Rajat Sharma

The Battle of Panjshir and the battle for power in Kabul

rajat-sir The last word is yet to be written on the Battle of Panjshir that is presently going on between the Taliban and National Resistance Force led by Ahmed Masoud. While Taliban on Monday released video of its fighters capturing the Governor’s office in Panjshir by raising its official white flag, the Northern Alliance has claimed that Taliban fighters have only occupied one road and a vacant office, and that too, at the gateway to Panjshir valley.

Afghan journalist Natiq Malikzada has reported that the entire Panjshir valley can be captured only after a long-drawn battle. The Governor’s office that was captured by Taliban is located on a main road, while Taliban fighters are yet to reach the interior of other areas across Panjshir valley. He reported that Masoud’s fighters are still occupying hill positions and are giving the Taliban a stiff fight.

Reports have come about Pakistan’s Special Forces joining hands with the Taliban in the battle for capturing Panjshir valley. After more than 650 Taliban fighters were killed by Masoud’s men last week, Pakistan sent its air force plane to strafe Northern Alliance’s positions, in order to clear the routes for Taliban to move ahead. Pakistani air force drones and jet fighters were used to bomb Masoud’s positions. There were also reports on Tuesday about aerial strike on five positions held by Taliban in Panjshir valley.

The moot point is that Taliban’s claim of occupying the entire Panjshir valley is yet to materialize. Pro-Taliban media had reported that Northern Alliance leaders Ahmed Masoud and Amrullah Saleh have fled to neighbouring Tajikistan, but this was countered by Ahmed Masoud who said, “We are in Panjshir, our resistance will continue”. The resistance group has however admitted that its official spokesman Fahim Dashty, Masoud’s cousin General Abdul Wadood, and one of Masoud’s most trusted men Saleh Mohammad Registani have been killed in fighting.

In a 19-minute audio, Ahmed Masoud alleged that his resistance fighters were battling not only Taliban fighters but also Pakistani soldiers. He alleged that Pakistani air force drones and jet fighters were used on Sunday night to bomb resistance positions. Masoud claimed that National Resistance Force fighters downed two drones. He admitted that some of his family members died in the attack, but he was safe in Panjshir valley. He vowed to fight the Taliban till the last drop of his blood.

Pakistan’s involvement in the battle between Taliban and National Resistance Force became clear after the sudden, unannounced visit of Pakistani spy agency ISI chief Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed in Kabul. After his arrival, the battle between Taliban and Masoud’s men has suddenly intensified. Taliban, after suffering heavy casualties, was on the point of withdrawing from Panjshir valley, when the ISI chief arrived in Kabul and the battle took a new turn. Resistance leaders have shown Pakistani nationality identity cards and other documents recovered from the bodies of dead Taliban fighters, which clearly show that Pakistani troops, in the garb of Taliban, have joined hands to fight the battle.

Taliban may have made fresh inroads into the Panjshir valley for now, but it may be walking into a death trap. Taliban has moved into only one-third of the entire area of Panjshir valley. The whole world now knows that Pakistan is aiding and abetting Taliban in its battle for Panjshir valley. Pakistan Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed has indirectly admitted that Pakistani forces bombed resistance positions inside Panjshir valley.

Pakistani ministers are touring across the world trying to garner support for Taliban. On its part, Taliban is desperate to occupy the valley, because once winter sets in, most of the routes will be covered with snow, and the roads may reopen only in April next year.

There are reports that top Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar sought Pakistan’s help in this battle, Pakistani PM Imran Khan spoke to the Army Chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, and requested him to send the ISI chief Lt Gen Faiz Hameed to Kabul to extend help.

In return, the Pakistani establishment cut a deal with the Taliban leaders. Pakistan requested Taliban not to allow terrorists released from Afghan jails to go scot free. The ISI chief handed over a list of TTP (Tehriq-e-Taliban Pakistan) fighters and other terrorists who were in Afghan jails. Taliban leaders readily agreed and Pakistan sent its air force planes to help Taliban in its battle for Panjshir valley.

At this moment, a propaganda war is going on in full swing between Taliban and National Resistance Force. When Taliban released videos of its fighters capturing the Governor’s house in Panjshir valley, NRF leaders came out with new videos of Taliban commanders and fighters killed by them. Taliban then countered this with a video showing its commanders are alive, but nobody knows whether the videos are new or old ones. NRF leaders circulated videos showing they are alive and giving a stiff fight to the Taliban, but this was countered by Taliban issuing videos of NRF fighters surrendering with their weapons. Nothing can be verified as truth in this propaganda war unleashed from both sides, but it is a fact that Taliban is yet to capture the entire valley.

It is also a fact that Taliban leadership is still unable to announce their new government in Kabul. New names are being floated daily. On Monday, it was reported that Mullah Muhammad Hassan Akhund, chief of Rahbari Shoora, will be the new head of state, with Mullah Yaqoob, son of late Mullah Omar, as defence minister, and Sirajuddin Haqqani as Interior Minister. There was another report about the new government’s announcement likely to be made on September 11, to coincide with the biggest terror attacks made on US soil by Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.

The fact is that there are several groups that are involved in the jockeying for power. There is the Kandahar group led by their supreme leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, along with Mullah Yaqoob, there is the Haqqani network, supported by Pakistan and led by Sirajuddin Haqqani, and there is the Doha political Taliban group headed by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.

There were reports of Baradar injured in a fight with Haqqani group leaders. Pakistan wants the Haqqani network leaders to occupy powerful slots in the new government, so that ISI can influence important decisions. The Pakistani politico-military establishment feels that Pakistan has now become relevant in world capitals after the Taliban takeover.

This is the reason why Pakistani ministers and leaders are now openly saying that they patronized Taliban for last two decades and provided sanctuary to all Taliban leaders, helping them with cash, weapons and fighters. But forming a government and running that government from Kabul will not be an easy task.

Experts who know a lot about the background of Pakistani and Afghan Taliban leaders, say that the new government in Kabul may not last long. Infighting between different camps inside Taliban will be difficult to stop, and in the final round, it will be Pakistan, which will have to bear the losses.

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