Guest column by Said Sabir Ibrahimi
8 September 2021
With the Afghan economy is on the verge of collapse, the United Nations has warned that half of the population in Afghanistan needs humanitarian aid. While the U.S. military’s combat operations in Afghanistan have come to an end, Washington haspledged to remain engaged with the country through diplomacy, development, and humanitarian aid. After the sudden collapse of the U.S.-backed government on August 15, 2021, the Taliban swiftly seized 33 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces – the last standing is Panjshir. As Panjshir leads the resistance, it has also become a safe refuge for many Afghans escaping the wrath of the Taliban.
The Panjshir Valley is surrounded by magnificent mountains and a roaring river at its heart. It has historically been an unconquered territory, be it against the Soviet Union in the 1970s or the Taliban in the 1990s. The current resistance force is led by Mr. Ahmad Massoud, the son of the legendary anti-Soviet freedom fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was tragically assassinated by al-Qaeda in collaboration with the Taliban two days before the horrific attacks of 9/11. Mr. Ahmad Massoud is now leading the National Resistance Front (NRF) of Afghanistan, alongside Vice President Mr. Amrullah Saleh, who has proclaimed himself as care-taker President in the absence of President Ashraf Ghani, who has fled the country.
While people across the country suffer from the shortage of food and basic needs, the situation in Panjshir is dire as the NRF and Taliban are fighting tooth and nail. Notably, several of Massoud’s closest aides have been killed, allegedly by Pakistan’s drones, and there is an active blockade imposed on the valley by the Taliban. The NRF’s attempts to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban, which included some level of autonomy for Panjshir under a decentralized Islamic democratic system were rebuffed. The Taliban insists on a centralized and puritanical theocracy with the group as the dominant power at the center. While both sides have sustained casualties, reports indicate a devastating toll on the civilian population.
The Panjshir valley has been surrounded by the Taliban from all entry points, and they have callously enforced an active blockade, inhibiting humanitarian relief from reaching the afflicted. Internet and telephone communication lines have been cut off for several days. Mr. Saleh has appealed to the international community for humanitarian assistance, but his pleas for help have fallen on deaf ears. The Taliban hasconfirmed the blockade, by saying that due to fighting goods and food items have not entered the province for some four daysbut promised to reopen the supply lines. The Taliban also claimed to have captured the entire province, including the capital Bazarak. However, the NRF reports resumption of fierce fighting across the province. This is at a time when Ahmad Massoud has called for a national uprising which has inspired some movements in other provinces. Additionally, severalwomen have also participated in protesting for their rights in cities like Kabul, Herat, and Mazar e Sharif.
Many amongst the ranks of the NRF are former members of the Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF).They have risked their lives fighting alongside American troops against al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Islamic State Khorasan, and many feel abandoned while they continue to resist. While we do not know a lot about the intensity of the issue due to complete media blackout, some with access on the ground report of the catastrophic humanitarian crisis is unfolding in places like Panjshir and Andarab, a district in neighboring Baghlan province. Upwards of a quarter of a million civilians are trapped in these areas, and desperately need “food supplies, including baby formula, rice, wheat, and other perishables” and medicine.
While the U.S. military’s combat mission has ended in Afghanistan, America and its allies can provide critical assistance through humanitarian aid as originally planned. Some small amount of aid from the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have reached Kabul, but a lot more needs to be done to prevent the catastrophe that the United Nations has warned about. One of the quickest ways to get aid across the country would be through airdropping. The US has conducted several airdrop missions in the past including one in 2014 in Iraq. The US should start with airdropping the much-needed supplies in areas such as Panjshir and other regions where the Taliban has imposed blockades. This can bring great relief to the people in need. Delays in delivering humanitarian aid could risk the lives of many people from starvation and medical attention.