Both Saleh and Massoud are in Panjshir and are meeting people.
New Delhi: By declaring an interim government consisting of more than two-third UN and other designated-terrorists with rewards on their heads, leaders of drug cartels, Pakistani stooges and proxies, as well as four Guantanamo Bay detainees, who were released in exchange of US soldier Bowe Bergdahl in 2014, the Taliban have come full circle by capturing power in Afghanistan for a second term.
But the Taliban have not been able to consolidate their base in their rush to grab power. Around 50,000 fighters under various warlords who opposed the Taliban takeover, are still at large and continue to hold several pockets in Afghanistan. It is evident that the Taliban do not enjoy the confidence of warlords such as Ata Mohammad Noor, Abdul Rasheed Dostum, Abdul Rasul Sayaf, Abdul Malik Pehelwan, Gul Agha Shirazi and Abdul Ghani Alipoor, to name just a few, who have refused to join a Taliban government. The Taliban have also declared premature victory in Panjshir valley in their rush to distribute the loot.
Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan remains incomplete until Panjshir remains with the Resistance Force. The self-declared President, Amrullah Saleh leads the movement, along with the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, Ahmad Massoud, who is leading a large force consisting of Tajiks and soldiers who have fallen back from the Afghan Army. This force is better organized and equipped to deal with the Taliban, who are yet to come out of the euphoria of sending the US Army out of Afghanistan. The Taliban had mounted an offensive by sending fighters in groups towards the western flank, but the Resistance Force did not take the bait and are not displaying any rush to launch an assault to recapture Kabul.
In one of the recent attacks, the Taliban sent a group of 2,000 fighters towards Khawak Pass but the National Resistance Force (NRF) blocked their movement by blowing up a mountainside, thus blocking the Taliban from both front and back. The Taliban force was thus hemmed in between these blocks without any escape routes, causing panic amongst them. The Khawak Pass was still far off. Like a well-trained army, the NRF did not immediately come out to attack, rather decided to take aimed sniper shots and use rocket assaults at leisure without exposing themselves, but causing casualties in the Taliban, As per one account, the Taliban lost more than 600 fighters, and the fight resulted in more than 1,000 Talibs being taken as prisoners by NRF to be used as bargaining chips at the negotiating table later.
In yet another development, a different set of Taliban fighters had met with some success on Saricha Road along Panjshir River via Tawakh near Rukha, and did capture the Panjshir governor’s office last Sunday. However, it was vacated by the NRF and the Taliban were not able to progress beyond Bazarak. Taliban commanders flew in captured Cobra helicopters as a display of their strength. As a counter, apparently, four AN-29 aircraft piloted by Afghan National Army (ANA) pilots, flew out of Tajikistan and dropped bombs on the Taliban. Several pickup trucks loaded with ammunition also came through, as supply lines to Tajikistan were opened. NRF has claimed that they have retaken the positions in Panjshir that had been earlier taken by the Taliban.
Meanwhile, Taliban’s northern force commander, Mawlawi Fasihuddin, a Tajik by origin, who was claimed to have been killed by the NRF, had actually escaped on foot and later on addressed the media, live. Reports are that he has been made chief of army staff of the Taliban army.
Taliban’s capabilities are limited, and it is widely believed that they have limited fuel, making it difficult for them to drive even their pick-up trucks, fly the machines or run the tanks. They have struck a deal with Pakistan to get fuel and ammunition in exchange of captured Humvees, rifles, laser range finders, armoured vehicles, anti-tank weapons, large calibre ammunitions, 122 mm artillery rounds, communication equipment, jammers, as well as night vison devices. The Taliban are said to have sold 100 Humvees to a drug-warlord in Helmand province for $10.8 million.
There were rumours that the Taliban had requested Pakistan to help them take Panjshir in return of their support to Pakistan in Kashmir and that Pakistan had agreed to send SSG battalions with a squadron of tanks and some artillery. In fact, some Punjabi speaking men were spotted amongst the Taliban stationed opposite the Resistance Force. Apparently, they were ISI or Pakistan army elements. It seems the ISI canard was deliberately leaked through the media, who lapped it up for its potential to capture wider viewership across the globe in general and India in particular. ISI aims to kill two birds with one stone by misleading the world, especially India, about its continuing hold on the Taliban, while also demoralising the Resistance Force. No Pakistani aircraft movement has been noticed, or confirmed by any agency, nor has there been any major movement on the ground by the Pakistan army. The use of drones may have been a possibility, but Panjshir is still holding out and is likely to remain a tough nut to crack. Both Saleh and Massoud are in Panjshir and are meeting people and strengthening their resistance. A three-day ceasefire beginning Wednesday between NRF and Taliban had been called, during which people were allowed to leave the valley and as on Friday a large exodus of women, children and those who can’t fight had begun. Saleh’s elder brother, Rohullah Saleh, with his family too was part of these people heading for Kabul. He was captured and tortured to death.
The turn of events in Panjshir is parallel to what had happened when the Soviet forces had attempted to break into Panjshir at Bazarak. The Tajik had evacuated most of the civilians and had occupied caves and tunnels that they used to attack after drawing the Soviet soldiers into the laterals. The Soviets made nine attempts but in vain.
At present, the actual fight is likely to begin after the termination of the ceasefire soon.
It is worth noting that the two main factions of the Taliban, Paktia and Kandahar, were playing a game of one-upmanship in the formation of government. The Paktia group is backed and preferred by Pakistan, and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the de facto Taliban leader, was not a good choice for them. Pakistan ISI chief, Lt Gen Faiz Hameed played a vital role in ensuring a pro Pakistan regime in Kabul. There were reports that Mullah Baradar was kept in custody to work out this pro-Pakistan regime.
Afghanistan is heading towards becoming a backward nation, ridden with obscurantism, bereft of civilization and art, devoid of unity and solidarity and a country that is forced into economic and political isolation. The medieval attitude of the Taliban is leading Afghanistan to a civil war in the very near future.
A fallout in Kashmir is expected, but we should not over-estimate Pakistan. For entry into Kashmir, the Taliban have to use the ground routes through Pakistan and Pakistan knows that India will unleash its fury on any such trigger. In addition, Pakistan’s economy is at its lowest ebb and the FATF sword is still hanging on its head.
Col Satish Tyagi is a veteran of the Indian Army who fought in the IPKF in Sri Lanka and took part in the Kargil war. He is the founder of the Counter Terrorism School in Kashmir valley. He has authored several books, of which the latest is “The Kargil Victory: Battles from Peak to Peak”, based on his experiences in the war.