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Afghan opposition leader warns civil war ‘unavoidable’ if Taliban refuse talks

Amid chaotic US withdrawal, Ahman Massoud, who leads force in only province yet to fall to Islamist group, vows ‘staunch resistance’ if power-sharing agreement rejected

Ahmad Massoud, son of late Afghan commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, center, speaks to supporters as he is flanked by Chairman of Afghanistan's High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah, left, and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo on the sidelines of a commemoration to honor late Afghan anti-Taliban commander Massoud in an alley along the Champs Elysees Avenue in Paris, March 27, 2021. (Christophe Archambault/Pool Photo via AP)
Ahmad Massoud, son of late Afghan commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, center, speaks to supporters as he is flanked by Chairman of Afghanistan's High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah, left, and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo on the sidelines of a commemoration to honor late Afghan anti-Taliban commander Massoud in an alley along the Champs Elysees Avenue in Paris, March 27, 2021. (Christophe Archambault/Pool Photo via AP)

As the Taliban seek to consolidate power in the Afghan capital of Kabul amid the US’s chaotic withdrawal from the country, one of the only remaining opposition leaders offering a flicker of resistance has said that a civil war is inevitable without a power-sharing agreement.

Ahmad Massoud, the son of a famous Northern Alliance commander assassinated days before the 9/11 attacks, told the Al-Arabiya news network Sunday that an internal conflict was “unavoidable” if the Taliban refused to enter into talks with opposition forces.

“If Taliban warlords launch an assault, they will of course face staunch resistance from us,” Massoud told the Dubai-based news channel, while also expressing openness to dialogue with the Taliban.

“We confronted the Soviet Union, and we will be able to confront the Taliban,” he said.

In an opinion piece published by The Washington Post last week, Massoud asked for weapons and aid to fight the Taliban.

“I write from the Panjshir Valley today, ready to follow in my father’s footsteps, with mujahideen fighters who are prepared to once again take on the Taliban,” he wrote. “The Taliban is not a problem for the Afghan people alone. Under Taliban control, Afghanistan will without doubt become ground zero of radical Islamist terrorism; plots against democracies will be hatched here once again.”

Taliban fighters travel on a vehicle mounted with the Taliban flag in the Karte Mamorin area of Kabul city, Kabul on 22 August 2021. (Photo by Hoshang Hashimi / AFP)

But it appears unlikely a few thousand guerrilla fighters will soon succeed where the Afghan national security forces failed despite 20 years of Western aid, assistance and training.

In the Panjshir province — the only one yet to fall under Taliban control — the National Resistance Front, which Massoud leads, and officials from the ousted government have pledged to defend it against the Taliban, who circulated video showing their fighters heading toward the region.

The province is a stronghold of the Northern Alliance fighters who joined with the US to topple the Taliban in 2001.

Some pro-Taliban Twitter accounts said Sunday the new regime was sending hundreds of fighters to the Panjshir Valley after “local state officials refused to hand it over peacefully.”

The Islamists have “massed forces near the entrance of Panjshir,” tweeted Amrullah Saleh, vice president of Afghanistan in the previous government who has taken refuge in the area.

The NRF is prepared for a “long-term conflict” but is also still seeking to negotiate with the Taliban about an inclusive government, its spokesman Ali Maisam Nazary told AFP in an interview over the weekend, claiming that Massoud has amassed a force of some 9,000 fighters.

“The conditions for a peace deal with the Taliban is decentralization, a system that ensures social justice, equality, rights, and freedom for all,” he said.

While the Taliban control the vast majority of Afghanistan, Nazary optimistically highlighted reports that local militias in some districts have already begun resisting their hardline rule and have formed links with Massoud’s NRF.

Children of local Afghan residents carrying hunting rifles and a flag stand over a bridge in Bandejoy area of Dara district in Panjshir province on August 21, 2021, days after the Taliban stunning takeover of Afghanistan. (Ahmad SAHEL ARMAN / AFP)

“Massoud did not give the order for these things to happen but they are all associated with us,” Nazary said.

“The Taliban are overstretched. They cannot be everywhere at the same time. Their resources are limited. They do not have support amongst the majority,” he said.

In the nearby Baghlan province, some 120 kilometers (75 miles) north of Kabul, fighters calling themselves the “People’s Uprising” claimed to have seized three districts in the Andarab Valley, nestled in the towering Hindu Kush mountains.

Khair Mohammad Khairkhwa, the former provincial head of intelligence, and Abdul Ahmad Dadgar, another leader in the uprising, said Taliban fighters had burned down homes and kidnapped children. Two other officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, made similar allegations. The Taliban did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Taliban, infamous for an ultra-strict interpretation of Sharia law during their initial 1996-2001 rule of Afghanistan, have repeatedly vowed a softer version this time.

But terrified Afghans continue to try and flee, overwhelming the US-led military operation at Kabul airport and leading to tragic scenes in which at least seven people have died.

The Taliban’s victory ended two decades of war as they took advantage of the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw nearly all US troops from the country.

The race to help tens of thousands of people escape Taliban-run Afghanistan was boosted on Monday with the US ordering its commercial airlines to help, though President Joe Biden flagged the evacuations could go beyond next week’s deadline.

Afghans gather on a roadside near the military part of the airport in Kabul on August 20, 2021, hoping to flee from the country after the Taliban’s military takeover of Afghanistan. (Photo by Wakil KOHSAR / AFP)

The US military has overseen the evacuations of about 30,000 people since the Taliban marched into Kabul and took effective control of Afghanistan on August 15, following a stunningly swift rout of government forces.

Biden, who had to redeploy thousands back to Afghanistan to oversee the evacuations, has insisted he wants to end the US military presence and the airlifts by August 31.

But with the European Union and Britain saying it would be impossible to get everyone out by then, Biden is under pressure to extend the deadline.

Speaking at the White House, Biden said Sunday he hoped the airlift would not be extended, but said talks were underway to explore that possibility.

“There’s discussions going among us and the military about extending,” Biden said.

He acknowledged the searing scenes at the airport, which have included babies and children being passed to soldiers over razor-wire fences and men clinging to the outside of departing planes.

But he said they were part of the cost of departure.

“There is no way to evacuate this many people without pain and loss and heartbreaking images you see,” he said.

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