Taliban and opposition forces battled on Saturday to control the Panjshir Valley north of Kabul, the last Afghan province holding out against the extremist group, as the top US general warned of a “civil war” if the Taliban failed to consolidate power.
Both sides claimed to have the upper hand in Panjshir but neither could produce conclusive evidence to prove it. The Taliban, which swept through the country ahead of the final withdrawal of US-led forces this week, were unable to control the valley when they ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.
Taliban spokesman Bilal Karimi said the districts of Khinj and Unabah had been taken, giving Taliban forces control of four of the province’s seven districts.
“The Mujahideen (Taliban fighters) are advancing toward the centre (of the province),” he said on Twitter.
But the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, grouping forces loyal to local leader Ahmad Massoud, said it surrounded “thousands of terrorists” in Khawak pass and the Taliban had abandoned vehicles and equipment in the Dashte Rewak area.
Front spokesman Fahim Dashti added “heavy clashes” were going on.
In a Facebook post, Massoud insisted Panjshir ”continues to stand strongly.” Praising “our honorable sisters,” he said demonstrations by women in the western city of Herat calling for their rights showed Afghans had not given up demands for justice and “they fear no threats.”
US General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, underscored the tenuous situation.
“My military estimate is, is that the conditions are likely to develop of a civil war. I don’t know if the Taliban is going to be able to consolidate power and establish governance,” Milley said.
Speaking to Fox News from Ramstein Air Base in Germany, Milley said if they cannot that will “in turn lead to a reconstitution of al-Qaeda or a growth of ISIS or other myriad of terrorist groups” over the next three years.
Emergency, an Italian medical aid organisation, said Taliban forces had pushed further into the Panjshir Valley on Friday night, reaching the village of Anabah where the group has medical facilities.
“We have received a small number of wounded people at the Anabah Surgical Centre,” Emergency said in a statement, adding that many people fled in recent days.
It was not immediately possible to get further independent confirmation of events in Panjshir, which is walled off by mountains except for a narrow entrance.
Celebratory gunfire in Panjshir
Celebratory gunfire resounded all over Kabul on Friday as reports spread of the Taliban’s takeover of Panjshir, and news agencies said at least 17 people were killed and 41 injured in the firing.
Pakistan’s spy chief Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed flew into Kabul on Saturday, sources in both capitals said. It was not clear what his agenda was, but a senior official in Pakistan had said earlier in the week that Hameed, who heads the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, could help the Taliban reorganize the Afghan military.
Washington has accused Pakistan and the ISI of backing the Taliban in the group’s two-decade fight against the US-backed government in Kabul, although Islamabad has denied the charges. After the group seized Kabul this month, analysts have said Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan will be much enhanced.
Pakistan’s government has said that its influence over the movement has waned, particularly since the Taliban grew in confidence once Washington announced the date for the complete withdrawal of US and other foreign troops.
Government formation next week
The Taliban source also said the announcement of a new government would be pushed back to the next week.
Earlier, other Taliban sources said the group’s co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar would lead a new Afghan government set to be announced soon.
Baradar would be joined by Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, the son of late Taliban co-founder Mullah Omar, and Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai in senior positions, three sources said.
Meanwhile, there were some signs of normality creeping back in the Afghan capital.
Qatar’s ambassador to Afghanistan said a technical team was able to reopen Kabul airport to receive aid, according to Qatar’s Al Jazeera news channel, which also cited its correspondent as saying domestic flights had restarted.
The airport has been closed since the US completed operations on Aug. 30 to evacuate diplomats, foreigners and Afghans deemed at risk from the Taliban. However, tens of thousands of people could not be flown out.
The Taliban’s main spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, also said that one of the main foreign exchange dealers in the capital had reopened.
Impoverished Afghanistan’s economy has been thrown into disarray by the takeover by the Taliban. Many banks are closed and cash is in short supply.
The United Nations has said it will convene an international aid conference in Geneva on Sept. 13 to help avert what UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called a “looming humanitarian catastrophe”.
Without the aid that has sustained the country for years, the Taliban will find it hard to avert economic collapse.
Western powers say they are prepared to engage with the Taliban and send humanitarian aid, but that formal recognition of the government and broader economic assistance will depend on action - not just promises - to safeguard human rights.