Within the Taliban’s secret conflict within the Panjshir Valley

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DARA, Afghanistan — Taliban forces have been engaged in a shadowy battle with opposition fighters stationed in the Panjshir Valley for months. Just a few hours’ drive north of Kabul, the province has long been an anti-Taliban stronghold and has remained the only significant pocket of resistance against the group since the fall of Kabul last August.

The Washington Post secured a rare visit to the mountains and villages where the fighting is taking place, and got a glimpse of a conflict the Taliban went to great lengths to hide.

Taliban officials flatly deny there is violence in the area, although thousands of forces from the group are visible across the valley. “Everything is fine here,” said Nasrullah Malikzada, the Taliban’s Panjshir local information director. “There’s no fighting at all.”

However, local residents say attacks on Taliban positions are regular and dozens of people have been killed, with some civilians detained amid widespread arrests. These residents spoke on condition of anonymity or used only one name for fear of reprisals.

The clashes in Panjshir are unlikely to pose an immediate threat to Taliban control of the province or country, but the violent resistance here punctures key narratives supporting the movement’s claim to legitimacy: that its rule is Afghanistan and its fighters brought peace are able to maintain security.

When the Taliban invaded Kabul in the summer of 2021 and the Afghan military melted away, a small group of fighters in Panjshir held out for weeks. The Taliban claimed complete control of the valley in September, but National Resistance Front spokesmen said they never surrendered.

Panjshir has a long history of resistance: it was the only province that Taliban fighters were never able to pacify after first taking Kabul in 1996. The current anti-Taliban movement is led by Ahmad Massoud – the son of legendary resistance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was assassinated by al-Qaeda two days before September 11, 2001, attacks the United States – and former Vice President Amrullah Saleh . Both men fled Afghanistan in late 2021, but they continue to lead operations from exile and are reported to command thousands of fighters.

A commander of about 100 fighters in Panjshir said the opposition was mostly armed with weapons shipped to Afghanistan via the borders with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. But the ammunition, including heavy weapons like rocket launchers, is not enough.

“We have the support of several countries, but we need more,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

Taliban leaders have tried to stem news from Panjshir by restricting access to the valley and issuing sweeping denials when faced with reports of fighting.

“Of course nobody knows what’s going on here,” a 62-year-old shopkeeper named Gulzar told the Post on his recent visit to the valley. “No one is allowed to come here; I don’t even know how you got here,” he said, carefully watching as pickup trucks and armored vehicles full of Taliban fighters raced up and down the slope.

The post was officially granted access to the valley by Taliban leaders in Kabul and Panjshir, who said they wanted media coverage of security and stability in the region. After a tour of the provincial capital, The Post’s team was given permission to travel unescorted to the villages and interview civilians. These interactions provided a small window into an opaque struggle.

Gulzar said the latest wave of fighting has reached his village. “I was here in my shop when I heard the shots start,” he said, gesturing toward the orchards that separated him from his childhood home on the opposite cliff. He immediately gathered his relatives and fled to the mountains.

The clashes raged for over a day before anti-Taliban fighters ran out of ammunition and surrendered. Gulzar said he watched as dozens of men surrendered their weapons before being taken away. Two other men from the area corroborated his statement.

Malikzada, the Taliban’s information minister, said the described fighting Gulzar was “propaganda from outside forces” and “completely false”. He also denied restricting access to Panjshir but admitted to recently blocking at least one international news outlet from visiting the valley because he thought the organization had repeatedly published reports full of “lies”.

Under Taliban rule, information challenging the official line has become increasingly difficult to verify. The country’s media landscape has shrunk, civil society faces constant intimidation, and human rights groups have either disbanded or are severely restricted.

In Panjshir there are competing, one-sided narratives. While the Taliban claim all is quiet, resistance spokesmen post updates about their armed struggle on social media almost daily. Local residents have learned to be skeptical.

“There is a lot of propaganda [on both sides] in the war in Panjshir,” said a farmer in Dara village, who was once a member of the Afghan police.

The farmer says he often sees the bodies of dead Taliban fighters being trucked away after fighting, although he thinks the resistance’s claims of killing more than 300 fighters in the past month have been grossly exaggerated.

“It’s a big province. People in one village don’t necessarily know what’s going on in another every day,” said Ali Maisam Nazary, the resistance’s head of external relations. Nazary said the group’s information came from commanders on the ground and whistleblowers within the Taliban.

The farmer believes both sides are downplaying civilian casualties. After a recent clash, he said he had attended consecutive funerals for 10 people killed in the crossfire in his village alone. In conversations with friends and relatives elsewhere in the valley, he estimated that the total could have been four times that in a single day.

Both the Taliban and the National Resistance Front claim that no civilians have been killed in recent fighting.

“Maybe two or three people died, [but] it was probably from the cold or from falling off a mountain,” said Malikzada, the Taliban’s information minister. “No one was killed in clashes.”

Clashes have increased since the end of the holy month of Ramadan in May, according to residents polled by The Post. Spring has always marked the start of the combat season in Afghanistan, as the weather in the north becomes milder, making it easier for fighters to manoeuvre.

According to a tribal elder, Tawhidi, who spoke on condition that he be identified by his last name only for fear of reprisals, the attacks have become more brutal as casualties have mounted on both sides. He said he saw Taliban fighters carry out summary executions after suffering casualties in an attack and heard similar reports from other parts of the valley.

Faramaraz, who works at a bazaar near the village of Dara, said Taliban fighters left the body of a dead opposition fighter on the side of a main road in late May.

“They wanted everyone to see it,” he said. “And they did not allow the men to bring him to the burial; They forced the women to take the body to the cemetery.”

Malikzada acknowledged that thousands of Taliban fighters were deployed to the province, including some of the group’s most elite units. Their forces can be seen across the valley, and sophisticated military equipment is positioned along otherwise idyllic orchards and rivers.

Dad Muhammad Battar, a former commander of the Taliban Red Squad in Laghman, is now one of the top leaders of the group’s special forces in the region. He said he was coordinating with similar Defense Ministry units and a Taliban rapid reaction force stationed in the provincial capital.

“The situation here is perfectly fine,” he said, sitting next to a bouquet of plastic flowers and a dozen American-made M-16 rifles. “We go on patrol, but we haven’t conducted any operations. We are here mainly to focus on criminal cases.”

Along the road just outside Battar’s base, dozens of Taliban convoys could be seen weaving in and out of the valley as the sun began to fade. Farther down, heavy armored vehicles — Humvees and MRAPs — formed checkpoints along the roads leading to and from villages where residents said they saw the last round of combat.

“It’s important that the foreigners trust us,” said Malikzada at the end of the tour. “We don’t lie to the foreign media. The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan has already proved to the people of Afghanistan that everything we say is based on reality.”

Addressing the Post’s reporter, he added, “There’s no reason for you not to trust us.”

Tassal reported from Houston.

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