The Taliban claimed on Monday that they had captured the Panjshir Valley and hoisted their flag over the last Afghan provincial capital, which was not firmly under their control, even as representatives of the opposition forces there insisted they would continue fighting from the mountains.
If the Taliban succeed in keeping Panjshir under control, it would be a symbolic cornerstone of the group’s lightning-fast conquest and return to national power.
The Taliban never managed to control Panjshir, the last time they ruled Afghanistan, from 1996 to 2001, and that was the starting point of the US-led invasion following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
During their occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, Soviet forces made progress into the territory on at least nine occasions, only to be repulsed each time, sometimes after suffering heavy losses.
The Taliban have always been bitter against the Panjshir fighters and were complicit in the assassination of their senior commander Ahmad Shah Massoud 20 years ago.
While rumors that the Taliban had taken over in Panjshir swirled this past weekend, it was not until Monday morning that the group officially claimed control.
“Panjshir province fell completely under the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid wrote in a statement on Twitter.
Afghanistan under Taliban rule
With the departure of the U.S. military on August 30, Afghanistan quickly fell back under Taliban control. There is widespread fear of the future across the country.
Taliban fighters posted pictures online that are said to be of militants hoisting the flag of the Islamic Emirate Afghanistan, as the Taliban calls the country, in the provincial capital, Bazarak, as well as of their forces talking to local leaders.
But while the Taliban claimed to have conquered the entire province, the opposition group, the National Resistance Front, disputed this report, saying its forces were still located across the Panjshir Valley.
“We assure the people of Afghanistan that the fight against the Taliban and their partners will continue until justice and freedom prevail,” said it on Twitter.
The conflicting accounts of what happened on earth in the area 70 miles north of Kabul, the country’s capital, were difficult to verify because internet and telephone connections to the region have been cut off.
The leader of the resistance group, Ahmad Massoud, son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the commander-in-chief who was assassinated in 2001, released an audio recording on Monday urging the nation to rise up against the Taliban.
“Wherever you are, whether you are in the country or abroad, we appeal to you to stand up for your country’s dignity, integrity and freedom,” he said, according to a transcript of the recording.
He added that despite the Taliban’s claims to want a peacefully negotiated solution with the opposition forces, “they began a full-scale military offensive against our people, which led to several casualties, among them my close family members.”
There were reports on Sunday of possible significant losses among the resistance fighters, including the deaths of several commanders and of the resistance’s spokesman Fahim Dashti.
The Taliban, for their part, tried to reassure the locals that their forces did not harm them.
“We give full assurance to the honorable people of Panjshir that they will not be discriminated against,” said Mr. Mujahid, spokesman for the group. “They are all our brothers and we want to serve a country and a common goal.”
The Taliban took over most of Afghanistan at astonishing speed following the withdrawal of most US forces. After months of heavy fighting and terrible losses, US-trained Afghan security forces finally melted away in front of the militants, culminating in the Taliban’s conquest of Kabul on 15 August.
The Taliban have not yet formally announced the structure of their new government, but said Monday they would soon come up with more details.
In what appeared to be an attempt to keep former Afghan soldiers in the fold, Mr Mujahid said “former forces that were trained and professional should be recruited” for the new regime.
That, he added, would happen through “a procedure” that he did not elaborate on.
Yet there were still pockets of resistance in Afghanistan, especially in the north, where the Taliban have long clashed with other paramilitary groups. In late August, a group of former mujahedin fighters and Afghan commandos said they had started a resistance war in Panjshir. A rugged area about 70 miles north of Kabul, Panjshir, with its mountains and rugged valleys, has provided cover for insurgents since the Soviet occupation.
The Taliban have in recent days reportedly made progress against the resistance forces and killed some senior leaders, including Mr. Dashti. Ahmad Zia Kechkenni, Mr Dashti’s brother, said in an interview on Monday that the spokesman “was martyred to defend his people and country, Afghanistan.”
Representatives of the resistance group said that despite the Taliban’s public statements that they were open to negotiations to find a peaceful solution, they had never made any serious effort to approach.
Ahmadullah Wasiq, deputy head of the Taliban’s cultural commission, disputed the claim, saying his group had previously reached out to negotiate with the opposition. Now it’s too late, he said.
“They have missed the opportunity,” he said, “because the mujahedin in the Islamic Emirates have taken over almost the entire province. But if they still want to come and surrender, they are welcome.”
Carlotta Gall and Marc Santora contributed with reporting.