Afghanistan‘s ruling Taliban claimed Monday to have gained control of the last holdout of resistance fighters in the rugged Panjshir Valley north of Kabul.
The announcement, which is being disputed by the anti-Taliban resistance known as the National Resistance Front (NRF), follows increasing clashes in the region late last week. The Taliban never managed to subdue the region when the Islamist movement was last in power in Kabul prior to 2001.
“Panjshir province, the last stronghold of the mercenary enemy, was completely conquered,” announced a Taliban spokesperson on Twitter on Monday.
Other fighters posted photos of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan‘s flag raised in what they claim is “the center of Panjshir.”
The Associated Press reported that witnesses described how thousands of Taliban fighters charged into eight districts of Panjshir province during the night Sunday. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told reporters in Kabul on Monday that the province had been overrun after the resistance fighters rejected a diplomatic settlement.
“We tried our best to solve the problem through negotiations, and they rejected talks and then we had to send our forces to fight,” Mr. Mujahid said.
Both sides claimed to have inflicted heavy casualties throughout the clashes, though most reports have not been independently verified.
Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh, who joined the resistance in Panjshir, tweeted Friday that the Taliban had blocked humanitarian access and cut phone service and electricity in the region. He also claimed that the Taliban had begun forcing “military-age men” to clear minefields in the area.
Mr. Saleh proclaimed himself to be the “acting president” of Afghanistan on Aug. 17 after the democratically elected President Ashraf Ghani fled the country as the Taliban gained control.
On Sunday the NRF acknowledged on Twitter that NRF Gen. Abdul Wudod Zara and its spokesman Fahim Dashty had been killed in the fighting. Still, the group said the Taliban‘s claim to have captured all of the remote valley in Panjshir was false.
“The NRF forces are present in all strategic positions across the vale to continue the fight,” the group said in a statement on Twitter. “We assure the [people] of Afghanistan that the struggle against the Taliban & their partners will continue until justice & freedom prevail.”
NRF leader Ahmad Massoud followed the announcement with a long message calling on Afghans to join the resistance.
“Wherever you are, whether inside the country or outside, we appeal to you to rise up in resistance for the dignity, integrity and freedom of our country,” Mr. Massoud said in a statement.
In his statement, Mr. Massoud also admonished the international community for legitimizing the Taliban after their lightning-quick campaign this summer that captured the capital and other major cities as U.S. and allied combat forces were forced to hastily withdraw.
“The international community was fully responsible for providing the Taliban with the ruinous opportunity that helped them gain political legitimacy and entitlement,” he said. “They were given the chance to show the world that they have reformed and are changed.”
“Whereas, the Taliban have not only remained the same but have grown more vicious, more cruel, more fundamentalist, and more discriminatory than yesterday,” he continued. “We are bearing witness to this.”
Soon after the Taliban takeover in August, Mr. Massoud wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post calling on the U.S to support his resistance movement. Mr. Massoud said he had recruited defecting Afghan army and special forces soldiers but said his forces needed more arms for protracted conflict with the Taliban. Unlike in 2001, Taliban forces last month succeeded in cutting Panjshir off from the border with neighboring Tajikistan, severing a key pipeline for troops and weapons for the resistance force.
Rep. Michael Waltz of Florida and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, both Republicans, met last month with Mr. Saleh and a representative of Mr. Massoud and pledged support for the anti-Taliban resistance.
Neither the White House nor the State Department has publicly backed Mr. Saleh and are far less likely to back Mr. Massoud, the 32-year-old son of renowned Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, killed by the Taliban just before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Republican lawmakers fear the Biden administration has left the door open for the Taliban to be recognized as the legitimate government in Afghanistan, and have been critical of the administration’s coordination with the Islamist group during the withdrawal of U.S. forces and their Afghan allies in recent weeks.
Mr. Waltz pledged Thursday to “take a page out of ‘Charlie Wilson’s War’” in support of the NRF, referring to the book and movie about the flamboyant Texas Democratic congressman known for securing millions of dollars for the CIA to arm the Afghans fighting against Soviet occupiers in the 1980s.
“Congress will lead if this administration won’t,” he said.
Mr. Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, sought to assure residents of Panjshir that they would be safe — even as many refugees were said to have fled into the mountains in advance of the fighting.
“There is no need for any more fighting,” Mr. Mujahid said at the news conference. “All Panjshir people and those who live in Panjshir are our brothers and they are part of our country.”
• This story is based in part on wire service reports.