Afghanistan: Can history repeat itself…?

The dust is now settling, a new Taliban government is in the making and the world is resigned to the reality that the geopolitical map of South and Central Asia has been redrawn.

Afghan security guards try to maintain order as hundreds gather outside the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan.(Photo source: AP)

By Col Ronnie Rajkumar, 

The battle for Afghanistan is over. 32 provinces and their capitals fallen, the much touted ANDSF in rout, the nation’s capital Kabul seized, the government of Ashraf Ghani toppled and Ashraf Ghani and his coterie in exile. The dust is now settling, a new Taliban government is in the making and the world is resigned to the reality that the geopolitical map of South and Central Asia has been redrawn.

In this melee, however, we find one bastion of resistance and stoicism holding out. Tucked into the far and remote North East of Afghanistan surrounded by the craggy hostile mountain ranges of the Hindukush, Panjshir Province is a defender’s dream and an attacker’s nightmare. Panjshir, and the province of Parwan to the South West whose status still hangs in the balance, is as yet the enduring island of resistance to the Taliban’s inexorable territorial conquest. And it is here that hopes hinge on history repeating itself yet again. The map below shows the status of provinces where in a sea of Taliban REDs, one can see the YELLOW of a Panjshir, isolated in its resolve to never succumb.

Strategic Location

Panjshir Province, 70 kilometers North of Kabul, occupies a strategic dominating location just East of the MSR that runs from Kabul northwards through the Salang Pass and Tunnel and on to Pul-i-Khumri and Kunduz or Mazar-i-Sharif. The province dominates access or exit to Salang from the South and, to a limited extent, from the North. This implies that Panjshir can exercise a strategic chokehold over all surface transportation between the two halves of Afghanistan over the Hindukush massif should the contingency arise.

Panjshir Province, per se, is a narrow winding valley along the Panjshir River and is surrounded by imposing rocky heights that dominate the entry, exit and all movement along the only access road that hugs the river. This road has been the graveyard of Soviet armoured columns and invading ranks of Soviet troops. The charred relics of Soviet AFVs and troop carriers still litter the roadside from here to Salang. The Panjshir valley is a closed impregnable fortress that has remained a defeated endeavour to all invaders.

Historical Context

The Soviet – Afghan War

The story of the mujahedeen war of resistance to the Soviet occupation (known as the Soviet – Afghan War) started with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The mujahideen comprised of a mix of insurgent groups, the primary force being that of Ahmad Shah Massoud from his redoubt in the Panjshir Valley that battled the Russians for nine years. Supported by the US, who saw this war as an extension of the Cold War, and Pakistan whose CIA-mentored ISI was actively involved in ground operations, the primary logistic routes ran from Pakistan through Kunar and Nuristan provinces to the Panjshir and sundry bases of the mujahideen in North Afghanistan. The Soviets mounted nine major multiple-division offensives into the Panjshir Valley to crush the mujahideen of Ahmad Shah Massoud, but failed with heavy casualties. In 1989, the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, a defeated force.

The Northern Alliance. The Northern Alliance was a confederation of warlords and ethnic chieftains of North Afghanistan that formed around the nuclei of the leadership of The Lion of the Panjshir, Ahmad Shah Massoud, in 1996. The Alliance was ethnic-biased comprising of the Tajik – Uzbek – Hazara groups and were arrayed against the Taliban that was seen to be a primarily Pashtun-driven insurgency. The Northern Alliance was supported by the US, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Iran and India. India played a very significant role in providing a vital logistics link to the Northern Alliance from the Farkhor Air Base in Tajikistan where a field hospital was also established. See map below:

afganistan map 2

The concerted efforts of the Northern Alliance and the induction of a team of US Special Forces following the declaration of GLOT after 9/11, saw the swift collapse of the Taliban and Kabul was captured on 07 November 2001 with Taliban fighting elements exiting Afghanistan to take refuge in safe havens in the tribal belts of FATA and Baluchistan in Pakistan.

Situation Today

Amrullah Saleh

Amrullah Saleh, the First Vice President of Afghanistan under the government of President Ashraf Ghani, was the Chief Intelligence Officer and Advisor to Ahmad Shah Massoud in the Northern Alliance 1.0. After the fall of Kabul on 15 August 2021, he fled to Panjshir and joined ranks with Ahmad Massoud, the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, who is organizing a nascent resistance movement to the Taliban. Two days later, he declared himself the Caretaker President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and has vowed to continue the fight against the Taliban and “under no circumstances will bow to the Taliban”. See below: –

“As per the constitution of Afghanistan, in absence, escape, resignation or death of the President the First VP becomes the caretaker President. Amrullah Saleh is now the caretaker President of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

Office of President Amrullah Saleh August 17, 2021.”

Factors that Favour a Northern Alliance 2.0

Amrullah Salah is a seasoned veteran of past conflicts with the Taliban. He was the Chief of Afghanistan’s elite security agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), and has a vast network of NDS operatives, CIA-trained agents and militias. This is a force-multiplier in terms of intelligence gathering and waging a war of shadows.

Amrullah enjoys a very close relationship with the CIA (he was trained at Langley) and thus we can expect the support of the US behind the Northern Alliance be it overt or covert.

The Panjshir resistance has been bolstered by remnants of Afghan forces that refused to surrender and fled the Taliban takeover of the provinces of Kunduz, Badakhshan, Takhar and Baghlan Many of these forces have regrouped in Andarab district in Baghlan. Andarab is a known hub for anti-Taliban activity and is as “an entirely Tajik district that is staunchly anti-Pashtun.” These forces comprise of trained fighting men and will provide a considerable boost to the ranks of a National Alliance 2.0.

This is a fight by the only remnant of a ‘free Afghanistan’ against a regime that has yet to display its true colours. It is a fight for values the free world cherishes.

The crushing of the Northern Alliance and seizure of Panjshir are a project the Taliban will pursue but as on date they are facing other challenges. The seizure of Kabul and its 6 M resident population with an uncounted number of IDPs requires the dedication of resources to control and administer and the Taliban may not be able to divert fighting forces to subjugate Panjshir at the moment. So the Northern Alliance 2.0 has got an indefinite lease of life to build and prepare for the task ahead.

Factors that go against the Northern Alliance 2.0

Panjshir is today surrounded logistically and militarily by Taliban-controlled areas. It will be exceedingly difficult to sustain a fighting force, even guerrilla-type small units, without a viable unchallenged logistic hub for resupply of critical warfighting wherewithal and provisions to feed fighting men. Panjshir is a poor province hence living off the land is not an option. And Panjshir is a land-locked province with no international borders and hemmed in by Taliban-held provinces on every side. But unconfirmed reports indicate that the Panjshir resistance has taken control of Charikar in Parwan Province and is fighting for the strategic Salang Pass. If factual, this would give the Northern Alliance 2.0 a lifeline to the outside world.

The Northern Alliance 2.0, in the present dispensation, is devoid of foreign support that is oxygen for the sustenance of any resistance movement. The support of the US and the western nations for the Northern Alliance 2.0 is uncertain as they have yet to discern the true nature of this purported ‘new’ Taliban and the government it forms. The west does wish to churn already muddy waters by supporting a resistance whose chances of success are as yet big ‘ifs’ and thus jeopardize any potential ‘taming’ of the Taliban. Both Russia and China are on a diplomatic outreach to the Taliban with Iran having no issues as long there are no reprisals on the Shia community in Afghanistan. The Central Asian Republic of Turkmenistan has hosted a Taliban delegation in July and Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, despite having conducted joint military exercises with Russia in August 2021 in Tajikistan, face the reality of an insurgency-turned-state on their borders and have no option but to use diplomacy to ensure no spillover of bad will from a neighbor that is there to stay.

Net Assessment

As brought out earlier, the dust of a grueling conflict that has lasted two decades is just settling. The nature of this new order is still unknown and so the world and the region has lapsed into a wait-and-watch mode. But whatever be the outcome, there is a lull in the never-ending war in Afghanistan. In this uncertain period, no nation would seek to destabilize this still shaky equilibrium where the Taliban have yet to make their choice and demonstrate whether they are ‘a different and better’ entity from their last avatar and the people of Afghanistan have yet to adjust to an acceptance or rejection of the new reality of a change to a regime they dread. In this scenario, it is assessed that it is much too

premature to expect the concept of a one-province-based Northern Alliance 2.0 or resistance movement to get a grip on nationalistic spirit and propel it into a pan-Afghanistan popular rising…so it is moot whether history will repeat itself in the immediate to near time future…

(The author is Indian Army Veteran with 33 years of service. Post retirement in 2008, he has worked with an international consultancy in Afghanistan as the Divisional Security Advisor based in Kabul. Trained in Kabul in COIN (US) and Country Security Management (Netherland), he has extensive ground experience of 11 years in Afghanistan and the region. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)


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