OUTSIDE Kabul airport a large portrait of Ahmad Shah Massoud adorns a wall of the terminal building. Dotted across the city other giant pictures too of the legendary Afghan guerrilla commander and politician serve as reminder of Massoud’s powerful impact on Afghanistan over decades.

It was Massoud, an ethnic Tajik, who became a hero to many Afghans for the resistance he and his fighters put up ­opposing the Soviet Red Army after its intervention in Afghanistan throughout the 1980’s.

Later when the Taliban first rose to power in 1996, it was Massoud too who established the Northern Alliance to ­resist the rule of the oppressive ­extremist group before he was assassinated just days before the September 11, 2001 ­attacks on the US.

Speculation as to just who instigated the suicide bombing by men posing as journalists with explosives hidden in a video camera and battery-pack belt that killed Massoud, continues to this day. ­Analysts however agree that almost ­certainly it was carried out on the orders of Osama bin Laden.

The al-Qaeda leader knew how ­formidable a military tactician Massoud was and how his presence along with the anticipated US response for the 9/11 ­attack would pose a real danger to his ­Afghan hosts the Taliban and his own ­terror group al-Qaeda.

It was at the height of that early struggle against the Taliban before 9/11 that I last saw Massoud alive. On a shell smashed road in Afghanistan’s north eastern Takhar province his jeep pulled up one afternoon and he gave a brief greeting to myself and the fighters that I was accompanying on foot toward the frontline.

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In light of events these past weeks it’s strange now recalling that day and the fate that awaited Massoud. What, I ­wonder, would he have made of the fact that in the months that followed 9/11 his troops would not just wrestle control of Takhar Province but others too before retaking the Afghan capital Kabul back from under Taliban rule.

What too would Massoud, the ­shrewdest of guerrilla strategists, have made of ­subsequent events in ­Afghanistan, ­especially those of the past days that saw some of the most powerful military forces in the world humiliated and the Taliban once again ensconced in Kabul.

I mention Massoud because right now as I write, somewhere in his home ­province of Panjshir in ­Afghanistan’s north east near the Hindu Kush ­mountain range, his 32-year-old son ­Ahmad ­Massoud, has pledged to hold out against the Taliban. It’s in the Panjshir that Massoud and ­Amrullah Saleh, latterly the country’s vice president and a key powerbroker ­under the Western-backed governments of the last two decades, have both ­taken refuge in the area and called for an ­uprising against the Taliban.

“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,” Massoud wrote in his ­Washington Post editorial last week.

Given the understandable focus on ­Kabul these past days few have noticed that the Panjshir remains the one place that the Taliban have not tried to take. There is good reason for this, for over the past 50 years the Panjshir and its dogged people and fighters have defied all, be they external or internal attempts, to ­deprive Afghanistan of its freedom and autonomy. The Soviets found that out to their great cost back in the 80’s when they tried time and again to take the Panjshir and failed.

As Amalendu Misra, Professor of ­Politics at Lancaster University, summed it up in The Diplomat magazine on ­Friday, the Panjshir is the “untameable heartland of Afghan guerrilla warfare”.

“True to its reputation, it stands alone, undefeated. Little wonder the region is now fast attracting a resurgent anti-­Taliban movement. But can the valley rise up, once again, against the Taliban juggernaut and live up to its old fame – as the vanquisher of tyranny?” asked Misra.

The current Massoud of the Panjshir, if what he wrote in the Washington Post last week is anything to go by, believes it can.

“We have stores of ammunition and arms that we have patiently collected since my father’s time, because we knew this day might come,” he said, adding that some of the forces who had joined him ­include members of Afghanistan’s elite Special Forces units that escaped the Taliban onslaught and had brought their weapons with them.

But in the same editorial Massoud said his forces would not be able to hold out without help from the West and he ­appealed for support and logistical help from the US, Britain and France.

“The Taliban are not a problem for the Afghan people alone. Under Taliban control, Afghanistan will without doubt become ground zero of radical Islamist terrorism; plots against democracies will be hatched here once again,” he insisted.

Some analysts however believe that the resistance so far from Massoud is only verbal given that the Taliban have yet to try taking the Panjshir Valley.

“The Taliban only need to lock down the Panjshir, they don’t even have to go in there,” pointed out Afghan ­specialist Gilles Dorronsoro from ­Sorbonne ­University in Paris last week after ­Massoud’s editorial.

But another Frenchman who fought in the Panjshir alongside Massoud’s ­father at the end of the 1990s confirmed to French news agency AFP that Massoud has been preparing for months and had built up forces of young people, vehicles, helicopters and ammunition.

Whatever events come to pass in the Panjshir it’s just one of the many issues that make up the wider question of what happens next in Afghanistan as a whole.

Clearly that possibility of a growing ­resistance to the Taliban is just one of them. Even elsewhere in places like the eastern city of Jalalabad for example there have already been signs, albeit small, of protests against Taliban rule.

As Afghans get over the initial shock and fear of the Islamists rapid arrival in Kabul this in turn could well grow, but for the moment there are more immediate ­developments to contend with that will also shape the future.

Among these are whether the evacuations of those Afghans and others under threat can continue unimpeded by the Taliban? Linked to this immediate ­humanitarian challenge too is the debateable issue of whether what we are ­seeing is a new Taliban or just the old one in ­disguise? Then there is the question of the Taliban’s capacity in the short term to form a viable new government?

In turn, beyond human rights ­concerns there is the wider issue of what role ­regional neighbours and the West will play in Afghanistan’s future?

LET me address these questions in that order. For the moment the evacuations thankfully are stepping up but so too are tensions in Kabul. With shooting and growing intimidation, it’s a tinderbox scenario that only takes a spark to ignite.

The Taliban too will take a dim view of increasing numbers of Western troops on the ground helping with the ­evacuations. Any perceived extension of their stay ­beyond the immediate needs of such an operation will make the Taliban ­leadership increasingly edgy.

Just before the Covid-19 pandemic while in the Afghan capital Kabul I spoke with Taliban spokesman ­Zabihullah ­Mujahid by phone during which he ­persistently ­reiterated how the Taliban would never rest until all foreign soldiers had left ­Afghanistan. This has always been a ­redline for the militants.

Given this then, the last-minute ­decision to send 3000 US troops to help the ­evacuation, and the possibility they might stay on – perhaps beyond US ­President Joe Biden’s August 31 deadline for fully withdrawing combat forces, will be closely watched by the Taliban. It could in turn so easily become a flashpoint ­issue should the Americans overshoot that deadline.

As for the question of whether what we are seeing is a new Taliban, it’s still early days and there are mixed signals coming from within the Islamists’ ranks, both at leadership and ground level.

“Life, property and honour of none shall be harmed but must be ­protected by the mujahideen,” said the ­Taliban’s ­Doha-based spokesperson Suhail Shaheen in the wake of the Taliban’s takeover, ­reinforcing their message to ­Afghans that they would be safe.

But as the days pass, eyewitness ­reports continue to surface suggesting the Taliban are reverting to their old ways. Evidence indicates that they are using a blacklist and conducting a house to house “rounding up” of so-called “collaborators” who worked with US-led coalition and Afghan government. Other activists, especially women’s rights activists are also being targeted.

But it’s in those remote rural areas that I, like so many veteran ­Afghanistan ­watchers, fear most for people far ­removed from the gaze of Kabul where the Taliban is under global scrutiny and more likely to watch its step.

Eyewitness reports from Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty ­International detail continuing atrocities carried out by the Taliban and brutal enforcement of their interpretation of strict religious rule under Sharia law, curtailing the rights of women and ethnic minorities like the Hazara community.

Some of the most recent accounts ­detail how Taliban fighters tortured and ­massacred nine ethnic Hazara men after taking control of Ghazni province last month and doubtless many more such atrocities have been committed.

These brutal killings likely represent a tiny fraction of the total death toll ­inflicted by the Taliban to date, as the group have cut mobile phone service in many of the areas they have recently ­captured, controlling which photographs and videos are then shared from these ­regions

The Taliban, as the world knows, has past form when it comes to atrocities, which brings us to the thorny question of whether indeed they have changed as they would like the world to believe.

Based on past experience of what I’ve seen of the Taliban up close, I’d say that some within their ranks have shown signs of a more “moderate” stance but the ­behaviour of many field ­commanders and foot-soldiers smacks of old.

Such differences within their ranks might even lead to splits within the ­Taliban with the obvious implications that has for sparking another round of conflict.

As for the Taliban’s capacity to form a new government, these potential ­internal tensions, as well as relations with the international community and of course cash, large quantities of it, all have a ­bearing on its efforts to form a new ­administration.

It’s one thing to run an insurgency from Afghanistan’s mountains and deserts, quite something again to construct a government and civil infrastructure ­without any experience of ever having done so.

Perhaps that’s why the Taliban seem so willing to talk right now with ­senior ­figures of the “old guard” like former ­President Hamid Karzai, Abdullah ­Abdullah and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar all of whom have inhabited the labyrinth of Afghan politics and government for years.

This too before the challenges the Taliban face over how they will fund the country. While the Afghan central Bank has $9.4 billion in reserve assets, most of that lies in overseas and mainly US banks and it’s unlikely that Washington will be handing that over to the Taliban anytime soon, if ever.

WHICH brings us to that final question of who then might step up to the plate to help the Islamists. Here the West needs to be vigilant not just over what kind of Taliban finally emerges but those regional players seeking to enhance their own influence over the new rulers in Afghanistan.

There is Pakistan to begin with which has long supported the Taliban and sought a government it can manipulate in Afghanistan. The time has come to make sure Islamabad knows in no uncertain terms that Pakistan’s continued meddling through its Inter-Services Intelligence ­Directorate (ISI) will have diplomatic ­repercussions.

Then there is the presence of ­Russia and China who have already started ­negotiations of their own with the Taliban leadership long before the Islamists took power in Kabul this week.

On the face of it, Moscow or Beijing and the Taliban might seem strange ­bedfellows, but from security concerns to economic interests like Chinese firms’ involvement in the massive Aynak copper mine and exploration in the Amu Darya oil field, there is more in common than meets the eye.

So, where then given all of this is ­Afghanistan heading? Well, after 40 years of watching its twisting fortunes, sadly I see few signs that this country I have come to love, will ever see the peace its people have longed for come anytime soon. Loath as I am to say it, another ­wider civil war might yet be round the corner. I do so hope I’m wrong.