Taliban forces and fighters loyal to local leader Ahmad Massoud battled in Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley on Thursday, more than two weeks after the Islamist militia seized power, as Taliban leaders in the capital, Kabul, worked to form a government.
Panjshir is the last province resisting rule by the Taliban, who retook control of the country as US and foreign troops withdrew after 20 years of conflict following the September 11 attacks on the United States.
Each side made competing claims about territorial gains and inflicting heavy casualties.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said: “We started operations after negotiation with the local armed group failed.” Taliban fighters had entered Panjshir and taken control of some territory, he said. “They [the enemy] suffered heavy losses.”
A spokesman for the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRFA) rebel grouping said it had full control of all passes and entrances and had driven back efforts to take Shotul district.
“The enemy made multiple attempts to enter Shotul from Jabul-Saraj and failed each time,” he said, referring to a town in neighbouring Parwan province.
Panjshir valley, north of Kabul in the Hindu Kush, was a resistance stronghold for decades, first against the Soviets in the 1980s, then against the Taliban in the 1990s. It is still dotted with rusting tanks from the fights of those decades.
The vice-president, Amrullah Saleh, who was born and trained to fight there, vowed it would reprise the role of stronghold, after he declared himself “caretaker” head of state after the Taliban takeover.
Afghanistan’s ambassador to Tajikistan, Lt Gen Zahir Aghbar, a former senior security official before becoming an envoy, earlier promised Panjshir would form a base for those who wanted to fight on. “Panjshir stands strong against anyone who wants to enslave people,” he said.
Since the Taliban swept into Kabul on 15 August, several thousand fighters from local militias and remnants of the government’s armed forces have massed in Panjshir under the leadership of Massoud, the son of a former Mujahideen commander.
They have been holding out in the steep valley where attacks from outside are difficult.
Efforts to negotiate a settlement appear to have broken down, with each side blaming the other for the failure.
Mujahid said the announcement of a new government was a few days away, while Taliban official Ahmadullah Muttaqi said a ceremony was being organised at the presidential palace.
The legitimacy of the government in the eyes of international donors and investors will be crucial for the economy as the country battles drought and the ravages of a conflict that killed an estimated 240,000 Afghans.