The Independent’s journalism is supported by our readers. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn commission.

Afghanistan: Who are the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance and what do they want?

Taliban had ‘better read Afghan history,’ self-proclaimed caretaker president says

Andy Gregory
Thursday 19 August 2021 10:14
comments
Taliban open fire during defiant protests in defence of Afghan flag
Leer en Español

While the Taliban has rapidly seized power in Afghanistan amid the withdrawal of Nato troops and collapse of the national army, a small pocket of resistance is emerging in the northern province of Panjshir, where the flag of the Northern Alliance has reportedly again risen for the first time in two decades.

Although it remains unclear how great a threat they pose to the country’s new rulers, the rebirth of the group officially known as the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan is heavy with symbolism.

Lying in the Hindu Kush some 70 miles north of the capital Kabul, the natural fortress of Panjshir Valley has been a stronghold of resistance for decades – holding out first against the Soviets in the 1980s, and then against the Taliban during their five-year rule at the turn of the millennium.

Now, in the valley littered with the remnants of armoured vehicles and other military detritus from those years, a number of political and military leaders with connections to both the newly-ousted government and the resistance of old appear to be regrouping.

Among them are Afghanistan’s first vice president, Amrullah Saleh, who – in the wake of Ashraf Ghani’s flight to the United Arab Emirates on Sunday – has declared himself “the legitimate caretaker president” under the constitution brokered by the US in 2004.

Mr Saleh, who was born and trained to fight in Panjshir before eventually leading Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, is reportedly joined by 32-year-old Ahmad Massoud – the son of the Northern Alliance’s charismatic former leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was killed by Al-Qaeda assassins two days prior to the 9/11 attacks but remains a legendary figures among the ethnic Tajiks who populate northern Afghanistan, who previously made up the bulk of the Alliance.

In an op-ed for the Washington Post on Wednesday, Mr Massoud called for Western support and arms to fight the Taliban. “I write from the Panjshir Valley today, ready to follow in my father’s footsteps, with mujahideen fighters who are prepared to once again take on the Taliban.”

But while back in 2001, the Northern Alliance in Panjshir provided US spies and special forces with a base from which to launch the invasion that eventually defeated the Taliban, it appears unlikely there will be many parallels with that chapter in history this time around.

Since the Islamist group swept bloodlessly into Kabul on Sunday, Western nations have indicated they no intention of militarily opposing the new Taliban rule, with talk now firmly in the realm of diplomacy and strategic pressure, and US president Joe Biden having told the Afghans to “fight for themselves”.

Furthermore, it remains unclear how significant any resistance might be from the Alliance, or whether the holdout is merely a prelude to a compromise with the Taliban.

Their route to any supply line across the border into Tajikstan is currently blocked by Taliban-held territory. And while the size of any force gathered in Panjshir is unclear, former Afghan officials have reportedly suggested the number of ex-army and US-trained special forces rumoured to be returning there does not yet exceed 2,500.

Those holed up there are reported to be poorly armed. In contrast, the Taliban has seized billions of pounds-worth of US military equipment gifted to the Afghan army, including Black Hawk helicopters, drones, humvees and mine-resistant armoured vehicles.

Speaking to The New York Times, Mr Saleh suggested that the group was looking to achieve “genuine” peace with the Taliban, but was not averse to combat.

“Should the Taliban be ready for meaningful discussions, we will welcome it,” he said, adding that the group believed “in a genuine peace process, which doesn’t exist at the moment”.

Telling the paper that he had survived “two attacks and one ambush” as he drove to Panjshir on Sunday, Mr Saleh refused to “compromise our military secrets or operational security” by discussing the size of the force gathering in the valley, but said the group was “on the top of the situation and organising things” and was in touch with unnamed leaders who fought the Taliban two decades ago.

“If they insist on military conquest, then they better read Afghan history,” he was quoted as saying.

As part of its charm offensive in a bid to minimise international barriers to their new rule, the Taliban’s leadership has struck a conciliatory tone, pledging an “amnesty” for its enemies.

In a landmark press conference on Tuesday, the group’s chief spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid pledged to form an “inclusive, Islamic government”, adding: “Animosities have come to an end and we would like to live peacefully, without internal or external enemies.”

But the Taliban faces a challenge in its attempts to impose a unified government on Afghanistan's complex mix of regions and ethnicities, which could be complicated by open resistance.

In the first display of collective defiance from ordinary citizens, demonstrations against the Taliban in Jalalabad were met with gunfire on Thursday, as protesters tried to hoist the national flag, having reportedly torn down the white Taliban flag.

Three people are reported to have been killed and more than a dozen wounded.

“I am standing here in front of you. You can hit me with 30 bullets, kill me, I will sacrifice my life for this flag. This is my flag. My government will soon be back, God willing,” one protester wrapped in the tricolour flag told Sky News.

At the Afghan embassy in Tajikstan, it was clear who ambassador Zahir Aghbar, a lieutenant general who previously served as chief of police, saw as the legitimate figurehead of that scattered government.

“I cannot say that the Taliban have won the war. No, it was just Dr Ashraf Ghani who gave up power after treacherous talks with the Taliban," the ambassador – who has replaced Mr Ghani’s picture in his office with one of Mr Saleh – told Reuters.

“And only Panjshir resists, led by Vice President Amrullah Saleh,” he said. “Panjshir stands strong against anyone who wants to enslave people.”

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments