PANJSHIR, AFGHANISTAN – While the international community abandons Afghanistan, veteran warriors in the struggles against the Soviet Union and the Taliban are gathering in their old base camps deep in north-central Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley.
Although some of the towns of Panjshir have fallen to the Taliban, a National Resistance Front, similar to the one that fought the Soviets and helped the United States overthrow the Taliban in 2001, has begun to mount a resistance campaign.
Their cause is both just and necessary, as a dizzying array of terrorist organizations are also gathering in other parts of the country. This is a clear and present danger for the entire world, because Afghanistan’s mountains and valleys have previously spawned and incubated jihadi movements that spread from Algeria to Libya, through Syria and Saudi Arabia.
Re-establishment of Taliban rule is already inspiring many such groups. Al-Qaida’s partners in the Syrian city of Idlib are rejoicing openly, and Hamas is celebrating. The Taliban’s return to power has provided violent Islamist groups not only a potent moral victory, but also, and more worryingly, a potential safe haven. Already, one of al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden’s closest aides has returned triumphantly to Afghanistan.
To prevent the re-emergence of the world’s most lethal terrorist organization and its offshoots, the entire international community — particularly China and India — need to work with local partners. Only by doing so will the Taliban feel sufficient pressure to sever ties with their pariah associates.
Although the Taliban ruled most of Afghanistan from 1996-2001, they never completely eliminated resistance to their rule. In the rugged and narrow Panjshir Valley, the Northern Alliance, led by Ahmad Shah Massoud, held sway. Massoud warned as early as the mid-1980s that the foreign fighters who were migrating to Afghanistan had a more sinister agenda than driving out the Soviets. Two days before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Massoud was assassinated in a suicide bombing carried out by al-Qaida operatives contracted by the Taliban. Today, malign forces are targeting Massoud’s ancestral home in the Panjshir Valley, where his son, Ahmad, is organizing the resistance to Taliban rule.
I have known the younger Massoud for more than a decade, watching him mature from a cautious and shy figure into a leader who commands the respect of his fighters and the valley’s civilian population. He began his career working on humanitarian projects in Panjshir as the head of the Massoud Foundation, rather than joining the Afghan government. He never viewed the country as a personal piggy bank, as did countless government leaders and mid-level bureaucrats. Instead, Massoud advocated for accountability and equity. And unlike many other Afghan leaders, who held such concepts in contempt and bought homes in the United Arab Emirates and Spain, Massoud spent the last four years living in Panjshir and forging a strong base.
Massoud’s desire to stay and fight is lost on other Afghan leaders. Unlike warlords such as Abdul Rashid Dostum and Atta Muhammad Nur, Massoud held firm as the Taliban surged into power. He rebuffed offers from two heads of state to whisk him to safety on private planes. In doing so, he is following the example of his father, who never abandoned his homeland even as he faced the Taliban juggernaut.
I spent the harrowing days of Afghanistan’s fall with him. For three weeks, we watched as province after province capitulated to the Taliban and panic gripped the country. But, despite the chaos and uncertainty, Massoud insists the government’s collapse will not lead to his own surrender.
Massoud is no stranger to the international community. He studied at the United Kingdom’s prestigious Sandhurst Royal Military Academy and later at King’s College London. When his maternal grandfather asked him why he chose to major in war studies when Afghanistan could provide him a battlefield view, the young Massoud replied that he focused on the subject so his generation could avoid war rather than remaining mired in it. As Massoud matured, his stature grew, earning him meetings with heads of states and intelligence chiefs around the world.
Today, facing a Taliban onslaught, he needs material assistance, not petit fours in presidential palaces. The billions of dollars of American weaponry the Taliban swept up in their march on Kabul has made its way to the valley, and Massoud lacks the supply routes through Tajikistan that his father relied on to repel the Taliban. But the valley’s craggy and steep gorges provide him benefits no war strategist can deny. And the ranks of his fighters are growing daily as former Afghan security officials flock to Panjshir, unwilling to accept the Taliban takeover. There have been widespread protests in Kabul and overseas in support of Massoud’s call for resistance.
To protect his enclave, Massoud’s forces need long-range mortars to repel the Taliban’s heavy guns. Communication equipment also is vital in a region where the Taliban periodically severs mobile and internet links. And the civilians in his fledgling rebel redoubt need winterization kits as the temperatures begin to fall. Without such aid, this last bastion of Taliban resistance will be wiped out.
Ever since the Taliban took Kabul, the international community has insisted that it will neither accept the re-imposition of the group’s rigid Islamic strictures nor acquiesce as Afghanistan becomes a jihadi safe haven. By supporting Massoud, the international community can back up its words with action. Otherwise, it is likely the Taliban will brush off international pressure and re-establish an Islamic Emirate, offering protection to all like-minded groups, however murderous their agenda. That is a proposition the world cannot afford.
Kamal Alam is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. © Project Syndicate, 2021.
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