DOHA, Qatar — The Taliban on Monday seized Panjshir province, a restive mountain region that was the final holdout of resistance forces in the country, cementing the group’s total control over Afghanistan a week after U.S. forces departed the country.
A senior official of the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan confirmed that the Taliban had captured the valley, which was neither conquered by the Taliban in the 1990s nor by the Soviet Union in its nearly decade-long occupation in the 1980s. “Yes, Panjshir has fallen. Taliban took control of government offices. Taliban fighters entered into the governor’s house,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The official added that Amrullah Saleh, a senior anti-Taliban leader who had served as vice president of the ousted government, had fled for Tajikistan.
But on Twitter, the NRF said its forces remained “in all strategic positions across the valley to continue the fight” and that the “Taliban’s claim of occupying Panjshir is false.” And in a video recorded Friday, Saleh said reports at the time that he had fled the country were “totally baseless,” although he added that the situation was “difficult.”
Here’s what to know
- A brutal weekend for women in Afghanistan saw a pregnant policewoman reportedly killed by the Taliban, while the Islamist group violently suppressed a women’s rights demonstration in Kabul.
- The Taliban said at a Monday news conference that the announcement of a new Afghan government would come soon and that its shadowy supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, was slated to appear publicly in the near future.
- Taliban officials met Sunday with the United Nations undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, who promised to maintain assistance, a spokesman for the Islamist group said. On Monday, a spokesman tweeted that they also met with the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The Taliban gains followed an extended period of heavy fighting between resistance guerrillas and Afghanistan’s new rulers. Resistance fighters set up a base in the Panjshir Valley days after the Taliban seized control of Kabul last month.
On social media, Taliban officials shared a photo Monday that purported to show their fighters taking control of local administrative buildings.
In a voice message posted on his Facebook page, Ahmad Massoud, the leader of the last pocket of resistance forces in Panjshir, called for a national uprising against the group. Taliban assaults in recent days had killed “a record number of people and resistance forces,” including his own family members, he said. He accused the Taliban of using foreign fighters and said a country ruled by the group would be “isolated, in darkness, away from art.”
As he called on Afghans, both at home and abroad, to oppose the Taliban, Massoud decried what he saw as efforts to repaint the group’s public image. “The Taliban has not changed in any way,” he said. “It has become even more brutal, radicalized, hateful, and fanatic.”
In a Facebook post, the NRF said that “the people of Afghanistan should be assured that the resistance will continue until the freedom and justice is achieved by God’s help.”
Meanwhile, at a news conference in Kabul, Mujahid said that Afghan troops who had been trained by Western governments in the past two decades would be asked to rejoin the country’s security forces alongside Taliban fighters. Some Afghan soldiers are among those who fled to Panjshir after the Taliban seized Kabul last month.
“The forces that were trained by the previous government must rejoin,” he said. “In the upcoming system, all the forces that were previously trained and are professional will be reintegrated with our forces, because our country needs a strong army.”
Mujahid also said that Haibatullah Akhundzada, the hard-line cleric who leads the Taliban, “is alive [and] we will see him soon.” Akhundzada is expected to be named the country’s supreme leader.
Over the weekend, concerns over the Taliban’s treatment of women were again in the spotlight. A policewoman was beaten and shot dead by Taliban militants in front of relatives at her home in central Ghowr province on Saturday, the BBC reported, citing eyewitnesses. The Taliban denied killing the woman — who, according to reports, was eight months’ pregnant — and said it was investigating the incident.
Separately, a Taliban spokesman told the Guardian that the group had detained four men who allegedly struck female protesters during a Saturday demonstration against the Taliban’s extreme interpretation of Islamic law, which sharply curtails women’s political rights.
As the Taliban swept to power last month, the group sought to convince skeptics that it wouldn’t return to the harsh rule it imposed when it last controlled the country, from 1996 to 2001. The latest developments add to recent reports of reprisal killings across the country. The array of human rights concerns could make it harder for the Taliban to persuade world leaders to resume the flow of foreign aid that has largely been frozen since it took over Afghanistan.
Taliban officials met in Kabul on Sunday with the United Nations undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, who promised to maintain assistance for the Afghan people, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said.
The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross also arrived in the country on Sunday to visit aid operations. In a video message, Peter Maurer said he would talk to authorities about ensuring that “neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian action” continues. On Monday, a Taliban spokesman tweeted that Maurer met with officials in Kabul.
The United Nations has warned of an impending humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, where foreign aid made up much of the previous Western-backed government’s budget.
On Monday, meanwhile, the State Department helped four U.S. citizens leave Afghanistan over ground, a senior State Department official said, marking the first overland evacuation it has facilitated since the U.S. military withdrew from Afghanistan last week. The Taliban was aware of the operation and did not impede their safe passage, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive mission.
The four Americans were part of the group that Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) had initially tried to evacuate from the country, said the official. Ground evacuations represent a rare option for leaving the country until they can resume at Kabul’s airport.
The departures happened just before Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Qatar, which has become a transit point for more than 55,000 people fleeing Afghanistan and resettling in the United States and elsewhere. Top aides to Blinken said the trip is designed to express gratitude for the work U.S. and Qatari officials have done in the evacuation effort, but it also comes as the Biden administration faces an array of challenges related to Afghanistan. Shortly after arriving, Blinken joined Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin for a dinner with Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani.
In Mazar-e Sharif, airplanes with Americans and interpreters have been waiting on the ground for days amid conflicting reports that they are being held up either by the Taliban or awaiting State Department clearance for departure.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) said on “Fox News Sunday” that the planes were waiting for clearance from the Taliban in what he described as “a hostage situation.” But Eric Montalvo, a former Marine Corps officer and attorney heading coordination for three of the charter planes in Mazar, told The Washington Post it is the U.S. State Department that must tell the Taliban that the flights are authorized to depart for Qatar.
A State Department spokeswoman said the agency no longer has personnel on the ground after the U.S.-led evacuation mission ended last month, and it doesn’t control the airspace “whether over Afghanistan or elsewhere in the region.”
“Given these constraints, we also do not have a reliable means to confirm the basic details of charter flights, including who may be organizing them, the number of U.S. citizens and other priority groups onboard, the accuracy of the rest of the manifest, and where they plan to land, among many other issues,” the spokeswoman said.
The United States will, however “hold the Taliban to its pledge to let people freely depart Afghanistan,” she added.
Mehrdad reported from Doha, Khan from Peshawar, Pakistan, and Pannett from Sydney. Susannah George in Kabul, Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad, John Hudson in Doha and Sammy Westfall in Washington contributed to this report.