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EDITOR IN CHIEF- ABDULLAH BIN SALIM AL SHUEILI

Taliban is stronger than ever a year after the takeover

A year since returning to power in Afghanistan, the Taliban are a stronger military force than ever, but threats to their rule do exist.


To tighten their grip, the Taliban have poured thousands of fighters into the Panshjir Valley, home to the only conventional military threat the group has faced since their takeover.


The scenic valley, located in northeastern Afghanistan, was for decades a bastion of resistance against outside forces, and the birthplace of the National Resistance Front (NRF).


On the other side of the spectrum, the Islamic State-Khorasan group (IS-K) has planted bombs and staged multiple suicide attacks in the past 12 months.


Following the chaotic exit of US-led troops on August 31 last year, Western threats to Taliban rule have also been crushed.


Still, the recent assassination of Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri by a US drone strike on his hideout in Kabul shows how vulnerable Taliban leaders could be to a high-tech enemy.


While the Panjshir Valley is what worries the Taliban the most, analyst Michael Kugelman of the Washington-based Wilson Center think tank believes serious resistance is a long way off.


"If we start to see IS-K pick up its attacks and start carrying out more strikes... I think that the NRF could really benefit from that," he told AFP.


"If Afghans are seeing their families getting blown up by IS-K... that could, I think, deliver a major dent to the Taliban legitimacy and that could benefit the NRF, and give them a window."


Panjshir was the last province to fall to the Taliban in their lightning takeover of the country last year -- holding out until September 6, three weeks after the capture of Kabul. An uneasy calm then enveloped the valley -- around 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Kabul -- until May, when the NRF emerged from the mountains to strike again.


In response, the Taliban sent in more than 6,000 fighters in long columns of armored vehicles, striking fear into the hearts of residents. "Since the Taliban arrived in the valley, people are in panic, they can't talk freely," said Amir, speaking to AFP in hushed tones in the provincial capital as a patrol passed by.


"The Taliban think that if youths are sitting together, then they must be planning something against them," he added, asking not to be identified by his real name.


In the 1980s, fighters led by Ahmad Shah Massoud -- nicknamed the Lion of Panjshir -- fought the Soviet forces from its rugged peaks of Panshjir. When the Red Army pulled out, Afghanistan descended into civil war and the Taliban seized control of the country.


Panjshir held out, though Massoud was assassinated two days before the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. The NRF is led by his son Ahmad Masood, who like many NRF leaders is now in undisclosed exile.


Taliban forces now firmly control the main road that cuts through the valley, with checkpoints everywhere. Thousands of people have fled the valley -- once home to around 170,000 -- and an atmosphere of fear prevails, with residents speaking only if their real names were not revealed. "Previously, we used to feel good to come here," said a visitor named Nabila, who was in the valley with her four sisters to attend their mother's funeral.


"Now we have fear in our hearts. We are scared that if our husbands come, they will be dragged from the car," she said, asking that her full name be withheld for fear of retribution.


Rights groups have accused the Taliban of committing widespread abuses in Panjshir -- allegations they deny -- including extrajudicial executions. "Those arbitrarily arrested are also facing physical torture and beatings that, in some cases, even resulted in death," Amnesty International said in June.


"The Taliban arrested and threatened to kill relatives of fighters who are with the resistance," said Jamshed, a resident of a Panjshir town. "These threats compelled many fighters to come down from the mountains and surrender."


Still, Taliban authorities send mixed messages about the threat the NRF poses -- denying their existence, on one hand, yet sending in troops to fight them. "We have not seen any front; the front does not exist," Abdul Hameed Khurasani, head of a Taliban special force unit deployed in the valley, told AFP. "There are (only) a few people in the mountains. We are chasing them." Ali Nazary, head of the NRF's foreign relations department, questions the Taliban's claims.


"If we were a few fighters, and if we have been pushed to the mountains, why are they sending thousands of their fighters?" he asked. Nazary said the NRF now had a fighting force of 3,000, and bases across the province -- a claim impossible to independently verify. Kugelman believes the NRF have the will to fight, but not the capacity.


"For NRF to be a truly effective group, it's going to need... more external support, military and financial," he said. abh-epe-jd-fox/ser/aha By Emmanuel Peuchot and Abdullah Hasrat


One year on from the Taliban's return to power in Afghanistan, some cracks are opening within their ranks over the crucial question of just how much reform their leaders can tolerate.


Infamous during their first reign for their brutal crackdowns on rights and freedoms, the Islamists vowed to rule differently this time.


On a superficial level at least, they appear to have changed in some respects. Officials in Kabul have embraced technology, while cricket matches are cheered in full stadiums. Televisions were banned under the Taliban government's first incarnation, while Afghans now have access to the internet and social media. Girls are allowed to attend primary school and women journalists are interviewing government officials -- unthinkable during the Taliban's first stint in power in the 1990s.


The group's hardline core, composed of battle-hardened veteran fighters, is against any significant ideological change that could be viewed as a sign of capitulation to their enemies in the West. "You have one (Taliban) camp, which is pushing ahead with what they're seeing as reforms, and another camp that seems to think even these meagre reforms are too much," said Ibraheem Bahiss, an Afghanistan analyst with International Crisis Group. The United States and its allies -- which had bankrolled Afghanistan for 20 years -- have locked the country out of the global banking system and billions in frozen assets abroad, as they hold out for reforms from the Taliban. Without significant progress, it is the Afghan people who suffer as the country reels under a massive economic crisis that has seen some families choose between selling their organs or their infant daughters. - 'Retrograde dogmatic views' - On whether the Taliban are even capable of reform, analysts are wary that recent policy changes amount to little more than "tokenism". "There are some cases where we could point to an evolution in policy, but let's be very clear... We're still looking at an organisation that has refused to move beyond very retrograde, dogmatic views," said Michael Kugelman, an Afghanistan specialist with the Washington-based Wilson Center think tank. Most secondary schools for girls remain closed. Many women have been forced out of government work, while many fear venturing out and being chastised by the Taliban.


Simple joys such as music, shisha, and card games are strictly controlled in the most conservative areas, while protests have been crushed and journalists regularly threatened or detained. Demands from the West for an inclusive government were ignored, and the assassination of Al-Qaeda's leader in Kabul last week underlined the Taliban's ongoing ties with jihadist groups.


It is from the Taliban's power base of southern Kandahar that the secretive supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada gathers his powerful inner circle of veteran fighters and religious clerics to impose a harsh interpretation of sharia. And for them, ideological concerns outweigh any political or economic drivers to effect change. and Javed Tanveer


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