Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

Guest Blog: The Enteqal 7 – Fear in the valley of the Five Lions

Sayed Salahuddin 5 min

The starting handover of security responsibility to the Afghan government, reports about talks with the Taleban and a feeling of alienation are contributing to a sense of increasing fear in the Panjshir valley, a stronghold of anti-Taleban reisstance. Our guest blogger Sayed Salahuddin* looks at the background, both in history and current events.

The handover of responsibility for security from foreign to Afghan forces, begins this week and simultaneously, there are fresh reports of behind-the-scene talks between the Taleban and US officials. This has created hope among some Afghans that a solution may be found to the nearly decade-long US-led war. At the same time, the twin developments have touched the nerves of others.
The fear is perhaps deepest in the Panjshir* valley, the stronghold of the anti-Taleban forces which helped the US remove the Taleban Emirate from power in 2001. The fear has been aggravated by the recent assassinations of a number of staunchly anti-Taleban commanders, especially General Daud and General Sayyedkheli, both of whom fought under Ahmad Shah Massud, who was known as the ‘Lion of Panjshir’. Massud, of course, was assassinated two days before 9/11 by al-Qaida suicide attackers. The generals’ deaths have created a perception among the valley’s people and Massud’s key former aides and allies that these targeted killings are aimed only at them and that worse may be to come if the Taleban are given power in the government under the terms of a peace deal and if the foreign forces withdraw from Afghanistan. At the same time, the presence of foreign forces stirs distinctly mixed feelings in the valley.

The current population of the 80 kilometre long valley is estimated at nearly 140,000. Since the ousting of the Taleban, tens of thousands have settled in Kabul, just a couple of hours’ drive to the south; the capital’s taxi business, in particular, seems to be firmly in their hands. Almost all of the valley’s people are ethnic Tajiks but pride themselves on being called Panjshiris. Some consider themselves more heroic than other Afghan groups and tribes because of their role in the resistance during the years of relentless air and ground assaults by the Soviet Union in the 1980s and, later, during the years of economic siege and attacks by the Taleban. The four years in the 1990s when mujahedin from the Panjshir were among those fighting over Kabul carrying out relentless rocketing which left a third of the capital destroyed, is always conveniently forgotten in this narrative.

After the Taleban were ousted, it was Panjshiris who, despite representing a tiny percentage of the Afghan population, claimed their huge contribution to the anti-Soviet and anti-Taleban resistance made it reasonable for them to occupy most of the key government posts in Kabul – including the ministers of defence, interior and foreign affairs and the heads of the intelligence service and the Office of Administrative Affairs, the quasi-prime ministerial office. When non-Panjshiris were later appointed to some of these posts, behind-the-scenes influence by the ‘foreigners’ was blamed, something which hardly endeared them to the Panjshiris. That perceived marginalization has played into a strong anti-Westernism among the inhabitants of the Panjshir.

One result is that, uniquely in Afghanistan, the small group of US soldiers operating in the valley, and indeed any foreign troops travelling or carrying out development projects there, cannot carry arms.

Now the Panjshir is among the seven areas included in the initial phase of enteqal (transition). It is a symbolic move because foreign troops have rarely had any role in maintaining security in the valley. Nevertheless, it has given rise to fears among the local population that the good security may not last, given that the Taleban have managed to spread their attacks to areas close to the Panjshir and Afghan forces seem not to be adequately equipped to stop the strikes.

These fears were recently expressed by the Panjshir police commander, General Muhammad Qasim Jangalbagh who said on 6 July, according toTolonews (see full report here) that, ‘Due to [a] limited number of forces in Panjsher, we cannot take the security responsibility for this province. And because Panjsher is bordered by insecure provinces, we need a huge force’. A day later, he corrected himself slightly when talking to AAN: ‘We welcome and accept the process of transition. But we have a concern about the police’s capacity and the security situation because we border four provinces which are insecure. The army has no presence here [and] we have asked for extra police; one battalion as a quick reaction force and auxiliary forces, in total 500.’ He refused to give the current strength of the ANP in the province.

In the eyes of the population, the Panjshir’s security is undermined by the absence of a leader like the late Massud who had the charisma to unite commanders and people against any attackers. Locals also point to the lack of heavy weapons which used to exist in abundance in their province. However, while some heavy weapons were handed over by the Panjshiris under the UN-backed, nationwide disarmament programme (DDR) early on after the fall of the Taleban, people in the province did not allow UN and US inspectors to check on the further presence of weapons and ammunition caches in the valley. It is believed that military materiel is still stored in various caves in the twisting Panjshir and its side valleys.

Two former aides of Massud, Dr. Abdullah and Amrullah Saleh, are currently trying to mobilise the people of the valley and some other parts of the north against what they call Karzai’s ambiguous efforts for reaching out to the Taleban (read an earlier blog on this here). Part of their campaign involves highlighting the killing of Massud’s former commanders. But some Panjshiris actually curse their current set of leaders for siding with Washington (and with Karzai), their lack of unity and their rivalry over access to power in Kabul and to wealth.

The insurgent threat to the Panjshir seems to be overstated. ‘There is no concern in Panjshir now about security,’ says Dr. Gulbuddin who serves as an aide for Vice President, Muhammad Qasem Fahim; both hail from the valley and fought alongside Massud.

The valley’s rugged terrain has kept intruders away so far from the Panjshir. And only isolated Taleban groups and their allies are active in the several surrounding provinces. Residents say they might use the passes leading to the former ‘centre of resistance’ for launching guerrilla attacks into it. A few of the passes are currently used by drug dealers as well as arms smugglers, Panjshir’s governor Ikramuddin Keram has said.

It is impossible to imagine Taleban getting even a toe-hold of support here in the way they have in other parts of the north. Yet the fear is increasing that the Panjshir might end up, once again, as an island surrounded by a hostile sea of enemies.


(*) Sayed Salahuddin is an experienced freelance journalist based in Kabul, formerly with Reuters and  the BBC and currently working with the Washington Post.

(**) The valley’s name sometimes is written as Panjsher also. ‘Panj sher’, means ‘five lions’. This goes back to a legend that when the area was conquered by the Arabs, they intended to build a dam but couldn’t do so. Five local strongmen, however, succeeded in this task, and they were called the ‘five lions’ henceforth. ‘Panj jir’ (or hir), meanwhile, means ‘five creeks’.


Panjshir Taleban


Sayed Salahuddin

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