Taliban says it has taken control of Panjshir, the last holdout Afghan province
The Taliban said Monday that it has taken control of Panjshir province north of Kabul, the last holdout of anti-Taliban forces in the country and the only province the Taliban had not seized during its blitz across Afghanistan last month.
Thousands of Taliban fighters overran eight districts of Panjshir overnight, according to witnesses from the area who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing for their safety. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid issued a statement Monday, saying Panjshir was now under the control of Taliban fighters.
“We tried our best to solve the problem through negotiations, and they rejected talks and then we had to send our forces to fight,” Mujahid later told a news conference in Kabul.
The anti-Taliban forces had been led by the former vice president, Amrullah Saleh, and also the son of the iconic anti-Taliban fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was killed just days before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.
Meanwhile, in northern Balkh province, at least four planes chartered to evacuate several hundred people seeking to escape the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan have been unable to leave the country for days, officials said Sunday, with conflicting accounts emerging about why the flights weren’t able to take off as pressure ramps up on the U.S. to help those left behind to flee.
An Afghan official at the airport in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of Balkh province, said that the would-be passengers were Afghans, many of whom did not have passports or visas, and thus were unable to leave the country. Speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters, he said they had left the airport while the situation was being sorted out.
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The top Republican on the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, however, said that the group included Americans and that they were sitting on the planes, but the Taliban was not letting them take off, in effect “holding them hostage.” Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas told “Fox News Sunday” that U.S. citizens and Afghan interpreters were being kept on six planes.
McCaul did not say where that information came from, and it was not immediately possible to reconcile the two accounts.
The final days of America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan were marked by a harrowing airlift at Kabul’s airport to evacuate tens of thousands of people — Americans and their allies — who feared what the future would hold, given the Taliban’s history of repression, particularly of women. When the last American troops pulled out Aug. 30, many were left behind.
The U.S. promised to continue working with the new Taliban rulers to get out those who want to leave, and the militants pledged to allow anyone with the proper legal documents to leave.
Afghanistan’s best and brightest are leaving the country in droves, taking with them skills and knowledge that the Taliban wants put to its service.
Experts had doubted that resistance to the Taliban in Panjshir, the last holdout province, could succeed long-term despite the area’s geographical advantage.
Nestled in the towering Hindu Kush mountains, the Panjshir Valley has a single narrow entrance. Local fighters held off the Soviets there in the 1980s and also the Taliban a decade later under the leadership of Massoud. He was one of several former mujahedeen leaders who had ruled Kabul between 1992 and 1996 but turned their guns on each other, leading to the arrival of the Taliban and the group’s first stint in power.
Massoud’s son Ahmad had issued a statement Sunday calling for an end to the fighting that had been blistering in recent days. The young British-schooled Massoud said his forces were ready to lay down their weapons but only if the Taliban agreed to end their assault. Late Sunday, dozens of vehicles loaded with Taliban fighters were seen swarming into Panjshir Valley.
There has been no statement from Saleh, Afghanistan’s former vice president who had declared himself the acting president after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country Aug. 15 as the Taliban reached the gates of Kabul, the capital. The Taliban subsequently entered the presidency building that day.
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The Taliban’s lightning blitz across the country took less than a week to overrun some 300,000 Afghan government troops, most of whom surrendered or fled.
The whereabouts of Saleh and Massoud were not immediately known.
In his statement, Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, sought to assure residents of Panjshir that they would be safe — even as scores of families reportedly fled into the mountains ahead of the Taliban’s arrival.
“We give full confidence to the honorable people of Panjshir that they will not be subjected to any discrimination, that all are our brothers, and that we will serve a country and a common goal,” Mujahid’s statement said.
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“There is no need for any more fighting,” Mujahid said at the press conference. “All Panjshir people and those who live in Panjshir are our brothers and they are part of our country.”
The Taliban stepped up assault on Panjshir on Sunday, tweeting that its forces had overrun Rokha district, one of the largest of eight districts in the province. Several Taliban delegations have attempted negotiations with the holdouts there, but talks had failed to gain traction.
Fahim Dashti, the spokesman for the anti-Taliban group, was killed in battle Sunday, according to the group’s Twitter account. Dashti was the voice of the group and a prominent media personality during previous governments.
He was also the nephew of Abdullah Abdullah, a senior official of the former government who is involved in negotiations with the Taliban on the future of Afghanistan.
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Mujahid denied Dashti had died in battle with the Taliban, saying instead that he was killed in an “internal dispute among two commanders in Panjshir” but without offering any evidence to support that claim.
Mujahid also told reporters that the Taliban would announce a new government “within days” — one that would be inclusive, he said, without elaborating. Once the government is formed, members of the former Afghan army and security forces would be asked to return to work, he added.
“We need their expertise,” he said. Members of the previous Afghan security forces would then join with Taliban fighters to form a single army, Mujahid said. Taliban fighters in civilian clothes riding in pickup trucks through Kabul would be replaced with Taliban men in uniform.
Asked what rights women would have under the Taliban, Mujahid promised that all women would eventually be “asked to return” to their jobs.
The Taliban has claimed that unspecified “security reasons” are behind the current slow pace of return of Afghan women to their workplaces and also behind restricting women to their homes, unless accompanied by a male guardian. But many who remember their rule are skeptical.
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