US general warns that Afghanistan faces a ‘broader civil war’

Taliban forces continue to battle resistance fighters in the last holdout province of Panjshir Valley

Afghan workers walk past a wall mural along a roadside in Kabul on September 5, 2021. (HOSHANG HASHIMI / AFP)
Afghan workers walk past a wall mural along a roadside in Kabul on September 5, 2021. (HOSHANG HASHIMI / AFP)

KABUL, Afghanistan (AFP) — Taliban fighters advanced deep into the last holdout province of Panjshir on Sunday, as the top US general warned that Afghanistan was facing a wider civil war that would offer fertile ground for a resurgence of terrorism.

Following their lightning-fast rout of Afghanistan’s army last month — and celebrations when the last US troops flew out after 20 years of war on Monday — the Taliban is seeking to crush resistance forces defending the mountainous Panjshir Valley.

The Taliban, who rolled into Kabul three weeks ago at a speed that analysts say likely surprised even the hardline Islamists themselves, have yet to finalize their new regime.

But top US General Mark Milley questioned whether they can consolidate power as they seek to shift from a guerrilla force to government.

“I think there’s at least a very good probability of a broader civil war,” said Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a bleak assessment. “That will then in turn lead to conditions that could, in fact, lead to a reconstitution of Al-Qaeda or a growth of ISIS,” he told Fox News on Saturday.

Afghanistan’s new rulers have pledged to be more accommodating than during their first stint in power, which also came after years of conflict — first the Soviet invasion of 1979, and then a bloody civil war.

An Afghan resistance movement member patrols on a hilltop in Darband area in Anaba district, Panjshir province on September 1, 2021. (Ahmad SAHEL ARMAN / AFP)

They have promised a more “inclusive” government that represents Afghanistan’s complex ethnic makeup — though women are unlikely to be included at the top levels. However, this time women will be allowed to attend university as long as classes are segregated by sex or at least divided by a curtain, the Taliban’s education authority said in a lengthy document issued on Sunday.

Female students must also wear an abaya (robe) and niqab (face-veil), as opposed to the even more conservative burqa mandatory under the previous Taliban regime.

Dozens of women protested for a second day in Kabul on Saturday to demand the right to work and inclusion in the government, with social media clips showing Taliban fighters attempting to disperse the demonstrators.

Few in Panjshir, a rugged valley north of Kabul that held out for nearly a decade against the Soviet Union’s occupation and also the Taliban’s first rule in 1996-2001, seem to trust the Taliban’s promises.

Taliban official Bilal Karimi on Sunday reported heavy clashes in Panjshir, and while resistance fighters insist they have the Islamists at bay, analysts warned they are struggling.

The Italian aid agency Emergency said Taliban forces had reached the Panjshir village of Anabah, where they run a surgical center.

Afghan resistance movement and anti-Taliban uprising forces take part in a military training at Malimah area of Dara district in Panjshir province on September 2, 2021 as the valley remains the last major holdout of anti-Taliban forces. (Ahmad SAHEL ARMAN / AFP)

“Many people have fled from local villages in recent days,” Emergency said in a statement on Saturday, adding it was continuing to provide medical services and treating a “small number of wounded.”

Anabah lies some 25 kilometers (15 miles) north inside the 115-kilometer-long valley, but unconfirmed reports suggested the Taliban had seized other areas too.

Bill Roggio, managing editor of the US-based Long War Journal, said Sunday that while there was still a “fog of war” — with unconfirmed reports the Taliban had captured multiple districts — “it looks bad.”

Both sides claim to have inflicted heavy losses on the other.

“The Taliban army has been hardened with 20 years of war,” Roggio tweeted Sunday, adding that “the odds were long” for the Panjshir resistance. Roggio noted that the Taliban seized “a massive amount of weapons” after the US withdrawal and the collapse of the army.

Former Afghan vice president Amrullah Saleh, who is holed out in Panjshir alongside Ahmad Massoud — the son of legendary anti-Taliban commander Ahmad Shah Massoud — warned of a grim situation.

In a statement, Saleh spoke of a “large-scale humanitarian crisis,” with thousands “displaced by the Taliban onslaught.”

The Panjshir Valley, surrounded by jagged snow-capped peaks, offers a natural defensive advantage, with fighters melting away in the face of advancing forces, then launching ambushes firing from the high tops down into the valley.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a meeting with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the Willard Hotel in Washington, DC, on August 25, 2021. (Olivier DOULIERY / POOL / AFP)

The international community is coming to terms with having to deal with the new Taliban regime with a flurry of diplomacy.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is due Monday in Qatar, a key player in the Afghan saga and the location of the Taliban’s political office, though he is not expected to meet with the militants.

He will then travel to Germany to lead a virtual 20-nation ministerial meeting on Afghanistan alongside German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is also set to convene a high-level meeting on Afghanistan in Geneva on September 13, to focus on humanitarian assistance for the country.

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