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Taliban sends hundreds of fighters to final province beyond its control

Afghan resistance movement and anti-Taliban uprising forces personnel stand guard at an outpost in Kotal-e Anjuman of the Paryan district of Panjshir province on Aug. 23, as the Taliban said its fighters had surrounded resistance forces holed up in the valley, but were looking to negotiate rather than take the fight to them. (Ahmad Sahel Arman/AFP/Getty Images)

DOHA, Qatar — The Taliban pushed into the last corner of Afghanistan remaining beyond the group's control Monday, sending hundreds of fighters to the outskirts of the northern Panjshir Valley and vowing to quash a fledgling resistance movement in the province.

Panjshir has long been an anti-Taliban stronghold, and in recent weeks, opposition leaders there, along with officials from the fallen government, have been trying to marshal forces to hold off the Islamist militant group.

The Taliban, having secured a grip on the rest of the country, has responded quickly, with the group’s spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid saying in a statement Monday that resistance forces are “surrounded.” He added that the Taliban wants to avoid further fighting and to “resolve the issue peacefully through negotiations.”

But a Taliban fighter, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk to the news media, told The Washington Post that the militant group’s leaders had decided to send forces to the valley because talks with the resistance group “couldn’t yield any results.”

In neighboring Baghlan province, Taliban and resistance forces fought each other late Sunday into Monday, according to both sides, with anti-Taliban fighters reportedly making some gains. But Mujahid said the Taliban took control of the Bannu and Pule Hissar areas and Salah districts of the province overnight. The fighters were “at the gate of Panjshir,” Mujahid said.

Even as a decisive battle grew closer, Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar and former Afghan president Hamid Karzai were in the capital, Kabul, to discuss ways to reduce violence and prevent ruinous interruptions in vital public services. The sides met Saturday to address “an inclusive political settlement for the future of the country,” Abdullah Abdullah, a former reconciliation council leader, said in a tweet.

Former Afghan government officials are asking the Taliban for assurances that civil liberties, minorities and women’s rights would be protected, according to an Afghan official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

In Panjshir, resistance fighters were bracing for a Taliban advance. “Currently, there is calm, and no fighting going on. But the forces in Panjshir are ready to fight back, if anything happens,” Fahim Qiami, an aide to resistance leaders, said by text message from Islamabad.

Among the anti-Taliban leaders in the valley are Ahmad Massoud, son of a storied military commander who fought the Soviet Union and, later, the Taliban, before being assassinated, and Amrullah Saleh, vice president of the fallen government.

Massoud told Reuters that he hoped to hold peace talks with the Taliban but that his supporters were ready to fight if the militants invaded. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Massoud wrote: “No matter what happens, my mujahideen fighters and I will defend Panjshir as the last bastion of Afghan freedom. Our morale is intact. We know from experience what awaits us.”

Massoud, in his op-ed, said that his fighters have been amassing arms and ammunition in recent years in anticipation of a Taliban return and that soldiers have also been arriving with their own weapons. He said his fighters include Afghan soldiers who escaped the Taliban and local militiamen.

But it is not clear how many anti-Taliban fighters are in the valley or how significant any resistance might be. Analysts are unsure how long Massoud’s forces would be able to hold out without external support.

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The valley, in the Hindu Kush mountains about 90 miles northeast of Kabul, and the province of the same name have long been a bastion of guerrilla activity. When Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan in 1979, the people of the province, dominantly ethnic Tajiks, resisted and the area was never conquered. Fighters also thwarted Taliban efforts to gain control of the area when the group last ruled Afghanistan, between 1996 and 2001.

This time around, the Taliban could bring a more formidable arsenal to bear, having captured military equipment and supplies from the quickly vanquished Afghan security forces. Military experts, however, have expressed doubts that Taliban fighters would be able to use and maintain the most sophisticated weaponry, including planes and Blackhawk helicopters.

Even as the militant group has swept across the country, it has encountered pockets of resistance. Taliban fighters, for instance, came under attack in three northern provinces late last week.

But some opposition figures say the best option now is for former government officials who have remained in Kabul to secure a political agreement with the Taliban. “This is the only hope we have,” said negotiator Fatima Gailani, referring to the talks underway in Kabul. Gailani, who was part of the team that represented the Afghan government in peace talks before the Taliban seized Kabul, said a political settlement was crucial to maintaining international aid and preventing Afghanistan from descending further into poverty.

The talks in Kabul unfolded as mayhem continued to engulf the Kabul airport. A firefight at an airport gate involving U.S. and German forces killed an Afghan guard and injured three others Monday, the German military said in a tweet.

The incident started when “an unknown hostile actor fired upon Afghan security forces involved in monitoring access to the gate,” said U.S. military spokesman Capt. William Urban.

Military and commercial aircraft have flown about 28,000 people out of the country since the Taliban takeover, President Biden said Sunday. In the 24-hour period ending Monday morning, more than 10,400 were evacuated, the White House said, reflecting a quickening pace.

While most evacuees were initially flown to Qatar, where they have been largely housed in an Air Force hangar, the list of havens is growing. More than 6,700 had arrived at the U.S. Ramstein Air Base in Germany as of Monday, according to a military spokesman.

When an Afghan woman went into labor midflight on one of the C17 transport planes, the pilot reduced altitude to increase air pressure in the packed cargo hold. Medics helped deliver the baby girl shortly after landing.

Pannett reported from Sydney and Khan from Peshawar, Pakistan.

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