The Taliban said on Monday they have taken control of Panjshir province north of Kabul, the last holdout of anti-Taliban forces in the country and the only province the Taliban had not seized during their blitz across Afghanistan last month.
Thousands of Taliban fighters overran eight districts of Panjshir overnight, according to witnesses from the area who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing for their safety. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid issued a statement, saying Panjshir was now under control of Taliban fighters.
“We tried our best to solve the problem through negotiations, and they rejected talks and then we had to send our forces to fight,” Mujahid told a press conference in Kabul later Monday.
The anti-Taliban forces had been led by the former vice president, Amrullah Saleh, and also the son of the iconic anti-Taliban fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud who was killed just days before the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
Meanwhile in northern Balkh province, at least four planes chartered to evacuate several hundred people seeking to escape the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan have been unable to leave the country for days, officials said Sunday, with conflicting accounts emerging about why the flights weren’t able to take off as pressure ramps up on the U.S. to help those left behind to leave.
An Afghan official at the airport in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, the provincial capital, said that the would-be passengers were Afghans, many of whom did not have passports or visas, and thus were unable to leave the country. Speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters, he said they had left the airport while the situation was being sorted out.
The top Republican on the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, however, said that the group included Americans and that they had boarded planes but the Taliban were not letting them take off, effectively “holding them hostage.” Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas told “Fox News Sunday” that American citizens and Afghan interpreters were being kept on six planes. He did not say where that information came from and it was not immediately possible to reconcile the two accounts.
The final days of America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan were marked by a harrowing airlift at Kabul’s airport to evacuate tens of thousands of people — Americans and their allies — who feared what the future would hold, given the Taliban’s history of repression, particularly of women. When the last American troops pulled out on Aug. 30, though, many were left behind.
The U.S. promised to continue working with the new Taliban rulers to get those who want to leave out, and the militants pledged to allow anyone with the proper legal documents to leave.
Experts had doubted that resistance to the Taliban in Panjshir, the last holdout province, could succeed long-term despite the area's geographical advantage.
Nestled in the towering Hindu Kush mountains, the Panjshir Valley has a single narrow entrance. Local fighters held off the Soviets there in the 1980s and also, for a brief time, the Taliban a decade later under the leadership of Massoud. He was one of several former mujahedeen leaders who had ruled Kabul between 1992-96 but turned their guns on each other, leading to the 1996 arrival of the Taliban.
Massoud’s son Ahmad, in a statement Sunday called for an end to the fighting. The young British-schooled Massoud said his forces were ready to lay down their weapons but only if the Taliban agreed to end their assault. Late on Sunday dozens of vehicles loaded with Taliban fighters were seen swarming into the Panjshir Valley.
There has been no statement from Saleh, Afghanistan’s former vice president who had declared himself the acting president after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country on Aug. 15 as the Taliban reached the gates of the capital. The Taliban subsequently entered the presidency building that day.
The Taliban’s lightning blitz across the country took less than a week to overrun some 300,000 Afghan government troops, most of whom surrendered or fled.
The whereabouts of Saleh and the young Massoud were not immediately known Monday.
Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, sought to assure residents of Panjshir that they would be safe — even as scores of families reportedly fled into the mountains ahead of the Taliban’s arrival.
“There is no need for any more fighting," Mujahid said 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 had stepped up their assault on Panjshir on Sunday, tweeting that their forces overran Rokha district, one of the largest in the province. Several Taliban delegations have attempted negotiations with the holdouts, but talks failed.
Fahim Dashti, the spokesman for the anti-Taliban group and a prominent media personality during previous governments, was killed in battle Sunday, according to the group’s Twitter account. He was also the nephew of Abdullah Abdullah, a senior Kabul official of the former government involved in negotiations with the Taliban on the future of Afghanistan.
Mujahid denied Dashti died in battle with the Taliban, and claimed he was killed in an “internal dispute among two commanders in Panjshir," without offering any evidence to support that claim.
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 formed, members of the former Afghan army and security forces would be asked to return to work, he added.
“We need their expertise,” he said. Members of the previous Afghan security forces would then join with Taliban fighters to form a single army, Mujahid added. Taliban fighters in civilian clothes riding in pickup trucks through Kabul would be replaced with Taliban men in uniform.
Asked what rights women would have under the Taliban, Mujahid promised all women would eventually be “asked to return" to their jobs.
The Taliban have claimed unspecified “security reasons" are behind the current slow pace of return of Afghan women to their workplace and also behind restricting women to their homes, unless accompanied by a male guardian. But many who remember their rule are skeptical.
Additional reporting by The Associated Press.