New York Times
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jan 14, 2014
BAZARAK, Afghanistan » Even among Afghans, who are generally wary of outsiders, members of the ethnic Tajik population of the Panjshir Valley are an unusually suspicious lot. So it is their good fortune to have been blessed with the closest thing to a naturally occurring "keep out" sign: a deep and narrow gorge at the valley's mouth that seems tailor-made for obstruction and ambush.
It has been a long while since they needed to resort to that. But in case anyone might think that Panjshir, which led the resistance to Taliban rule in the 1990s and was a redoubt against the Soviet military the decade before, had let down its guard, the valley's police are building a reinforced new checkpoint across a road through the gorge.
Muhammad Rafiq, a gray-bearded police officer at the post, succinctly summed up the reason: "Anyone can be Taliban," he said.
Then he flashed a smile. "We can fight the Taliban if they want to come back," he added. "We all know what is possible in Afghanistan."
After years of relative peace, and an almost complete absence of Taliban attacks, worry is returning to the Panjshir Valley, a twisting 60-mile chute cut from the Hindu Kush mountains by a cold and rocky river. U.S.-led combat forces are due to leave Afghanistan by year's end, a national election is only four months away, and President Hamid Karzai appears intent on spending his final months in office focused on opening peace talks with the Taliban, whom he often calls "brothers."
No one here calls the Taliban brothers. People talk instead about getting ready in case the Afghan army and the police falter once the Americans are gone. For many in Panjshir, the best news out of Kabul these days is that the Taliban have shown little interest in negotiating.
"You don't shake hands with Taliban," said Shamshullah, 56, a village elder who like many Afghans uses one name and once battled Soviet troops in the valley. "You kill them."
Famed as resistance fighters, Panjshiris also played a central role in events after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the subsequent fight to oust the Taliban government. The first CIA operatives to enter Afghanistan flew into Panjshir with $3 million in cash to buy off members of the old Northern Alliance and ensure they could take on the Taliban, according to "First In," a book written by Gary Schroen, who led the first CIA team into Afghanistan.
Panjshiris, as the ethnic Tajiks of the valley are known, went on to dominate the initial post-Taliban order here. But they soon saw some of their influence wane as Americans pushed to install more technocrats in the government and Karzai sought to placate the Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in the country from which the Taliban draw almost all their support.
Mention Karzai, who is Pashtun, in the valley nowadays, and you are likely to hear him dismissed as Taliban along with most other Pashtuns.
"They're all Taliban," said Abbas Zahiri, 19, who grills kebabs at a restaurant in Bazarak, the provincial capital. "We don't want them to come here."
Concerns about a Taliban resurgence are not confined to Panjshir. In other areas of northern and western Afghanistan that tried to resist Taliban conquest nearly 20 years ago, and mostly failed, old mujahedeen commanders are talking about rearming their militias. They fear the coming election may be as fraud-filled as the last one, and the result will be a fractured government and a resurgent Taliban.
The concerns have been heightened by Karzai's refusal to sign a long-term security agreement that would keep U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan past 2014, and Panjshiris may be taking action. Western security experts and senior Afghan defense officials say Panjshiri boasts about squirreling away weapons throughout the valley are credible.
Still, the incessant chatter in Panjshir about weapons and war and betrayal can seem a bit incongruous. The number of Taliban attacks here in the past decade can be counted on a single hand, and foreigners feel safe enough to make day trips from Kabul to picnic and hike.
In Kabul, meanwhile, there are numerous billboards with pictures of Panjshir's most famous native son, Ahmed Shah Massoud, who fought the Soviets in the 1980s and led the Northern Alliance against the Taliban a decade later. He was killed by al-Qaida on Sept. 9, 2001, and the anniversary of his death is a national holiday.
Massoud's former lieutenants have made sure that Panjshiris, who constitute a small portion of Afghanistan's population of 32 million people, still are heavily represented in the Afghan elite. The leading opposition presidential candidate, Abdullah Abdullah, and a handful of the vice presidential candidates are Panjshiri. Muhammad Qasim Fahim, the first vice president, and Defense Minister Bismullah Khan are from Panjshir, as are the Kabul police chief and dozens of other senior officials and military officers.
Panjshir is also the only province where uniformed agents from the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan's main intelligence agency, are basically on highway patrol. They are instantly recognizable at checkpoints with their U.S. M4 assault rifles and fitted body armor, and they regularly cruise the road through the valley in late-model Toyota pickup trucks with weapon mounts.
"It is no secret that many influential people come from Panjshir," Abdul Jabbar Naeemi, deputy governor of Panjshir province, said when asked about why some of Afghanistan's best trained commandos were running road security. "Panjshiri people are not afraid to speak up. They have to be protected."
They are certainly outspoken. Compared with other Afghans, who can be deferential to a fault, Panjshiris are more like New Yorkers — even the children can be brash and direct.
"You, you're done taking pictures!" a boy shouted at one visiting photographer. A second earlier, the boy had been posing for pictures with an old Soviet tank that sat rusting in grass next to his school. But he was now done, and so, he decided, was the photographer.
"You've taken up enough time," he said and walked off.
Then there are the war stories. The actual exploits of Panjshiri mujahedeen fighters are dramatic enough, one would think, given their tremendous record of success with few losses as they fought the Soviets and the Taliban in years of hardship and sacrifice. But many of those victories seem to take another step out of legend and into fantasy each time they are recounted.
Shamshullah, the village elder, for example, told of the night he and eight other Panjshiris overcame a Soviet battalion in the 1980s.
More than 400 Soviets were killed, he said, and the Afghans lost no one.
Panjshiris may also remind you that they were the ones who finally drove the Taliban from power. That is certainly true, to a degree, but you probably should not then suggest that they might have needed Western help to do it.
"The Americans needed us!" boasted Zahiri, the kebab griller, who was hardly old enough to remember. "Without Panjshir, Kabul would still belong to the Taliban. It won't happen again."