As the Taliban prepares to announce the formation of a new government, the status of north-central Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley, the sole outpost of resistance to Taliban rule, hangs in the balance.
After several days of intense clashes, celebratory gunfire erupted in Kabul amidst reports that the Taliban had seized control over the National Resistance Front (NRF) opposition stronghold. Rumours swirled that NRF founder Ahmad Massoud and former Vice President Amrullah Saleh had fled to Tajikistan.
Saleh refuted these rumours on Friday afternoon via a voice message to the BBC.
“I’m calling you from the Panjshir Valley, from my base,” the messages said. “I’m with our commanders, with our political leaders. Of course, it’s a difficult situation. They have suffered casualties. We have suffered casualties.”
On Wednesday morning, I interviewed Saleh about the future of the anti-Taliban resistance in Afghanistan and the NRF’s quest for international support. Saleh delivered his replies to my questions via screenshots of handwritten notes, stating, “I don’t have the means to type a letter.”
The limited communication available to him is the product of a Taliban-imposed siege on Panjshir Valley, which Saleh said has shuttered telecommunications, electricity, and inflows of medicine, while preventing humanitarian aid from reaching the region.
I began the interview by asking him about the sustainability of Taliban rule in Afghanistan. In an August 27 interview with Euronews, Saleh confidently predicted that “it is impossible for Taliban rule to last long in Afghanistan,” due to the unacceptability of the Islamic Emirate to the Afghan people.
He explained this prediction in our interview.
“Over the last 42 years, territorial control hasn’t translated into stability, either state stability or social stability,’ Saleh said. “The Taliban can’t be an exception either. Their Sharia interpretation is mixed with personal, territorial, tribal, ethnic, and historical biases. Also, they all depend on madrassa infrastructure in Pakistan. These factors go against the pluralistic fabric of Afghanistan.”
Despite his public confidence that Taliban rule in Afghanistan will soon atrophy, the NRF and Taliban have held regular talks about the status of Panjshir Valley. On August 25, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid stated that he was 80% confident that a political solution could be achieved. This fueled speculation that Panjshir Valley would remain free from Taliban rule, much as it did from 1996-2001.
By August 29, Mujahid stated that he was 60% hopeful that a resolution could be found through talks with “ulema [a body of Muslim scholars] and former jihadi leaders.” On September 1, the head of the Taliban guidance commission Amir Khan Muttaqi admitted that talks with the NRF had broken down, paving the way for renewed violence.
When asked about the nature of talks between the NRF and the Taliban, Saleh challenged Muhajid’s assertions, and argued that they dealt with a much more expansive range of issues than the future of Panjshir Valley.
“We aren’t negotiating for the fate and status of Panjshir Valley,” he said. “The resistance is for values and rights. Zabiullah Mujahid’s wording is thus wrong.”
After Saleh articulated the NRF’s goals, our interview turned to Pakistan’s involvement in the Taliban’s capture of Kabul. Saleh has been a long-standing critic of Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan.
“Pakistan can’t hide anymore,” Saleh tweeted recently. “They are in the war and on the side of the terrorist Taliban.”
In our interview, he delivered a damning indictment of Pakistan’s Afghanistan policies.
“I am tired of saying how the international community should sanction and punish Pakistan,” Saleh said. “The Western intelligence agencies know well how deep Pakistan is involved in sponsoring extremism and terrorism. You may ask them.”
Saleh’s grievances with the U.S. government extend beyond Pakistan’s interference in Afghanistan’s affairs. He recently lambasted President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, claiming that it converted the U.S. from a “superpower to a mini-power.”
He expanded on that argument in our interview.
“The world is watching the defeat of the U.S. and NATO’s military might,” Saleh said. “They, of course, have the means to provide a different narrative, manipulate the headlines and plant stories. But they can’t change the reality. A defeat in the hands of a Pakistan-based, Pakistan-backed and Pakistan-led group.”
Perhaps due to his frustrations with President Biden, Saleh has welcomed words of support from Republican lawmakers, such as Florida Congressman Michael Waltz, and was interviewed by Sean Hannity on Fox News on August 28.
When I asked him whether Biden’s management of the withdrawal in Afghanistan or his predecessor President Donald Trump’s February 2020 deal with the Taliban played a bigger role in precipitating the Taliban’s seizure of Kabul, he did not offer his opinion.
“I don’t know,” he responded.
After lamenting the failure of U.S. policy, our discussion turned to possible ways that the international community could help the Afghanistan resistance. Although Ahmad Massoud had appeared on Russian TV station RBK and asked Russia to help create a buffer zone for those who cannot leave Afghanistan, Saleh was non-committal about Russian assistance.
This was not surprising, as he had been highly critical of the Moscow-format peace talks, which made the Taliban regular visitors to Russia in 2018 and 2019.
Saleh was more optimistic about what Western countries could do to help the NRF, saying, “If there is a will, there will always be ways.”
He argued that the Western powers can reverse their “defeat” by “backing the resistance and forcing the Taliban into a political settlement. A political settlement would create a new horizon and balance against the dominant strength of the Taliban, who claim to have defeated the world.”
As the fate of Panjshir Valley remains unclear, Saleh remains one of the Islamic Emirate’s most strident critics. His steely resolve is being tested like never before, as the Taliban relentlessly tries to unite the entirety of Afghanistan under its rule.
Samuel Ramani is a tutor of politics and international relations at the University of Oxford. He is a regular contributor to media outlets, such as the Washington Post and Foreign Policy, as well as to broadcast stations, such as the BBC World Service, Al Jazeera English and CNN International. Follow him on Twitter @samramani2.