The Panjshir Valley, in the Hindu Kush mountains north of Kabul, has long been the heart of military resistance in Afghanistan and looks like it is becoming the centre of a gathering of “resistance” forces against Taliban rule. Credit: AFP photo.

It’s only a matter of when the attack comes.

And when it does it could be the greatest battle, and possibly the bloodiest, that Afghanistan has ever seen.

You see, thirty-three of Afghanistan’s thirty-four provinces fell to the Taliban over the span of two weeks in early August.

But one region, has not.

The sole area that has resisted Taliban encroachment has been the province of Panjshir, located in a valley at the foot of the Hindu Kush mountains.

The valley’s name translates to “five lions,” although other translations claim its name may refer to five mountain peaks located down the length of the valley.

Led by Ahmad Massoud, the leader of the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, he claims to have some 9,000 available fighters, as well as hundreds of military vehicles and five helicopters, Trevor Filseth of The National Interest reported.

And while Panjshir’s defenders have been strengthened by the arrival of thousands of soldiers from the now-defunct Afghan National Army, Massoud’s position appears to be militarily indefensible, analysts say.

The valley is fully surrounded by Taliban territory and they are greatly outnumbered.

The 32-year-old Massoud, who has dreams of following in his “father’s footsteps,” said his group is pushing for a new system of government in Afghanistan — an open and democratic system — but is prepared to fight if needed.

Without a comprehensive power-sharing agreement, Massoud has warned that a new and bloody civil war is inevitable.

“We confronted the Soviet Union, and we will be able to confront the Taliban,” a defiant Massoud told the Dubai-based Al Arabiya television channel.

While Taliban forces rolled over the country easily in just a couple weeks, they will likely encounter stiff, perhaps even fanatical, resistance.

An Agence France-Presse correspondent reported seeing “machine gun nests, mortars and surveillance posts fortified with sandbags” set up by the National Resistance Front to defend its positions in the Panjshir Valley.

On Sunday, Taliban and rebel forces skirmished just outside the valley, a resistance leader said. Families of valley residents said the Taliban also cut telephone and internet connections to the valley.

In an op-ed published Wednesday in The Washington Post, Massoud said “America can still be a great arsenal of democracy” by supporting his fighters.

He said he has the forces to mount an effective resistance, but called on the United States to supply arms and ammunition to his militia.

“I write from the Panjshir Valley today, ready to follow in my father’s footsteps, with mujahideen fighters who are prepared to once again take on the Taliban,” he said.

His father Ahmad Shah Massoud, known as the Lion of Panjshir, led the strongest resistance against the Taliban from his stronghold in the valley northeast of Kabul until his assassination two days before Sept. 11, 2001.

Famed for its natural defences, the redoubt tucked into the Hindu Kush mountains never fell to the Taliban during the civil war of the 1990s, nor was it conquered by the Soviets a decade earlier, and is now Afghanistan’s last remaining holdout.

“I write from the Panjshir Valley today, ready to follow in my father’s footsteps, with mujahideen fighters who are prepared to once again take on the Taliban,” wrote Ahmad Massoud in an op-ed published in the Washington Post. Credit: AFP photo.

T.E. Lawrence, the master of hit-and-run guerrilla warfare, would have been impressed.

The elder Massoud built his formidable reputation by holding out against repeated Soviet offensives in the 1980s, using his wits and the high mountain ranges.

He inflicted devastating ambushes on Russian supply convoys, even earning a grudging respect from several Soviet generals.

He would also warn the West about the threat of terrorism from al-Qaeda.

But while Massoud’s famous father could rely upon overland supply lines into Tajikistan, today, Ahmad Massoud has no method of resupplying except flights over Taliban territory.

The younger Massoud also has little military experience, though he was educated at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst in Britain and King’s College, London, and earned a degree in war studies before returning to Afghanistan in 2016.

If and when, the Taliban launch a major offensive to take the region — and they will if talks do not succeed — they will also come up against many of the nation’s hardened, US-trained special-forces units, which did much of the hardest fighting against the Taliban during the conflict.

None of these guys are going to be laying down their arms anytime soon, for the basic reason they will be tortured and executed.

Sources say they are fierce, and will fight to the death if they have to.

As former UK prime minister Tony Blair said, it’s one thing to take Afghanistan, quite another to rule it.

Politically, Panjshir’s position was also strengthened with the arrival of Afghanistan’s former vice president, Amrullah Saleh, who has since declared himself as the nation’s interim leader following the flight of President Ashraf Ghani to the United Arab Emirates.

In the following days, other Afghan leaders, such as Defense Minister Bismillah Khan and Ahmad Zia Massoud, Massoud’s uncle and a long-time leader within Panjshir, have gone to the valley.

Notorious Afghan warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum is also rumored to be present.

At 67, the greying Uzbek militia leader is not quite in the fighting shape of his youth — he has just returned from medical treatment in Turkey — but his desire to be on the frontline does not appear to have dimmed.

While some experts on Afghanistan have highlighted potential tensions between the leaders, Saleh and Massoud appear to be cooperating, and both men have resolved not to surrender to the Taliban.

“The Taliban will not last long if it continues on this path,” Massoud said, in a report from the UK’s Daily Mail.

In the face of superior forces and potential annihilation, Massoud spat: “We are ready to defend Afghanistan and we warn of a bloodshed.”

Inspired by past victories against the Soviets and the Taliban, Panjshiri soldiers have also spoken in recent days about “a fight to the death.”

But this time, the Taliban will be fully armed with new weapons secured from surrendering Afghan forces — guns, ammo, vehicles, helicopters and more.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed that hundreds of Taliban fighters had traveled to Panjshir to suppress the anti-Taliban resistance with force, but did not offer any further details.

Both the Panjshir resistance and the Taliban initially committed to talks regarding Afghanistan’s future political system and the valley’s status, but these talks appear to have broken down. 

While an early attempt to capture the province appeared to have been repelled by Massoud’s forces, with a loss of several hundred Taliban fighters, the Taliban remains in control of the surrounding areas, and appears to have retaken three villages near the entrance to the valley, according to BBC’s Yalda Hakim.

‘‘We’re waiting for some opportunity, some support,” Hamid Saifi, a former colonel in the Afghan National Army, and now a commander in Massoud’s resistance, told the New York Times by phone.

“Maybe some countries will be ready for this great work. So far, all countries we talked to are quiet. America, Europe, China, Russia, all of them are quiet.’’

Sources: The Daily Mail, The National Interest, BBC News, Hindustan Times, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Al Arabiya, Agence France-Presse, Al Jazeera, France 24, Wall Street Journal