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The Taliban has declared victory over Afghanistan’s last opposition stronghold after resistance fighters in the Panjshir Valley claimed that an aerial attack had inflicted heavy casualties on their leadership.
The Islamist movement’s flag was hoisted over the governor’s residence in the mountainous province north of Kabul on Monday, the first time the Taliban has made such deep inroads into a region that has been a cradle of resistance to the group for decades.
“Panjshir province is completely under the control of the Islamic emirate,” said Zabihullah Mujahid, Taliban spokesperson.
But Ali Nazary, head of foreign relations for the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, a coalition of anti-Taliban fighters, denied the battle was finished. He said resistance fighters had retreated to the mountains, from where they would maintain their armed struggle.
“Right now, the Taliban have been spreading a lot of propaganda that they have taken over the valley, which is wrong,” Nazary told the Financial Times. “Entering the Panjshir doesn’t translate into victory . . . What we’ve changed is our tactics. Forty-eight hours ago, we were fighting more of a conventional war. Now we are moving towards guerrilla warfare.”
The whereabouts of the opposition’s two main leaders — Ahmad Massoud, son of a legendary anti-Taliban fighter, and Amrullah Saleh, vice-president in the former government of president Ashraf Ghani — are unclear.
Mujahid told a press conference in Kabul that Saleh had escaped to neighbouring Tajikistan. The claim could not be immediately verified. Nazary said Massoud was safe.
The Taliban advanced into Panjshir after the NRFA said the valley had come under aerial attack, killing several military commanders and Fahim Dashti, a spokesperson for the resistance and a former journalist.
“We have seen some drone strikes — aerial bombings — we don’t know if they are drones or planes,” Nazary said.
In an audio recording released on Monday afternoon, Massoud accused Pakistan of carrying out the air strikes to support the Taliban offensive but Islamabad said the claim was “fabricated”.
“Pakistan has not deployed any of its forces to help the Taliban,” said a Pakistani government official.
Analysts say the Taliban has been experimenting for months with the use of low-tech off-the-shelf commercial drones for surveillance and attempted aerial attacks.
The Islamist movement also acquired several military helicopters when US forces withdrew last month, while some pilots from the collapsed Afghan army have agreed to work with the Taliban.
“The Taliban now have an independent ability to use their own air power using older helicopters and Afghan pilots,” said the Pakistani government official.
Islamabad has supported the Taliban for decades and was one of just three states to recognise the group’s regime when it controlled Afghanistan in the 1990s.
Faiz Hameed, head of Inter-Services Intelligence agency, Pakistan’s spy agency, visited Kabul at the weekend to meet Taliban leaders and extend the country’s help to create a unified Afghan military.
Massoud appealed for a ceasefire on Sunday and urged the Taliban to resume negotiations on a peace and power-sharing agreement.
But analysts said the Taliban had little incentive to engage in talks and would probably turn its full attention to forming a new government more than three weeks after its fighters marched into Kabul.
Mujahid said the Taliban would announce its plans for the government — probably starting with an interim caretaker administration — in the coming days.
“The Taliban finally have a political pie to distribute and there are lots of claimants for that pie,” said Asfandyar Mir, an affiliate at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. “It’s a very complicated dance.”
Meanwhile, Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and Martin Griffiths, a top UN official, have held talks in Kabul with Taliban leaders about providing emergency relief for Afghans hit by the impact of drought, the political turmoil and the suspension of foreign aid.
Additional reporting by Fazelminallah Qazizai in Kabul