Shir-e Panjshir: The Last Bastion of Afghan Resistance

Ishaan Busireddy

In August of 2021, the United States Armed Forces withdrew from Afghanistan, ending the U.S.’s twenty year long armed intervention in the perilous nation. Almost immediately, the Taliban, the radical and militant Islamist group that controlled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, launched a rapid offensive to reoccupy the country. The Taliban’s rapid advance culminated in the Fall of Kabul on August 15th, 2021, during which the Former President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, fled Kabul to Tajikistan or Uzbekistan via air, allegedly taking $169 million with him in four cars, later arriving in the UAE. Thus, the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the U.S.-style democracy put in place by the U.S., went into exile and lost de-facto control, and the oppressive radical Islamist regime of the Taliban, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, was reinstated.


However, not all hope is lost for the currently chaotic and turbulent nation. As of this very moment, a new resistance, commonly known as the “Panjshir Resistance,” akin to the old Northern Alliance that existed before the U.S. Invasion, is reassembling, regrouping, and rearming in the heart of the Panjshir Valley, the Valley of the Five Lions.

But to understand this new resistance movement, one must first understand the history and ideals of the original Northern Alliance. The Northern Alliance was founded by Ahmad Shah Massoud, an ethnic-Tajik Sunni from the northern Panjshir district, to resist the destructive rule of the Taliban following the Afghan mujahideen’s defeat of the Soviets and their satellite communist government in Afghanistan, a regime that Massoud himself had earlier fought to end.

Massoud became affiliated with anti-Soviet resistance movements while he was studying engineering at the Polytechnical University of Kabul and joined the Jamiat-e Islami party, which advocated for communitarianism based on moderate Islam. Massoud assumed command of the military wing of the party, which was founded and mainly led by Burhanuddin Rabbani, and defended his birthplace of Panjshir against the Soviet forces by waging an ingenious guerilla war, for which he is known as the “Shir-e Panjshir,” meaning “Lion of Panjshir” in several local languages, and one of the greatest guerilla commanders of the twentieth century.

After the Soviets were defeated by the united Afghan mujahideen, Massoud participated in the Peshawar Accords of 1992 and the subsequent formation of the Islamic State of Afghanistan (ISA), a new predominantly-conservative government created by powerful warlords who had collectively defeated the communists; the new government was to be a means of establishing stable control of Afghanistan, and control over the government was split between many of the most powerful warlords. Because of his contribution to the armed effort against the communists, Massoud was awarded the Defense Ministry. Other powerful individuals and parties, including Burhaddin Rabbani who became President, were given other posts, creating a fragile balance of power. However, this fragile peace was not to last. As a result of the disagreement among the many warlords who shared control over the new government, the ISA became dysfunctional and almost immediately broke down; mainly, some powerful figures, including the hardline Islamist and currently Taliban-affiliated Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his Hezb-e Islami party, refused to participate in the Peshawar Accords that established the new government. Hekmatyar turned down the appointment as Prime Minister that was offered to him in the Peshawar Accords and wanted to seize control of the entire nation for himself and opposed the power-sharing settlement. Ethnically Uzbek liberal warlord, Abdul Rashid Dostum also opposed the Accord and sided with Hekmatyar. Hekmatyar and Dostum began fighting the government’s forces, many of which were commanded by Massoud, to take control of Kabul and the Afghan nation as a whole. In 1993, Massoud agreed to resign his post as Defense Minister in return for a truce with Hekmatyar. In the ensuing peace agreement, the Islamabad Accords, it was established that Rabbani was to remain President, and Hekmatyar was to assume the role of Prime Minister. However, the Hezb-e Wahdat, a primarily ethnic Hazara Shia militant group allied to Hekmatyar, began attacking Kabul with rockets a mere two days after the Islamabad Accords. Hekmatyar and Dostum continued to siege Kabul and began secret negotiations with the Pakistan ISI, Iran, and the Karimov government of Uzbekistan to orchestrate a coup to unseat the Rabbani administration and Massoud, who had established control over the northern part of Afghanistan, much of which was inhabited by fellow-Tajiks.

By January of 1994, Hekmatyar and Dostum mounted a coordinated bombardment campaign against Kabul; however, Massoud’s ISA forces attained the upper hand in the struggle for the capital by mid-1994. While the mujahideen-era warlords were preoccupied quarreling over Kabul, a new force, one which was destined to shake the world, emerged from the Afghan-Pakistani border regions: the Taliban. Originating from Islamist and Jihadist-indoctrinated Afghan refugees in Pakistan, the Taliban sought to wrestle control over southern Afghanistan from the independent governors that ruled it. The Taliban, which was initially funded by the Pakistani ISI using finances provided by the U.S. as part of the anti-Soviet Operation Cyclone, advanced to the gates of Kabul in 1994 and early 1995. At the same time, Massoud also began initiatives to foster pan-Afghan unity, gathering twenty-five out of thirty-four provinces and several influential parties/factions to participate in nation-building. Massoud also reached out to the Taliban to take part in the government of the nation, believing that working with all political and military factions was crucial to maintaining peace and stability in the war-torn nation. The Taliban refused to acquiesce and began a two-year siege of Kabul in early 1995; the major western city of Herat, which was under the control of the ISA-aligned Mohammad Ismail Khan, was also attacked by the Taliban. However, the Herat offensive was crushed after Massoud air-transported 2,000 of his soldiers to defend Herat. After their defeat in Herat and other devastating losses elsewhere, the Taliban was on the verge of collapse; the Taliban, which had presented themselves as liberators and harbingers of peace as compared to the southern warlords, had just revealed itself as yet another warring faction. However, the Taliban’s founder and leader, Mullah (cleric) Mohammad Omar, regrouped his forces with the aid of Pakistani funds that were originally given to them by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. The Taliban, having gathered 25,000 new personnel from Afghanistan and Pakistan, finally captured Herat in a surprise assault on Mohammad Ismail Khan’s forces and besieged Kabul over a period of one year following starting in September of 1994. Massoud’s forces defended Kabul valiantly once again and the Taliban was once again barred from taking the capital.

Massoud and Rabbani had simultaneously been working on internal policies and government. By February of 1996 all of the armed groups, except for the Taliban that is, in the country had agreed to participate in the ISA government. The Taliban recognized that the central government was becoming too powerful through its efforts to unite the many warring factions and decided to act fast. Using their bases and allies in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan, the Taliban began an unprecedented offensive campaign to capture Jalalabad, a major Pashtun city near the Pakistani border. After capturing Jalalabad, the Taliban approached the eastern limits of Kabul. Massoud’s forces had hitherto been concentrated in the southern part of Kabul to counter the encroachment of the Taliban from southern regions under their control. Massoud was caught by surprise by the opening of an eastern front. Massoud, realizing that he could not defeat a three-pronged Taliban assault on Kabul, ordered a strategic retreat through the northern sections of the city.

As Kabul fell to the Taliban, and the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was established on September 27, Massoud’s forces marched north and consolidated their control over the northeastern regions of Afghanistan close to Tajikistan. From there, Massoud organized the Northern Alliance, a coalition of anti-Taliban warlords and parties to resist the Taliban. The participant parties and individuals in this Alliance hailed from several of the nation’s ethnic and religious groups, including both Sunni and Shia Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmens, and Hazaras. Diverse influential figures, ranging from the likes of the Uzbek liberal Dostum to the Pashtun brothers Abudl Haq Haji Abdul Qadeer, rallied around Massoud and his Northern Alliance. From 1996 onwards, the Northern Alliance resisted the advance of the Taliban, albeit while gradually losing territory to them; Dostum and his Uzbek forces were defeated, leaving Massoud as the only powerful military leader in the Alliance. Massoud’s forces never gave up the northeastern-most areas of the country to the Taliban, who repeatedly offered Massoud an influential position in their government, an offer which Massoud repeatedly declined citing his ideological differences.

Massoud and his allies continued to fight on and made great ideological and political progress after their loss of Kabul. During his role as the main leader of the resistance, Massoud championed democratic institutions, women’s rights, moderate interpretations of Islam, and the freedom of religion. At the same time, Massoud acknowledged that many of these values clashed with traditional Afghan culture and that surpassing local norms would take at least a generation. Nevertheless, Massoud began to establish democracy, gender equality, and the freedom of religion throughout the territory he controlled. Democratic councils were called to choose political leaders, women were free to unveil themselves, girls were able to attain formal education, and people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds were able to live in peace without fearing for their lives.

Massoud also established ties with foreign nations. He appealed to the European Parliament in Brussels, and the western world by extension, to cease their support for Pakistan and urge them and other nations to stop funding the Taliban; he warned that, if the U.S. did not stop Pakistan’s support for the Taliban, Afghanistan’s problems would soon become America and the West’s problems. Massoud’s attempts to warn the world about Taliban’s links to foreign terrorist organizations and role in terrorist operations abroad went unheeded, a grave mistake for which the West suffered greatly.

The Shir-e Panjshir was not able to evade the Taliban and their terrorist allies forever. Three weeks before September 8, 2001, two men who presented themselves as Belgian interviewers of Moroccan descent arrived in Massoud’s territory. On September 8, the men warned that if they were not allowed to interview Massoud by September 10, they would leave. Finally, on September 9, the men were granted an opportunity to interview Massoud. As they set up their equipment for the interview, the two men detonated explosives hidden in their equipment, including their camera. Massoud, along with those near him, was severely injured and had to be airlifted to the nearby Indian hospital at Farkhor Air Base in Tajikistan. Unfortunately, Massoud died en route on September 9, 2001, a mere two days before the 9/11 attacks.

Massoud’s assassins were revealed to be Tunisian nationals who were likely affiliated with Al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization led by Osama bin Laden, the man behind 9/11, which likely was the major terrorist attack on the West that Massoud had warned about. Laden possibly orchestrated Massoud’s assasination in order to ensure the Taliban’s cooperation. It is also believed that the assassins, one of whom was killed by the explosion while the other was captured and shot by Massoud’s forces, were allowed into Northern Alliance territory by Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a radical Islamist anti-Soviet Pashtun veteran warlord who had close relations with Saudi Arabia and potentially Al-Qaeda but nevertheless was part of the Northern Alliance. Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, the Pakistani ISI, the Soviet KGB, the Afghan communist KHAD, and Hekmatyar’s forces had all tried to bring about the Shir-e Panjshir’s demise over the preceding twenty-six years.

The Lion of Panjshir was finally laid to rest in his native village of Barazak in the Panjshir Valley, and his funeral, although being in a remote rural area, was attended by hundreds of thousands of people. Massoud was posthumously awarded the title of “National Hero of Afghanistan” by Hamid Karzai, the first President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, which came to power after the American liberation of Afghanistan from the Taliban following 2001.

Today, Massoud is remembered as a politician, guerilla commander, ardent learner, nationalist, and above all, a humanitarian who defended the rights, freedom, morals, and values of the Afghan people against any and all enemies that challenged them and sought to lead his nation to a prosperous future. Thanks to Ahmad Shah Massoud’s determination, the Afghans were eventually able to overthrow the oppressive Taliban regime and finally embrace the democratic institutions that Massoud had long championed.

In the wake of the fall of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to the Taliban twenty years after Massoud’s martyrdom, not all is lost. Massoud’s son, Ahmad Massoud, has returned to his native Panjshir Valley and has gathered a new resistance to desperately halt the Taliban and defend the Shir-e Panjshir’s vision for Afghanistan; he has been joined by other important political figures from Panjshir, including Vice President Amrullah Saleh and Commander Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, who were appointed Caretaker President and Minister of Defense respectively under the resistance government. The new “Panjshir Resistance,” a name by which the resistance is now commonly referred to, has gathered around 8,000 soldiers to defend Panjshir and the surrounding regions; however, they lack sufficient arms and equipment and are currently surviving off of old Cold War-era Soviet and American equipment. Only time will tell if Ahmad and his father’s visions and ideals will emerge triumphant, and whether a new beacon of democracy and liberty will shine over the Graveyard of Empires.

Image Sources:

Image 1: Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: Wikipedia

Image 3: Wikimedia Commons