The Panjshir valley, about three hours’ drive north of Kabul, has a mythical hold on the Afghan imagination. It is a natural fortress, a long lemon-shaped valley surrounded on three sides by 13,000-foot-high mountain ridges, with the only entrance a narrow road in a deep winding gorge to the south, cut by the Panjshir river. It is a place of stunning beauty, with green fields either side of the river laden with apple blossom in the spring, irrigated by ingenious canals. The walls between the fields, and sometimes the houses themselves, are buttressed with rusting metal war remains – the wheels of a tracked vehicle, armour plating, bridges formed of shell cases.
The war became part of the fabric of Panjshir after seven failed attempts by Soviet forces to take the valley in the 1980s, and Panjshir also held out against the Taliban in the 1990s. This week it earned a new medal of honour in Afghanistan’s long wars, as the only province still standing against the Taliban.
Ahmad Massoud, the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the ‘Lion of Panjshir,’ has raised the flag of the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan against the Taliban. He has been joined by vice president Amrullah Saleh, who declared himself president of the Afghan republic after Ashraf Ghani fled the country a week ago. Thousands of soldiers, who were not part of what the former US Afghan commander General David Petraeus called the ‘epidemic of surrender’, have rallied to the resistance banner, alongside irregular militias keen to burnish the legend of Panjshir.
The newly-formed forces have already pushed the Taliban out of three districts to the northwest of Panjshir.