or have control of."

It is yet to be seen whether these TTP fighters will return to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas once the fighting in Panjshir stops.

The data and graph-based analysis were compiled by the Afghan Peace Watch (@APWORG).

(The writer is a Singapore-based Open-Source Intelligence analyst)

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