Taliban and opposition forces battled on Saturday to control the Panjshir Valley north of Kabul, the last Afghan province holding out against the militant group, as the top U.S. general warned of a “civil war” if the Islamists failed to consolidate power.
Both sides claimed to have the upper hand in Panjshir but neither could produce conclusive evidence to prove it. The Taliban, which swept through the country ahead of the final withdrawal of U.S.-led forces this week, were unable to control the valley when they ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.
Taliban spokesman Bilal Karimi said the districts of Khinj and Unabah had been taken, giving Taliban forces control of four of the province’s seven districts.
“The Mujahideen (Taliban fighters) are advancing toward the centre (of the province),” he said on Twitter.
But the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, grouping forces loyal to local leader Ahmad Massoud, said it surrounded “thousands of terrorists” in Khawak pass and the Taliban had abandoned vehicles and equipment in the Dashte Rewak area.
Front spokesman Fahim Dashti added “heavy clashes” were going on.
In a Facebook post, Massoud insisted Panjshir “continues to stand strongly.” Praising “our honourable sisters”, he said demonstrations by women in the western city of Herat calling for their rights showed Afghans had not given up demands for justice and “they fear no threats.”
U.S. General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, underscored the tenuous situation.
“My military estimate is, is that the conditions are likely to develop of a civil war. I don’t know if the Taliban is going to be able to consolidate power and establish governance,” Milley said.
Speaking to Fox News from Ramstein Air Base in Germany, Milley said if they cannot that will “in turn lead to a reconstitution of Al Qaeda or a growth of ISIS or other myriad of terrorist groups” over the next three years.
Emergency, an Italian medical aid organisation, said Taliban forces had pushed further into the Panjshir Valley on Friday night, reaching the village of Anabah where the group has medical facilities.
“We have received a small number of wounded people at the Anabah Surgical Centre,” Emergency said in a statement, adding that many people fled in recent days.It was not immediately possible to get further independent confirmation of events in Panjshir, which is walled off by mountains except for a narrow entrance.