Growing concerns for Panjshir residents as Taliban claims victory

A resident of the holdout Afghan province says shops and medical facilities face shortages amid telecommunication blackout.

Taliban fighters pose for a photo after they took over Panjshir Valley. [Bilal Güler/Anadolu]

Kabul, Afghanistan – For the last three weeks, Ahmad Massoud, the son of the late anti-Taliban commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, has been leading the armed resistance against Taliban rule in Panjshir, the only province to evade the Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan last month.

The 32-year-old, who was trained at the British military academy Sandhurst, is following in his father’s footsteps – the elder Massoud also led an armed resistance against Taliban rule in the 1990s.

But whereas the father’s resistance was able to relay constant updates in several languages, Ahmad’s National Resistance Front (NRF) has faced great difficulty in sending out information from the northeastern province since the Taliban cut off phone and Internet access last week.

This virtual media blackout has led to an imbalance in information from the front lines of the battle against the Taliban in Panjshir. In recent days, Panjsheris in Kabul and abroad have faced great difficulty in getting updates from their families back home.

One Panjshiri civilian in his twenties, who did not want to reveal his identity for safety reasons, told Al Jazeera by telephone that the situation in the province was “dire” and “troubling” for the 130,000 people trapped there.

He said that Panjshir is currently facing a massive shortage of basic necessities. For the last week, the Taliban have blocked the road from Kabul to Panjshir, which makes it nearly impossible for goods to get into the valley.

“Whatever food people had in their houses, that’s what they’ve been eating for weeks, now, the stores and bazaars are all empty,” he said.

Afghan resistance movement and anti-Taliban uprising forces take part in military training in Panjshir province on September 2, 2021 [Ahmad Sahel Arman/AFP]

The young man, who like thousands of others fled from districts in the heart of the province to mountainous areas as Taliban forces advanced in recent days, said medical facilities in Panjshir have also experienced shortages.

“I have sick people in my family and I have no way of helping them,” he said.

At a news conference on Monday, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said that the province was now fully under the control of the Islamic Emirate, as the group refers to itself.

“The peoples living in the proud valley of Panjshir are an integral part of the national body. They are our brothers. There is no bias against them. All the rights that our other countrymen have, the people of Panjshir also have,” Mujahid said.

Kaweh Kerami, a PhD Researcher at London’s SOAS University, said the Taliban’s claim of victory in the province was based largely on the flight of residents into the mountains. He said the group’s claim at a time when so many institutions are left empty is more a political ploy than a reflection of reality.

“It is problematic to reduce ‘having control’ over the whole province to some government buildings, police stations and district centres,” he said, when most of the people have taken to higher ground in fear of the Taliban’s arrival.

The young man in Panjshir said the Taliban members, who mostly come from the provinces of Badakhshan, Helmand and Laghman, operate in starkly different ways.

He said some have treated the residents well and encouraged them to return to their normal lives. But he said that many Panjshiris are not yet comfortable trusting the Taliban.

He also described a “second” contingent of Taliban forces behaving in a “violent and aggressive” way. He said these forces have gone house-to-house, “taking whatever they wish and abusing the people”.

During his Monday news conference, Mujahid said all Taliban officials in Panjshir were originally from the province.

“All the officials in Panjshir are from that province. The governor and his deputy are residents of Panjshir. All other officials are also appointed from here,” he said.

Militiamen loyal to Ahmad Massoud, son of the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, take part in a training exercise, in Panjshir province [Jalaluddin Sekandar/AP Photo]

Meanwhile, unverified voice messages and posts detailing claims of “massacres” and warning of a possible “genocide” have circulated on social media in recent days. Al Jazeera was not able to independently verify any of the claims, which have caused alarm among Panjshiris outside the province.

Adding to people’s fears is the Taliban’s own legacy of massacres during their five-year rule in the 1990s. At the time, rights groups accused the Taliban of carrying out massacres in the provinces of Bamiyan and Balkh.

In his most recent message circulated to his supporters via Whatsapp on Monday, the NRF leader Massoud, whose whereabouts were unclear, made several references to “strangers” staging attacks on Panjshir in recent days, without elaborating.

To many Afghans, the term is a clear allusion to Pakistan, which has been repeatedly accused of aiding and abetting the Taliban. Pakistan has denied supporting the armed group.

When former President Ashraf Ghani fled the country and the Taliban took over the capital, Kabul on August 15, the Taliban inherited much of the military might at the disposal of the former national army.

Vehicles of a militia loyal to Ahmad Massoud, son of the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, line up, in Panjshir province, the last region to defy Taliban control [Jalaluddin Sekandar/AP Photo]

Zalmai Nishat, senior policy expert at the German development agency, GIZ, said finding accurate information about what has transpired in Panjshir during the last three weeks is of the utmost importance.

“Right now, Panjshir is a black box, someone has to go and open it to find out what has happened,” Nishat told Al Jazeera. However, he said the Taliban have made it extremely difficult for journalists and activists to obtain any accurate information.

“The road through Parwan province is shut, no one can get through.”

He said that currently, if someone wants to go to Panjshir, they would have to go the long way through the mountains of neighbouring Kapisa province,

Kaweh Kerami, a PhD researcher at the SOAS University of London, said the Taliban’s severing of telecommunications networks in Panjshir “provided fertile ground for the dissemination of false stories and propaganda”.

In one example, a grainy video showing intense fighting in a mountainous area being circulating online purported to be from recent battles in Panjshir. However, it later emerged that the video was filmed in Yemen in 2019.

He said the spread of misinformation has led to panic, anger and in some cases, incited further violence and put a “choke-hold” on a province heavily reliant on access to the road to Kabul.

He said the lack of access to reliable communication tools and the ability to share verified images and videos has led to increased panic and anger as people are unable to verify or refute claims of mass killings.

“We need more information to make an allegation of whether crimes against humanity, such as ethnic cleansing or even genocide” have taken place, said Kerami.

At his Monday news conference, Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, addressed the cutting off of roads and telecommunications networks.

“If the people of Panjshir have been harmed in the last few days due to the disruption of telephone services and road closures, we are very sorry.”

He said it was done to dissuade “those who wanted to turn Panjshir into a hotbed of sedition”.

However, Kerami said it was part of a siege “undoubtedly meant to inflict human suffering and pain” on people who had no access to food and medical supplies.

He said young men who routinely travelled between Kabul and Panjshir, including Panjshiris, were not allowed to enter the valley in recent weeks.

With the Taliban now saying it will announce its new government in the coming days, all eyes will be on Massoud and the people of Panjshir, who have pledged to continue their fight.

Source: Al Jazeera