Afghanistan‘s last bastion against the Taliban is being led by the British-educated son of a legendary freedom fighter in the Panjshir Valley, a strategic fortress which sits high over Kabul that was never conquered by the Soviets.
The Taliban claims they’re sending hundreds of fighters and have the Panjshir surrounded. One hundred miles north of the capital, it is the last the country’s 34 provinces yet to fall to the jihadists.
Ahmad Massoud, who was trained by the British military at Sandhurst, has vowed that no Taliban fighter will pass through the narrow gorge into the valley.
Massoud was only 12 when his father, Ahmad Shah Massoud ‘the Lion of the Panjshir’, was murdered by Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network, two days before 9/11.
Forced to leave his homeland, he went to secondary school in Iran before taking an undergraduate degree in War Studies from prestigious King’s College London.
An apt qualification for a man whose father was a formidable guerrilla fighter, nicknamed the ‘Afghan Napoleon,’ Ahmad Shah Massoud defended the Panjshir from everything the Soviets could throw at it during the 1980s.
The river valley which runs for miles is accessed only via narrow approaches, making it ideal for ambushes and sudden assaults.
The Soviets launched seven major offensives in as many years, deploying the best military hardware of the day, including heavy bombers, tanks and artillery, yet none could conquer the valley.
Ahmad Massoud (left), leader of the Northern Alliance and son of ‘the Lion of the Panjshir’, says that no Taliban fighter has yet dared to enter the narrow gorge into the valley. Massoud was only 12 when his father, Ahmad Shah Massoud (right), was murdered by Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network.
PANJSHIR VALLEY: The valley lies around 100 miles north of Kabul, overlooked by the Hindu Kush mountains and with narrow approaches ideally suited for ambushes, the river valley stretches for miles, opening into broad meadows where its 170,000 people live
The Northern Alliance prepare to defend the Panjshir against the Taliban on Sunday
The Northern Alliance posted this photo on Monday claiming that a helicopter from Tajikistan had airdropped supplies and munitions to the valley
Now Massoud the younger is similarly outgunned and outnumbered by the Taliban but has vowed to fight on to the last and defend the 170,000 residents of the Panjshir, most of them ethnic Tajiks.
The Taliban on Monday claimed to have retaken three districts seized by rebels the day before and said they had surrounded the Panjshir.
But, Massoud’s militia claims that all of the jihadists’ efforts have been rebuffed so far and that it is taking the fight to them.
Massoud at his graduation from King’s College London in 2015
The Northern Alliance tweeted today that it had killed 50 Taliban fighters in an ambush in the Fuj area and that they had clashed with the terrorists while making forays into neighbouring Andarab province.
Massoud told Reuters of his people on Sunday: ‘They want to defend, they want to fight, they want to resist against any totalitarian regime.’
He is joined in the struggle by Afghan Army generals, their staffs and some soldiers, along with Amrullah Saleh, the vice president in the toppled government who calls himself Afghanistan’s acting president, and the ousted defence minister Gen Bismillah Mohammadi.
‘There are many other people from many other provinces who are seeking refuge in the Panjshir valley who are standing with us and who do not want to accept another identity for Afghanistan,’ Massoud said.
However, the 32-year-old is ready to talk.
‘We want to make the Taliban realise that the only way forward is through negotiation,’ he said.
The Taliban, having waged a 20-year insurgency, already appear to be amenable to the idea that they could use some allies to help govern. They have asked the health minister and the mayor of Kabul to remain in office.
But if Massoud wants to bring them to the negotiating table, he will need munitions.
And the attributes which make the Panjshir such a fortress also make it difficult to supply.
The fledgling leader has conceded that his forces, which one aide said numbered more than 6,000, would need international support if it came to fighting.
Afghan resistance fighters in the Panjshir Valley on Sunday
The Northern Alliance training in Panjshir province on Sunday
Resistance fighters in an American-made Humvee with an Afghan flag flying in the Panjshir Valley on Thursday
Boys fly the flag of the Northern Alliance on their hunting rifles in the Panjshir Valley on Saturday
The Taliban have funded themselves not only through opium, but also with covert support from allies, many of them regional rivals to the United States.
However, Massoud’s resistance might not be able to rely on Washington which has been emphatic that it wants a full withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Massoud, whose Francophone father is renowned in France, has been lobbying Emmanuel Macron’s government for backing in the struggle.
French journalist journalist Bernard-Henri Lévy said: ‘[France] is the country in the world where his name resonates the most … and Massoud is, today, the only one who resists and holds on.’
Speaking to Politico after meeting with Massoud last October, Lévy said: ‘What I think, and given the historic ties with the father, it is normal that France provides him with the most advanced help.’
In an an appeal published in a French magazine after the fall of Kabul, Massoud urged the French: ‘Join us in spirit, or with direct support.’
Fourteen-year-old Ahmad Massoud shakes hands with supporters after attending a remembrance ceremony for his late father at Kabul’s sports stadium on September 9, 2003
Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel shakes hands with Ahmad Shah Masood at talks in Brussels in April 2001
For, now, the French government has declined to comment on Massoud’s fervent petitions.
It is believed that the Northern Alliance are being sponsored by Tajikistan with a photo on Monday showing a Tajik helicopter landing in the valley.
The Northern Alliance tweeted: ‘Earlier this morning, resistance forces got a first support from Tajikistan helicopters have imported enough equipment, guns, full-ammunitions & foods.
‘The morale of the resistance is high. We are grateful to our neighbour for all the support they started since beginning.’
However, much will surely depend on whether the Taliban receives the international recognition it craves to give its government legitimacy, or whether the country slides back to all-out civil war.