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Afghanistan's Panjshir Valley awaits the next fight with the Taliban

As U.S. troops prepare to leave, former militia members eye their weapons, doubtful the Afghan army will keep the Taliban at bay.

December 22, 2013|By David Zucchino
  • A member of the Afghan army looks out over the Panjshir Valley, in the country's northeast. Panjshir is one of only two provinces never conquered by the Taliban when it ruled Afghanistan.
A member of the Afghan army looks out over the Panjshir Valley, in the country's… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

SAFID SHIR, Afghanistan — Astride his dappled gray stallion, Mohammad Karim looked like a weathered warrior, though he wielded a grain sack instead of a carbine.

Decades ago, Karim was a mujahid, a mountain tribesman who took up arms against Soviet soldiers and, later, the Taliban. Now 45, with white whiskers beneath his pakol, a traditional Afghan hat, he is again prepared to fight if his beloved Panjshir Valley is threatened.

"If the Taliban tries to come back, we'll fight them and kill them," he said, as he rode his horse near the shimmering blue Panjshir River and hillside trees streaked with autumn gold. "We have plenty of weapons, believe me."

There is talk of war now amid the dark gorges and snowcapped peaks of Panjshir, in northern Afghanistan, one of only two provinces never conquered by the Taliban when it ruled the country. With U.S. and other foreign combat troops withdrawing next year, many Panjshiris don't trust the Afghan army to hold back the insurgents. They say they have the weapons — and the will — to do it themselves.

A hundred miles south in Kabul, some former mujahedin warlords who fought beside Panjshiris against the Taliban also are threatening to revive their militias. Resentful that many Panjshiris and other strongmen of the old U.S.-backed Northern Alliance have been marginalized by President Hamid Karzai, they want their heavy weapons back.

"No need for that" in Panjshir, cracked Abdul Khalil, a Panjshiri and former guerrilla fighter in Safid Shir, a muddy Panjshir farming village that lost scores of men to the Taliban. "We already have all the weapons we need."

Many Afghans say such talk is mostly bluster by aging warlords. But there is genuine concern that a poor showing by former mujahedin in April's national elections could trigger cries of fraud and a return to the savage civil warfare of the early 1990s.

Afghans also are anxious about security because of Karzai's refusal to sign a post-2014 security agreement with Washington that would leave U.S. training forces in the country and continue billions of dollars in military and reconstruction aid.

The street price of an AK-47 rifle, always a barometer of public fear, has risen recently to almost $1,400 from $1,000, compared with about $400 a decade ago.

A senior officer with the NATO-led coalition said Afghan army commanders aren't overly concerned about fading warlords. But he predicted that calls for a return to the violent mujahedin era will remain an election undercurrent.

"This country has a history of militias, so the idea of a single army on behalf of a sovereign state is a new concept for Afghans," the officer said.

Panjshir was the domain of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the "Lion of Panjshir" and Northern Alliance commander. Massoud was assassinated by Al Qaeda suicide bombers two days before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that triggered the U.S. military invasion of Afghanistan. Backed by U.S. airstrikes and special forces, the alliance helped topple the Taliban government three months later.

Panjshiris dominated Karzai's first government in the early 2000s. Ninety of the first 100 army generals appointed by the first defense minister, Panjshiri warlord Mohammad Qasim Fahim, were Panjshiris.

Karzai ultimately replaced many Northern Alliance warlords of all ethnicities with Pashtun technocrats, many of whom had returned from exile in the West. The former alliance turned against Karzai, said Atiqullah Baryalai, a former Panjshiri commander forced out by Karzai as deputy defense minister.

"The Panjshiris want to be seen as leaders of the national resistance" to the Taliban, said Baryalai, seated beneath a large portrait of Massoud in the salon of his Kabul compound. "They would never turn against the army, but they would fight the Taliban alone if it came to that.

"The Panjshiris are very special people when it comes to defending their homeland."

Most Afghan warlords disbanded their militias and surrendered heavy weapons under U.S. pressure. But Afghan security experts say the Panjshir militias never fully disarmed, stashing weapons in mountain caches. Panjshiris and other mujahedin criticize Karzai as too eager to negotiate with the Taliban.

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Panjshir has always been a place apart, an ethnic Tajik enclave in the Hindu Kush with a wary eye on the polyglot capital, Kabul. Bumper stickers here proclaim "United State of Panjshir." It is one of the few Afghan provinces with a border station where officials log outsiders' names and license plates.

It's a stunning landscape of snowcapped peaks and orchards where men on horseback are a common sight, dressed in long, striped chapan cloaks with extended sleeves. They are fiercely independent.

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