Some Afghans desperate to leave country, some vow to resist Taliban as UN fears rights abuse

Nestled in the towering Hindu Kush, the Panjshir Valley has a single narrow entrance and is the last region not under Taliban control following their stunning blitz across Afghanistan.

Published: 25th August 2021 08:13 AM  |   Last Updated: 25th August 2021 08:13 AM   |  A+A-

Families walk towards their flight during ongoing evacuations at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul. (Photo | AP)


KABUL: In a mountain valley north of Kabul, the last remnants of Afghanistan's shattered security forces have vowed to resist the Taliban in a remote region that has defied conquerors before.

But any attempt to reenact that history could end in tragedy or farce.

Nestled in the towering Hindu Kush, the Panjshir Valley has a single narrow entrance and is the last region not under Taliban control following their stunning blitz across Afghanistan.

Local fighters held off the Soviets in the 1980s and the Taliban a decade later under the leadership of Ahmad Shah Massoud, a guerrilla fighter who attained near-mythic status before he was killed in a suicide bombing.

His 32-year-old foreign-educated son, Ahmad Massoud, and several top officials from the ousted Western-backed government have gathered in the valley.

They include Vice President Amrullah Saleh, who claims to be the caretaker leader after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country.

They have vowed to resist the Taliban and are calling for Western aid to help roll them back.

"I write from the Panjshir Valley today, ready to follow in my father's footsteps, with mujahideen fighters who are prepared to once again take on the Taliban," Massoud wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post.

"We have stores of ammunition and arms that we have patiently collected since my father's time, because we knew this day might come."

But experts say a successful resistance is highly unlikely and could potentially aggravate Afghanistan's already considerable problems.

While the Panjshir Valley remains as impregnable as ever, it's unclear how long its residents can hold out if the Taliban besiege the area or attack it using the U.S.-supplied armaments they have seized in recent weeks.

Western countries, stunned by the collapse of a costly, two-decade attempt at remaking Afghanistan, are unlikely to invest in another proxy war.

Ahmad Shah Massoud, nicknamed the "Lion of Panjshir," was one of the main leaders of the Afghan mujahedeen, self-styled holy warriors who defeated the Soviets in 1989.

His Northern Alliance included fellow Tajiks as well as fighters from other ethnic groups, in keeping with his vision of an independent, multi-ethnic Afghanistan under a moderate form of Islamic rule.

But as the country slid into war in the early 1990s, he found himself battling rival warlords and eventually the Taliban, who seized power in 1996.

During their five-year rule his forces were confined to Panjshir and other remote areas in northeastern Afghanistan.

Two days before the Sept.11, 2001, attacks, al-Qaida militants disguised as Arab journalists who had come to interview Massoud killed the commander in a suicide bombing.

His forces remained intact, however, and partnered with the US when it invaded Afghanistan weeks later, scattering al-Qaida, which orchestrated the 9/11 attacks, and driving the Taliban from power.

Along with other former warlords, they went on to form the core of the government and security forces that the U.S.

and its allies would spend the next two decades arming and training, at a cost of billions of dollars.

Those forces, which from the beginning were rife with corruption, collapsed in a matter of days earlier this month, as the Taliban captured most of the country less than three weeks before the U.S.

was set to withdraw its last troops.

The younger Massoud, who was just 12 when his father was killed, trained at the British military academy at Sandhurst and also earned a master's degree in international politics from the City University of London.

He has little, if any, combat experience.

Sandy Gall, a veteran foreign correspondent who wrote "Afghan Napoleon: The Life of Ahmad Shah Massoud," described his son as "a very personable young man with political ambitions."

Massoud says he has been joined by highly-trained Afghan special forces and other soldiers "disgusted by the surrender of their commanders," but neither proved to be any match for the Taliban elsewhere in the country.

Torek Farhadi, an Afghan analyst and former government adviser, said the group poses little threat to the Taliban, and he cast doubt on Saleh's claims that he could lead a resistance, calling him a "social media person."

"If he was a real threat he should have stayed the day Ghani fled and defended the palace. He was the vice president and soldiers were under his order," said Farhadi.

But even the specter of such a standoff, he said, risks plunging the country into another period violence and turmoil, with dire consequences for ordinary Afghans.

The Associated Press contacted several people close to both Massoud and Saleh in order to seek comment, but was unable to reach them.

Many Afghans with ties to the ousted government have fled the country or gone into hiding.

The ousted leaders holed up in Panjshir may end up joining the negotiations that the Taliban are holding with other former Afghan officials.

The Taliban have said they want an "inclusive, Islamic government" but will hold off on forming one until the U.S. completes its withdrawal.

"We must use our weight with the international community to get guarantees from the Taliban for an all-encompassing government that includes women and non-Taliban," said Farhadi.

Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, a senior Taliban official, said their forces have surrounded Panjshir.

"We are doing our best to solve the issue through negotiations, but if they don't accept the talks, we are ready to fight," he said.

In an interview with the Al-Arabiya news network over the weekend, Massoud said he would not surrender territory but could support a broad-based government.

A resident of Panjshir reached by phone said Massoud had warned people that the Taliban might attack and said families could leave if they wished.

Those who stayed would prefer a negotiated solution but are loyal to Massoud and prepared to fight if necessary, the man said on condition of anonymity because of security concerns.

"Panjshir people are used to this," he said.

"They have gone through these situations several times and they are ready for it once again."

The UN human rights chief warned Tuesday that she had received credible reports of severe abuses in areas under Taliban control in Afghanistan, including “summary executions” of civilians and security forces who had laid down their arms and restrictions on women.

Michelle Bachelet urged the Human Rights Council to take “bold and vigorous action” to monitor the rights situation in Afghanistan, where the Taliban's stunning takeover raised fears that they will return the country to the brutal rule they imposed when they were last in power.

Taliban leaders have promised to restore security and tried to project an image of moderation, but many Afghans are skeptical and are racing to leave the country, leading to chaos at Kabul's international airport.

Amid scattered reports, it has been difficult to determine how widespread abuses might be and whether they reflect that Taliban leaders are saying one thing and doing another, or if fighters on the ground are taking matters into their own hands.

Leaders from the Group of Seven nations plan to meet later Tuesday to discuss the burgeoning refugee crisis and the collapse of the Afghan government amid wrangling over whether the full US withdrawal of troops could be extended beyond the end of the month to allow more time to evacuate those desperate to leave.

US administration officials have refused to be pinned down about whether an extension is likely or even possible given that a Taliban spokesman has warned that August 31 is a "red line" and that extending the American presence would "provoke a reaction."

In the meantime, tragic scenes at the airport have transfixed the world.

Afghans poured onto the tarmac last week and some clung to a US military transport plane as it took off, later plunging to their deaths.

At least seven people died that day, and another seven died Sunday in a panicked stampede.

An Afghan solider was killed Monday in a gunfight.

On Tuesday, Bachelet called for strong action to investigate reports of rights abuses, as she sought to ensure that international attention on the country doesn't wane.

"At this critical moment, the people of Afghanistan look to the Human Rights Council to defend and protect their rights," she said.

"I urge this council to take bold and vigorous action, commensurate with the gravity of this crisis, by establishing a dedicated mechanism to closely monitor the evolving human rights situation in Afghanistan."

By "mechanism," Bachelet was referring to the possibility that the council might appoint a commission of inquiry, special rapporteur or fact-finding mission on the situation in Afghanistan.

Bachelet cited reports of "summary executions" of civilians and former security forces who were no longer fighting, the recruitment of child soldiers, and restrictions on the rights of women to move around freely and of girls to go to school.

She cited repression of peaceful protests and expressions of dissent.

Bachelet did not specify what time timeframe she was referring to or the source of her reports.

Days earlier, a Norway-based private intelligence group that provides information to the UN said it obtained evidence that the Taliban have rounded up Afghans on a blacklist of people they believe worked in key roles with the previous Afghan administration or with US-led forces.

Several Afghans are in hiding, saying they fear such reprisals.

When the Taliban last ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s, the group largely confined women to their homes, banned television and music, chopped off the hands of suspected thieves and held public executions.

Bachelet noted that Taliban leaders have recently pledged to respect the rights of women, girls and ethnic minorities and refrain from reprisals.

"The onus is now fully on the Taliban to translate these commitments into reality," she told the 47-member-state council, which is the UN's top human rights body.

Countries at the council pulled together a joint resolution, likely to be accepted by consensus, that stops far short of calls from some advocacy groups for the appointment of a rights expert to monitor the situation.

It only calls for Bachelet's office to issue a report only early next year.

A knock at the door could spell doom.

Every passing hour seems endless.

That's the new reality for many Afghans who feel they have most to fear from the Taliban and have gone into hiding or are staying off the streets since the fighters swept to power this month.

Those hunkering down include employees of the collapsed government, civil society activists and women.

They are desperate for news that they might be granted asylum somewhere else.

They fear a massive rollback of women's rights, or they are distrustful of the Taliban's promises that they won't seek revenge on former adversaries and that they want to form an inclusive government as the U.S. ends its 20-year war.

One of those in hiding is Mobina, 39, a journalist from the city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

After the Taliban overran her city, she fled with her two children and has found refuge in a safe house in Kabul.

"We are asking ourselves What is next?' We are crying because nothing can be fixed," Mobina said.

Elsewhere in the Afghan capital, Mumtaz is huddled with his family in their apartment.

His father worked for the government and his brother was killed in a grenade attack in 2010 in Laghman province, where the Taliban have long been active.

The family made a run to Kabul's airport after the Taliban entered the city on Aug.

15, but they encountered huge crowds, chaos and gunfire and went back home.

They haven't left the apartment since.

Their anxiety grew after a neighbor warned them a group of armed men were looking for them.

It is not always clear whether those knocking on doors or spreading fear are Taliban or criminals freed from prison during their sweep through the country.

"We can't go out. We just ask our neighbor to bring us food."

"We are really scared," said Mumtaz, 26, who recently graduated from law school.

He said he has lost all sense of time.

Mobina and Mumtaz spoke on condition they be identified only by their first names, fearing reprisals.

Both said they have not received threats directly from the Taliban so far.

Taliban fighters have set up checkpoints throughout Kabul, stopping motorists to ask where they are headed or checking car papers.

There have also been some reports of Taliban going door to door in search of former government workers and civil activists.

Such reports could not always be independently verified, and it's not clear if they indicate that Taliban leaders are saying one thing and doing another, or if some on the ground are taking matters into their own hands.

There is no indication of large-scale house-to-house searches.

Taliban commanders have said they have instructions to confiscate government property, including weapons and cars, but that they have told their men to respect private property.

Taliban leaders have also encouraged government workers to return to work.

Still, there are growing signs of restrictions.

In the province of Sar-e-Pol, the Taliban issued a list of directives.

They included banning music, Western-style dress, and jobs that require women to appear in public.

The punishment for transgressions is beating.

Girls in the city of Herat, the country's third-largest, meanwhile, were allowed to return to school as long as their teachers were women, or elderly men.

Some say it is in the interest of the Taliban not to revert to the brutality they displayed when they ruled from 1996 to 2001.

In those years, they denied girls and women the right to an education, barred them from the public life, meted out brutal punishments, such as cutting of the hands of thieves, and carried out public executions.

Today, the Taliban will depend on foreign donor assistance to run the country, and may have a motive not to alienate the international community.

But those looking to leave the country fear that may not be enough, expressing concern what will happen as time passes and international focus falls elsewhere.

Mobina, the journalist, is in hiding with 25 people.

The others include heads of civil society groups, women's rights defenders and leaders of development projects.

They are too scared to leave the safe house.

They say they hear Taliban fighters are roaming the streets, stopping women and asking them where their male escort is.

Under the Taliban's previous rule, women were required to have such an escort.

"Our friends are sending us money so we can afford to eat," Mobina said.

"That is how we know we aren't forgotten."

And yet, the way out of Afghanistan is also treacherous.

Evacuations are being organized largely by embassies prioritizing their own nationals and the Afghans who worked directly with them.

But thousands of other at-risk Afghans don't immediately qualify.

Those who are approved for evacuation face huge crowds at the airport, and Taliban patrols make it difficult for travelers to reach the gates.

Stories abound of failed attempts over successive days.

Many others struggle to even reach the airport.

Humaira Sadeq, the co-founder of the Afghan Women's Media Network, said women who fear they are on the Taliban's radar are advised to take precautions when they travel to Kabul from the outlying areas, including leaving behind mobile phones and covering up with a burqa.

Sadeq managed to get out of Afghanistan after the Taliban seizure of the capital and traveled to another country.

She spoke on condition that country was not named.

Now she spends sleepless nights fighting to get her fellow activists out.

She submitted 22 names to an organization helping people leave, but none have made it onto evacuation lists yet.

Sadeq said that some of the women don't have passports or are stuck in the provinces.

Women's rights activists say the world's seeming disregard for their fate was apparent when the United States, starting under then-President Donald Trump, negotiated a deal directly with the Taliban, bypassing Afghan political leaders and civil society groups.

The deal, signed more than a year ago, included the terms and timetable for a withdrawal of foreign troops.

"The U. S. made a deal with the Taliban on our behalf," said Zubaida Akbar, an activist now based in the U.S.

She works with FEMENA, a women's organization that is helping Mobina and others with temporary housing and trying to get them on evacuation lists.

President Joe Biden called the anguish of trapped Afghans "gut-wrenching" and insisted that the U. S. would work to help get vulnerable Afghans, including women leaders and journalists, out of the country.

Mobina said she can't bring herself to tell the young women who looked to her for inspiration that she is trying to leave.

"If there was any chance for me to stay, I would," she said.


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