Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
The Taliban in Afghanistan’s once impregnable Panjshir Valley
Last month driving up Afghanistan’s magnificent Panjshir valley, you couldn’t help thinking if the resurgent Taliban would ever be able to break its defences, both natural and from the Tajik-dominated populace. With its jagged cliffs and plunging valleys, Panjshir has been largely out of bounds for the Taliban, whether during the civil war or in the past 10 years when it has expanded a deadly insurgency against western and Afghan forces across the country. But on Saturday, the insurgents struck, carrying out a suicide bombing at a provincial reconstruction team base housing U.S. and Afghan troops and officials.
They were halted outside the base, but according to the provincial deputy governor they succeeded in killing two civilians and wounding two guards when they detonated their explosives. The Taliban claimed responsibility, saying the first suicide bombing in a decade was a message to Western forces that they were not secure anywhere in the country. They said the bombers came from within Panjshir, which if true would worry people even more because that would suggest the penetration was deeper and there could be more attacks.
The Long War Journal’s Bill Roggio wrote that the bombing was a propaganda coup for the Taliban. Panjshir is the home of the legendary Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud who was assassinated by two days before the Sept 11, 2001 attacks. Under Massoud’s leadership the Panjshir Valley held out against not only against the Taliban, but famously the Soviet before them.
All along the drive by the side of the rushing Panjshir river on way to Massoud’s hilltop mausoleum, the relics of the war against the Russians have been preserved : rusted tanks on roadsides and an overturned armoured personnel carrier in the river. There were giant Massoud posters everywhere and because it was the anniversary of his assassination at the hands of a pair of men who pretended to be journalists, the ceremonial gates to the valley were draped in black.
And yet there were concerns even then . Security was tight at each of the gates on the narrow and winding highway through the tall mountains, and the Afghan police who stood guard said if Panjshir had been spared the kind of attacks the Taliban had mounted in the rest of Afghanistan, it wasn’t for lack of trying . They had already carried out attacks in neighbouring Nuristan province and according to a local Afghan police commander responsible for security at one of the checkpoints, American helicopters had been spotted in the area a few days before the anniversary, firing rockets over a hilltop. It wasn’t clear who they were targeting, the commander said.
Even the proud Panjshiris were worrying about the expanding Taliban influence, especially concerned at the time about government attempts to seek reconciliation with them. One Afghan elder who lost his son in the war against Russians said his village was fully armed to fight the Taliban. There was no way they were going to accept the Taliban in the Panjshir, he told me.
Another local who ran an eating house by the side of the river said he was worried about the growing number of outsiders in the valley. Many, including a group of people from the southern Kandahar province we met at Massoud’s mausoleum, said they were visiting the area attracted by its cooler climes. But there were also others, including a militia commander surrounded by gun-toting guards who swept up to the restaurant the day we were visiting in a cavalcade of vehicles and demanded food. Those were the ones that worried the owner Jamaal Mohammed the most.