PANJSHIR, Afghanistan – In this lush strip of land – shielded from potential intruders by high mountain peaks and narrow, ambushed passes – former mujahideen fighters and Afghan commandos regrouped and swore in the days after the Afghan government was overthrown by the Taliban to fight the last man. With a history of resistance and a reputation for impenetrability, the Panjshir Valley seemed an ideal place for a determined force of renegades to start an uprising against the Taliban.
By September 6, however, the Taliban claimed to have captured the entire Panjshir Province, a momentous victory in a region that fought off numerous Soviet offensives in the 1980s and remained outside the Taliban’s control during their rule from 1996 to 2001.
On Tuesday, the New York Times traveled down the valley for the first time since the Taliban’s lightning offensive last month led to their seizure of power in Afghanistan. On the roadsides, posters of fallen resistance fighters from previous wars had been torn down. The otherwise busy traffic had been replaced by wandering cattle, and the silence was broken only by Islamic chants that occasionally came from the speakers of the few Taliban trucks.
A spokesman for the National Resistance Front claimed the battle is far from over.
“Our forces are stationed throughout the valley,” said the spokesman Ali Maisam Nazary on WhatsApp. “The Soviets also claimed victory if they invaded Panjshir and did not see any fighting for days or weeks. But the mujahideen in the 80s would wait and then attack at the right time. “
But on a trip through the 40 miles of the province and the provincial capital of Bazarak, it became clear that the fighting had largely ceased, at least for the time being, and that the resistance seemed limited to mountainous areas that were virtually inaccessible on foot or by vehicle. Most of the residents had fled the fighting. Those who stayed behind struggled with rising market prices and food shortages.
During and after these weeks of fighting, reports of Taliban human rights violations against captured resistance fighters and civilians circulated on social media. However, the reports of house-to-house searches, seizures and public executions, all of which were denied by the Taliban, have not been verified or debunked.
Power and cell phone towers were dismantled, leaving an information vacuum that was quickly filled with conflicting narratives and claims of massacres, ethnic cleansing and false accusations. A popular video claiming that Pakistani drones are operating over the valley turned out to be graphics from a video game. Another video showed bundles of money and pieces of gold found by the Taliban in a house that allegedly belonged to former Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh. This report was denied by some Taliban officials, while others believed it was true.
Patricia Gossman, assistant director of Human Rights Watch Asia, said her organization had pursued numerous allegations of atrocity but had difficulty confirming them. “There is an avalanche of unconfirmed information on social media, but what it takes is a credible investigation into allegations of summary executions and other abuses,” said Ms. Gossman. “There is no other way to find out the truth and press for accountability.”
Basir Abdul, who lived in Germany for 40 years and exported cars to Afghanistan and the Middle East, made his way home earlier this week through the Panjshir Valley, which he found largely deserted.
“Everyone says ‘Taliban, Taliban’,” he said, “so I said to myself, ‘I have to see that.'”
Upon arriving at his home, Mr. Abdul, 58, assessed the damage: a few broken windows and signs of intruders sleeping in the rooms. Someone had left behind a pair of combat boots and an orange scarf hanging from a branch.
“I’m not sure if this was the work of the Taliban or the thieves,” he said, “but people broke in while I was away.”
Outside, Mr. Abdul scanned the horizon. His property was within sight of the grave of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the famous mujahideen leader of the Northern Resistance, who was murdered by al-Qaida activists 20 years ago.
“The valley seems calm,” said Mr. Abdul.
Not far down the street, a group of Taliban fighters packed their pickup trucks that still bore the emblems of the fallen Afghan security forces. “The fight is over in Panjshir,” said the commander of the Sabawoon unit, who has only one name. “There will be silence now. We welcomed those who laid down their arms, and those who fought did not end well for them. “
His 200-strong unit came from northern Afghanistan. They fought their way to Panjshir from neighboring Baghlan Province and made it to Bazarak last week.
Commander Sabawoon said his men were on their way to Mazar-i-Sharif, capital of Balkh Province, where they would provide security.
There was little evidence of heavy fighting along the main road south of Bazarak. Some buildings had broken windows or a few bullet holes, but structural damage was difficult to find. About half a dozen wrecked military vehicles lined the street.
A surgical hospital and maternity hospital in the valley have admitted 60 to 70 people with conflict-related injuries in the past few weeks, said Dr. Gina Portella, coordinator of the medical department of the NGO Emergency, an Italian non-profit organization that runs the facility.
“We were preparing for a mass casualty situation before the clashes started here,” said Dr. Portella. “Because many civilians left the valley in advance, the numbers remained relatively small.”
On the edge of the main street, Talibs formed a human chain and loaded metal canisters of ammunition from the parked trucks. Mortars, rockets, cartridges of various calibres, and anti-personnel mines recovered from decades-old weapons depots piled up around a rusted Soviet armored personnel carrier.
Further along the winding road, deep in the side valley of Dara-e Hazara, a blockade spanned the road, which was occupied by armed fighters with heavy Panjshiri accents. One of them stated that they belonged to units that had served under the previous government and that although they had no longer offered resistance, they had not yet surrendered.
He said that Qari Qudratullah, the new provincial governor, met with elders to discuss a peaceful handover.
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An official from the Taliban Military Commission, Mullah Hafiz Osman, later confirmed that this was true, while Mr. Nazary, the resistance spokesman, denied the claim.
Behind the Panjshiri fighters waved the green, white and black flag of the Northern Alliance, which was repurposed to symbolize the National Resistance Front led by Ahmad Massoud, the son of leader Ahmad Massoud, who was murdered in 2001 and has long been active in the valley and that their takeover had been negotiated by some residents.
In front of the grave of the elder Massoud, a young Talib, far from his home in the Helmand province in the south, said his evening prayer.
Days earlier, photos of the partially destroyed tomb in a dramatic mausoleum on a hill overlooking the valley appeared on social media, along with allegations that the Taliban had looted the site. “That wasn’t our job,” said one of the Taliban guards. “Civilians broke in and smashed the glass.”
The site had meanwhile been repaired by the Taliban and is now in its original condition. A group of guards stood around the tomb and when evening came they stretched a green shroud over it and closed the doors for the night.
Outside the valley, those who had fled wondered if they could ever return.
When the Taliban invaded Panjshir for the first time, Sahar (17) and her family barricaded themselves at home, thinking that the resistance would eventually drive the Talibs away. But the fighting was getting closer.
Neighbors began to flee, said Sahar, whose last name is withheld to protect her identity. Her uncle and cousin were stopped at a Taliban checkpoint near the village, beaten and asked to surrender their weapons and the names of the resistance fighters.
Last week the family escaped through the mountains. They hiked through remote valleys and over mountain ridges for five days. Sahar passed out three times, she said, and her mother had blisters and swollen feet. Her father, who is diabetic, almost collapsed.
Eventually they hitchhiked to Kabul, the country’s capital, where they had relatives with whom they now live.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Sahar over the phone from Kabul. “We may never be able to come back.”
Farnaz Fassihi Contribution to coverage from New York, NY Wali Arian Contributed from Istanbul, Turkey.