An undeclared ceasefire between the Resistance forces and Taliban was in place till Saturday evening but talks have failed over the Taliban’s insistence that Amrullah Saleh be handed over to them. Ceasefire has been broken.
New Delhi: The Taliban understand how difficult it is to capture Afghanistan’s Panjshir valley. They know that it is a sinkhole that can make them face their Waterloo. But without bagging Panjshir, the Taliban’s victory is incomplete. Amrullah Saleh, the caretaker President of Afghanistan and the man leading the Resistance Movement, chose to fall back to Panjshir in the wake of the Taliban’s rapid onslaught, pushing the Americans on the backfoot and capturing the seat of power in Kabul. In the past, Panjshir valley has always remained unconquered. Despite several attempts by the Soviet forces, they too gave up on it, as the typical terrain here favours the defender, with only one major road passing through the valley. Several smaller roads jut out of the main artery only to end abruptly or lead to “killing grounds”. To make things worse, the CIA had helped the Afghans construct a huge network of large tunnels and underground complexes in Panjshir, to withstand extremely heavy punishment without collapsing, while providing shelter to almost 50,000 people.
Approaching this valley is a big challenge. It has two prominent passes that are the only two gateways it has to the outside world. The Khawak Pass connects it with Afghanistan’s Baghlan province and the Anjuman pass connects it to the Badakhshan province. Apart from these two passes, there is another route through Jabal Siraj, which connects Panjshir with Bagram and Kabul, but that route is not significant for a large force to enter the valley. The topography of the two passes mentioned here is also complicated and any advancing force can be stopped easily by a small group of fighters. In addition, Charikar is yet another place through which some movement is possible. So laying siege to Panjshir valley, which has several districts within, is not practical; also, the Taliban do not possess the capacity of laying such a siege. Panjshir can hold out for a long period. Apparently, arms and ammunition manufacturing capabilities are there within to cater to operational logistics.
To give a perspective, in the seventh attack on Panjshir during April-September 1984, more than 30,000 Soviet soldiers were used against 12,000-odd Afghan soldiers, out of whom more than 2,000 were locals from the Panjshir valley itself. More than 400 fighter jets and helicopters and 160 tanks and hundreds of vehicles were used in the attack. The Marshal of the Soviet Union, Sergei Sokolov himself led the attack. Despite this, the Soviets couldn’t capture Panjshir. Northern Alliance commander Ahmed Massoud had an inkling of the Soviet plans and had understood their tactics. He ensured that civilian casualties were avoided by evacuating all the inhabitants of Panjshir to safer areas. To delay the Soviet advance, ambush parties were left behind. All the roads, villages and helicopter landing zones were heavily mined. All these preparations were carried out in a well-planned and secret manner and a token activity was maintained near the Soviet base at Anava (Bagram) to deceive the Soviets into believing that a conventional defence was being prepared. After that, in the eighth and ninth offensives, the Soviets used only air power; they did not launch their ground forces in the valley. But in the final attack, Massoud’s forces were able to break through and capture Takhar and Baghlan provinces and continued to capture territory till the final Soviet withdrawal.
At present, the battlelines are being drawn. On the one hand, the Taliban have tried to break Saleh’s rank and file by offering them 12 ministerial posts; this is meant for the Afghan forces mainly consisting of Tajiks, in return of Saleh’s custody—which was not acceptable. While on the other hand the Taliban launched a 1,500-strong force through Khawak Pass; but this attack was repulsed by a small platoon level Afghan forces deployed there in anticipation.
To gain legitimacy and appear as a new, reformed Taliban, as well as to prevent pitched battles, the Taliban have drawn up a list of names for possible inclusion in the Taliban government. The names include Ahmed Massoud, Ata Mohammed Noor, Abdullah Abdullah and Hamid Karzai. As on Friday, an eight-member Taliban delegation led by Maulvi Amir Khan Muttaqi was talking to Ahmed Massoud and other Tajik leaders at Charikar. An undeclared ceasefire between the Resistance forces and Taliban was in place till Saturday evening but according to the latest information coming, talks have failed over the Taliban’s insistence that Saleh be handed over to them. Ceasefire has been broken and Taliban forces have been dispatched.
As per sources, the force level available to the Resistance at Panjshir valley comprises thousands of trained fighters, a significantly large portion of whom are Tajiks loyal to Ahmed Massoud and Amrullah Saleh. Apart from them there are thousands of fighters from the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) who have fallen back from various posts and have joined the Resistance in Panjshir.
SHIFTING CAPITAL TO KANDAHAR?
The Taliban are currently consolidating their gains but the big game of Buzkashi has already begun. There is a proposal to shift the capital from Kabul to Kandahar as Kabul does not provide the Taliban with a stronghold. Kabul is vulnerable from Panjshir valley in the north. But the Taliban are also concerned about the threat from Pakistan on the eastern flank through Jalalabad. But the Haqqanis do not want this and have opposed the plan.
Meanwhile, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar has become very active and has been holding back-to-back meetings with various stakeholders. He wants to be in the power circles and is hoping to get a senior position, like that of Prime Minister or President. Taliban supreme commander, Maulavi Hibatullah Akhundzada is apparently in the custody of Pakistan, which wants to get the best deal out of the Taliban, as well as ensure a crackdown is launched on the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The two bomb blasts by the cadre of the Islamic State of Khorasan, in the vicinity of the Kabul airport area, were carried out apparently at the behest of Pakistan’s ISI to further assert their importance and extract their pound of flesh from the Taliban.
In the midst of all this, the Taliban had initially sent columns to strike at the south end of the Salang tunnel, since the bridge on Dariya Do Sakh was blown up by the Tajik fighters. The Taliban had around 1,200 fighters at the north end of Salang tunnel. The south end was further reinforced from Kabul. The Salang tunnel, built by the Soviets in the 1970s, is 2.67 kilometres long and is located at the Salang Pass in the Hindu Kush mountains, between the Parwan and Baghlan provinces and is in the proximity of the city of Kabul. The Salang tunnel is vulnerable and if blocked anywhere, like it happened in November 1982 when a truck and a fuel tanker exploded inside, thus killing almost 3,000 people—mostly Soviet troops coming from Russia to Kabul—Panjshir cannot be reached and overrun. Similarly, over 2,000 Taliban men were dispatched to various areas of Andarab from Kunduz. More than 1,200 fighters have arrived as reinforcements from Badakhshan.
But all this appears to be a knee-jerk reaction from the Taliban; the dispatch of soldiers does not seem to be the part of a well thought out plan. Taliban’s hands are full trying to consolidate their gains at present, but immediately thereafter, the capability to launch a massive attack on Panjshir is not apparent. What the Taliban need the most at present is the legitimacy of their new regime in Kabul. They do not have access to their assets and funds in the US and are starved of any financial assistance from the World Bank as well as the International Monetary Fund, as restrictions have been imposed on them in the wake of their takeover of Afghanistan. This is not only going to impact their battle logistics but also their daily needs.
Even if the Taliban once again launch a surprise attack, they will need the Bagram airbase as their logistics supply base. The Americans need their tails to be clear. Who knows, what if Bagram falls to Saleh’s forces in the near future, after the US troops withdraw; in which case Afghan forces will use it as their launchpad to take Kabul, which is within the range of the artillery guns once deployed within the ample space available inside Bagram. Given the terrain and topography of Panjshir valley, as well as the preparations there, where the Taliban have never operated, it will be a Herculean task for the Taliban to emerge victorious. It is interesting to note that Fasihuddin Hafizullah, commonly known as Qari Fasihuddin, a Tajik Taliban fighter, who was in Kandahar, has been named the commander of the Taliban forces to capture Panjshir.
The sinkhole that Panjshir valley is, is tough to be cracked open and if the Taliban decide to take the battle there, it may well be Taliban’s Waterloo. Even with the support from other interested parties, the outcome will not change. In yet another related interesting development, the Taliban have seized a large number of cell phone towers and communication hubs all over Afghanistan. It is learnt that they are going to shut down Internet and mobile communication in Afghanistan. The situation is quite fluid, and a big surprise may be in store as the deadline of 31 August approaches.
Col Satish Tyagi is a veteran of the Indian Army who fought in the IPKF in Sri Lanka and took part in Kargil war. He is the founder of the Counter Terrorism School in Kashmir valley. He has authored several books, of which the latest one is “The Kargil Victory: Battles from Peak to Peak” based on his experiences in the war.