Afghanistan's last bastion against the Taliban

Afghanistan’s last bastion against the Taliban: British-educated son of legendary freedom fighter builds strategic fortress in the Panjshir Valley as insurgents claim they’re closing in

  • Taliban claims it has surrounded the Panjshir Valley, 100 miles north of Kabul
  • But Ahmad Massoud of the Northern Alliance has vowed it will not fall
  • He is the Sandhurst trained son of late Ahmad Shah Massoud, known as ‘the Lion’
  • Massoud’s father defended the Panjshir Valley from the Soviets in the 1980s  
  • Now his militia is again using its narrow gorges to ambush Taliban fighters

Afghanistan’s last bastion against the Taliban is being led by the British-educated son of a legendary freedom fighter in the Panjshir Valley, a strategic fortress which sits high over Kabul that was never conquered by the Soviets.

The Taliban claims they’re sending hundreds of fighters and have the Panjshir surrounded. One hundred miles north of the capital, it is the last the country’s 34 provinces yet to fall to the jihadists. 

Ahmad Massoud, who was trained by the British military at Sandhurst, has vowed that no Taliban fighter will pass through the narrow gorge into the valley. 

Massoud was only 12 when his father, Ahmad Shah Massoud ‘the Lion of the Panjshir’, was murdered by Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network – two days before 9/11.

Forced to leave his homeland, he went to secondary school in Iran before training for a year at Sandhurst and then graduated with a degree in War Studies from King’s College London in 2015.

Apt qualifications for a man whose father, Ahmad Shah Massoud, was a formidable guerrilla fighter, known as the ‘Afghan Napoleon.’

Massoud senior defended the Panjshir from everything the Soviets could throw at it during the 1980s, earning a fearsome reputation for his ambushes and sudden attacks in the narrow passages along the river valley. 

The Soviets launched seven major offensives in as many years, deploying the best military hardware of the day, including heavy bombers, tanks and artillery, yet none could conquer the valley. 

Ahmad Massoud (left), leader of the Northern Alliance and son of ‘the Lion of the Panjshir’, says that no Taliban fighter has yet dared to enter the narrow gorge into the valley. Massoud was only 12 when his father, Ahmad Shah Massoud (right), was murdered by Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network.

PANJSHIR VALLEY: The valley lies around 100 miles north of Kabul, overlooked by the Hindu Kush mountains and with narrow approaches ideally suited for ambushes, the river valley stretches for miles, opening into broad meadows where its 170,000 people live

The Northern Alliance prepare to defend the Panjshir against the Taliban on Sunday

Footage posted by the Northern Alliance on Twitter today shows American-made Humvee armoured cars rolling through the valley

The Northern Alliance posted this photo on Monday claiming that a helicopter from Tajikistan had airdropped supplies and munitions to the valley

Now Massoud the younger is similarly outgunned and outnumbered by the Taliban but has vowed to fight on to the last and defend the 170,000 residents of the Panjshir, most of them ethnic Tajiks. 

The Taliban on Monday claimed to have retaken three districts seized by rebels the day before and said they had surrounded the Panjshir.

But, Massoud’s militia claims that all of the jihadists’ efforts have been rebuffed so far and that it is taking the fight to them.

Massoud at his graduation from King’s College London in 2015

The Northern Alliance tweeted today that it had killed 50 Taliban fighters in an ambush in the Fuj area and that they had clashed with the terrorists while making forays into neighbouring Andarab province.

Massoud told Reuters of his people on Sunday: ‘They want to defend, they want to fight, they want to resist against any totalitarian regime.’

He is joined in the struggle by Afghan Army generals, their staffs and some soldiers, along with Amrullah Saleh, the vice president in the toppled government who calls himself Afghanistan’s acting president, and the ousted defence minister Gen Bismillah Mohammadi.

‘There are many other people from many other provinces who are seeking refuge in the Panjshir valley who are standing with us and who do not want to accept another identity for Afghanistan,’ Massoud said. 

However, the 32-year-old is ready to talk.

‘We want to make the Taliban realise that the only way forward is through negotiation,’ he said.

The Taliban, having waged a 20-year insurgency, already appear to be amenable to the idea that they could use some allies to help govern. They have asked the health minister and the mayor of Kabul to remain in office. 

But if Massoud wants to bring them to the negotiating table, he will need munitions.

And the attributes which make the Panjshir such a fortress also make it difficult to supply. 

The fledgling leader has conceded that his forces, which one aide said numbered more than 6,000, would need international support if it came to fighting. 

Afghan resistance fighters in the Panjshir Valley on Sunday

The Northern Alliance training in Panjshir province on Sunday

Boys fly the flag of the Northern Alliance on their hunting rifles in the Panjshir Valley on Saturday

The Northern Alliance shared video of the steep faces of the valley today, tweeting: ‘For people who were interested in how the Valley entrance look like’

Resistance fighters in an American-made Humvee with an Afghan flag flying in the Panjshir Valley on Thursday

Militia men flying the flags of the Northern Alliance march through the valley on Monday

The Taliban have funded themselves not only through opium, but also with covert support from allies, many of them regional rivals to the United States.

However, Massoud’s resistance might not be able to rely on Washington which has been emphatic that it wants a full withdrawal from Afghanistan. 

Massoud, whose Francophone father is renowned in France, has been lobbying Emmanuel Macron’s government for backing in the struggle. 

French journalist journalist Bernard-Henri Lévy said: ‘[France] is the country in the world where his name resonates the most … and Massoud is, today, the only one who resists and holds on.’

Speaking to Politico after meeting with Massoud last October, Lévy said: ‘What I think, and given the historic ties with the father, it is normal that France provides him with the most advanced help.’ 

In an  an appeal published in a French magazine after the fall of Kabul, Massoud urged the French: ‘Join us in spirit, or with direct support.’ 

Fourteen-year-old Ahmad Massoud shakes hands with supporters after attending a remembrance ceremony for his late father at Kabul’s sports stadium on September 9, 2003

Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel shakes hands with Ahmad Shah Masood at talks in Brussels in April 2001

For, now, the French government has declined to comment on Massoud’s fervent petitions. 

It is believed that the Northern Alliance are being sponsored by Tajikistan with a photo on Monday showing a Tajik helicopter landing in the valley.

The Northern Alliance tweeted: ‘Earlier this morning, resistance forces got a first support from Tajikistan helicopters have imported enough equipment, guns, full-ammunitions & foods.

‘The morale of the resistance is high. We are grateful to our neighbour for all the support they started since beginning.’ 

However, much will surely depend on whether the Taliban receives the international recognition it craves to give its government legitimacy, or whether the country slides back to all-out civil war.  

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