Taliban sources say last Afghan holdout region has fallen

KABUL (REUTERS) – Three Taliban sources said the Islamist militia had on Friday (Sept 4) seized the Panjshir valley north of Kabul, the last part of Afghanistan holding out against it.

“By the grace of Allah Almighty, we are in control of the entire Afghanistan. The troublemakers have been defeated and Panjshir is now under our command,” said one Taliban commander.

It was not immediately possible to confirm the reports.

Former vice-president Amrullah Saleh, one of the leaders of the opposition forces, told the television station Tolo News that reports that he had fled the country were lies.

And in a video clip posted on Twitter by a BBC World journalist who said it had been sent by Saleh, he said: “There is no doubt we are in a difficult situation. We are under invasion by the Taliban… We have held the ground, we have resisted.”

He also tweeted: “The RESISTANCE is continuing and will continue. I am here with my soil, for my soil & defending its dignity.”

His son, Ebadullah Saleh, denied that Panjshir had fallen, texting the message “No, it’s false”.

There had been reports of heavy fighting  and casualties in Panjshir, a rugged valley where several thousand fighters from regional militias and remnants of the old government’s armed forces had massed under the leadership of Ahmad Massoud, the son of late Mujahideen commander Ahmad Shah Massoud.

The Taliban seized Kabul on Aug 15 after rapid advances across Afghanistan.

New government

Earlier, Taliban sources said the group’s co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar would lead a new Afghan government set to be announced soon.

The new government’s most immediate priority may be to avert the collapse of an economy grappling with drought and the ravages of a 20-year conflict that killed around 240,000 Afghans before US forces completed a tumultuous pullout on Aug 30.

Afghanistan is facing not only humanitarian disaster but also threats to its security and stability from rival militant groups, including a local offshoot of Islamic State.

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Baradar, who heads the Taliban’s political office, will be joined by Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, the son of late Taliban co-founder Mullah Omar, and Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, in senior positions, three sources said.

“All the top leaders have arrived in Kabul, where preparations are in final stages to announce the new government,” a Taliban official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Haibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban’s supreme religious leader, will focus on religious matters and governance within the framework of Islam, another Taliban source said.

While the Taliban have spoken of wanting to form a consensus government, a source close to the Islamist militant movement said the interim government now being formed would consist solely of Taliban members.

It will comprise 25 ministries, with a consultative council, or shura, of 12 Muslim scholars, the source added.

Also being planned within six to eight months is a loya jirga, or grand assembly, bringing together elders and representatives from across Afghan society to discuss a constitution and the structure of the future government, the source said.

All the sources expected the interim Cabinet to be finalised soon but differed over exactly when.

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Western powers say they are prepared to engage with the Taliban and send humanitarian aid, but that formal recognition of the government and broader economic assistance will depend on action – not just promises – to safeguard human rights.

When previously in power from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban imposed violent punishments and barred women and girls from school and work.

This time around, the movement has tried to present a more conciliatory face to the world, promising to protect human rights and refrain from vendettas, although it has yet to explain what social rules it will enforce.

The United States, the European Union and others have cast doubt on its assurances. Many Afghans, especially women and those with connections to the former government or Western coalition forces, now fear for their security and even lives.

Right of women

On Friday, dozens of women protested near the presidential palace, urging the Taliban to respect the rights of women and their significant gains in education and the workforce over the past two decades.

“Our demonstrations are (being held) because without the presence of women, no society will prosper. The elimination of women means the elimination of human beings. If women are not present in a country, in a society, in a ministry or Cabinet, that country or Cabinet will not be successful,” said Fatema Etemadi, one of the protesters.

Footage of the rally obtained by Reuters showed most of the women dispersing after an armed Taliban militant intervened.

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Afghanistan’s 250 female judges are particularly afraid of men they jailed who have now been freed by the Taliban.

“Four or five Taliban members came and asked people in my house: ‘Where is this woman judge?’ These were people who I had put in jail,” a judge who had escaped to Europe said from an undisclosed location, asking not to be identified.

The government’s legitimacy in the eyes of international donors and investors will be crucial for its ability to manage an economy reliant for years on foreign aid, and now near collapse.

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