Taliban fighters broke out into prayers as their banner fluttered from a flagpole in Panjshir on Monday, after the hardline Islamist group announced the capture of the last pocket of resistance to their rule.
In videos circulating on pro-Taliban social media, fighters passed underneath portraits venerating their old enemy, the late Panjshir resistance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud.
Three weeks after seizing Kabul, the Taliban claimed to have conquered the rugged valley on Monday — a historic blow to the province.
Under Massoud, the Panjshir fighters earned a legendary reputation for resistance, defending their mountain homes first from the Soviet military for a decade, then throughout a civil war, then the last Taliban regime from 1996-2001.
“With this victory, our country is completely taken out of the quagmire of war,” the Taliban’s chief spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement.
– Massoud’s portrait destroyed –
Soon after, in a photograph released by Taliban official Bilal Karimi, the same picture of Massoud is seen with his face ripped out. Taliban gunmen then stand posing in front of the ragged portrait.
The National Resistance Front (NRF) — made up of anti-Taliban militia and former Afghan security forces — have admitted to suffering heavy losses, and have called for a ceasefire.
On Sunday, the NRF said spokesman Fahim Dashty — a well-known Afghan journalist — and a top commander, General Abdul Wudod Zara, had been killed.
But they also said their fighters were still present in “strategic positions” across the valley, and that they were continuing the struggle.
The Taliban completed a stunning two-week offensive across Afghanistan on August 15, taking the capital, Kabul, without a fight.
Remnants of the Afghan army then retreated to the Panjshir Valley, north of Kabul, to create the NRF.
The 115-kilometre-long (70-mile-long) valley surrounded by jagged snow-capped peaks offers defenders a natural military advantage, allowing them to use the high positions to ambush attacking forces below.
But they faced internet shutdowns by the Taliban and supply roads were blocked.
Previously, Panjshir’s fighters melted away in the face of advancing forces, hiding in canyons off the main valley, then launching guerilla raids.
– ‘Hit hard’ –
But the Taliban have been emboldened by their sweeping victories across the rest of the country, where they seized an enormous arsenal of weapons and military kit that the now-departed US provided to the defeated Afghan army.
The NRF is led by Ahmad Massoud — the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud — as well as ex-officials who fled to the valley from the toppled government, including former vice-president Amrullah Saleh, a fierce Taliban critic.
It is unclear where those senior Panjshir leaders are now based.