Posted by Kathy Gannon | Associated press
KABUL, Afghanistan – The Taliban said Monday they captured the last province beyond their control after their lightning strike through Afghanistan last month and overran forces that resisted their takeover.
Thousands of Taliban fighters stormed into eight districts in Panjshir province overnight, according to witnesses from the region who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared for their safety. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed that the province north of the capital was now occupied by its fighters.
“We tried our best to solve the problem through negotiation and they refused talks and then we had to send our forces into battle,” Mujahid said at a press conference in Kabul later on Monday.
The resistance forces were led by former Vice President Amrullah Saleh and the son of legendary anti-Taliban fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud. Experts had doubted that resistance efforts against the Taliban, whose rapid advance through Afghanistan encountered little resistance in the country in the last days of the US’s 20-year war, could be successful in the long term.
The US withdrew its last troops a week ago and ended a harrowing airlift to evacuate Western citizens and their Afghan allies that was overshadowed by scenes of desperation and terrible violence.
During this evacuation, thousands of people landed at Kabul airport in hopes of fleeing the country fearing what the Taliban rule might bring, given its history of repression, particularly of women. Once an Islamic State suicide bomber targeted the crowd, killing 169 Afghans and 13 American soldiers.
Many people are still hoping to leave the country, but since Kabul Airport does not yet offer international flights, their options are few. In the north of the country, officials said on Sunday that at least four planes chartered to evacuate hundreds of people had not been able to leave the country for days. But there have been conflicting statements about why.
The US is under pressure to help the remaining Americans and green card holders leave the country, and it has promised to work with the new Taliban rulers – but they have not given a timeframe.
An Afghan official at the airport in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif said the potential passengers were Afghans, many of whom had neither passports nor visas and were therefore unable to leave the country. On condition of anonymity as he was not allowed to speak to reporters, he said they left the airport while the situation was being clarified.
But the top Republican on the US House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs said the group included Americans and that they had boarded planes, but the Taliban did not allow them to take off and were effectively holding them hostage. Texas MP Michael McCaul told Fox News Sunday that American citizens and Afghan interpreters were being held on six planes.
He didn’t say where this information came from, and it wasn’t immediately possible to reconcile the two accounts. The State Department said it had no reliable means of confirming information about such charter flights.
But the United States helped a family of four American citizens escape by land, according to an American official. The officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to speak publicly due to the sensitivity of the matter, refused to give details of the evacuation or what country he was going to.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin are traveling to the Persian Gulf and Europe this week to discuss Afghanistan.
President Joe Biden was asked on his return to the White House on Monday evening whether he would recognize the Taliban government. “That is far away. It’s a long way, ”he said.
Meanwhile, the Taliban say they are working to repair the Kabul airport, where only domestic flights have resumed and only during the day for the time being. Mujahid, the group’s spokesman, told reporters Monday that American soldiers destroyed equipment, including the critical radar system, before leaving. The US has said that troops destroyed military equipment but left equipment useful to the operation of a civil airport, such as fire engines.
Technical experts from Qatar and Turkey have started repairs, although it is not yet clear when the airport will be operational.
The Taliban have pledged to allow anyone with the appropriate legal documents to leave the country – and several countries said they are closely monitoring whether the new rulers keep this promise. The Taliban have generally promised to rule more moderately than when they last served in the late 1990s, and have become global pariahs because of their harsh interpretations of Islamic law and restrictions on women.
However, experts did not believe that the anti-Taliban fighters in Panjshir, the last closed province, had a great chance, even given the geographical advantage of the region.
Nestled in the towering Hindu Kush mountains, the Panjshir Valley has a single narrow entrance. Local fighters were stopped there in the 1980s by the Soviets and, a decade later, briefly by the Taliban under the leadership of Massoud.
Massoud’s son Ahmad called for an end to the fighting on Sunday. Young Massoud, British-trained, said his troops were ready to lay down their arms, but only if the Taliban agree to end their attack. Dozens of vehicles carrying Taliban fighters were seen swarming into the Panjshir Valley late on Sunday.
In a second statement on Monday, a now defiant Massoud accused the Taliban of attacking when they were ready to agree to a ceasefire. He promised to keep fighting, urged Afghans to join their fight against the Taliban, and reprimanded the international community for providing a platform for the Taliban by entering into negotiations with them.
There is no statement from Saleh, Afghanistan’s former vice president, who declared himself incumbent president after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country on August 15 when the Taliban reached the gates of the capital.
The whereabouts of Saleh and the young Massoud were initially unknown on Monday.
Mujahid, the Taliban’s spokesman, tried to reassure Panjshir residents that they would be safe – although dozens of families reportedly fled to the mountains before the Taliban arrived.
“There is no need for further fighting,” said Mujahid at the press conference. “All Panjshir people and those who live in Panjshir are our brothers and they are part of our country.”
The Taliban intensified their attack on Panjshir on Sunday and tweeted that their troops were overran Rokha district, one of the largest in the province.
Mujahid also told reporters that the Taliban would announce a new government “within days” – one that would be inclusive, he said without elaborating. Once the government is in place, members of the former Afghan army and security forces will be asked to return to work to form an army with Taliban fighters, he added.
When asked what rights women would have under the Taliban, Mujahid promised that at some point all women would be “asked” to return to work.
The Taliban have claimed that unspecified “security reasons” are responsible for the slow return of Afghan women to work, including the confinement of women to their homes unless they are accompanied by a male guardian. But many who remember their previous rule are skeptical.
Associate press writers Rahim Faiez in Istanbul and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.