Fresh fighting was reported on September 4 in the last holdout against Taliban control in Afghanistan as the hard-line Islamist group finalized plans to form a government and Pakistan's powerful intelligence chief arrived in Kabul.
Since the Taliban seized Kabul on August 15, the militants have faced resistance from opposition groups and remnants of the Afghan army holding out in the Panjshir Valley, about 100 kilometers northeast of the capital.
A spokesman for the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, which groups opposition forces loyal to local leader Ahmad Masud, said Taliban forces had reached the Darband heights on the border between Kapisa Province and Panjshir but were pushed back.
"The defense of the stronghold of Afghanistan is unbreakable," Fahim Dashty said in a tweet.
A Taliban source quoted by Reuters said fighting was continuing in Panjshir but that the advance had been slowed by land mines placed on the road to the capital, Bazarak, and the provincial governor's compound.
"Demining and offensives are both going on at the same time," the source said.
Panjshir is walled off by mountains except for a narrow entrance and had held out against Soviet occupation as well as the previous Taliban government.
Gunfire erupted across Kabul late on September 3 amid claims of Taliban advances in Panjshir Province.
A hospital official in Kabul said on September 4 that two people had been killed and 12 wounded as a result of the salvos, prompting Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid to criticize the practice and urge the militants to stop it immediately.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s powerful intelligence chief, General Faiez Hameed, arrived in Kabul on September 4, reports said, although few other details were available.
The Taliban leadership had its headquarters in Pakistan and were often said to be in direct contact with the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
Although Pakistan routinely denied giving the Taliban military aid, the accusation was often made by the Afghan government and Washington.
The continued fighting in Panjshir and the arrival of Hameed comes amid news the Taliban is close to announcing a government.
Taliban co-founder and political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who is considered a relative moderate within the group, will lead the government, three sources quoted by Reuters said.
He will reportedly be joined by Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, the son of late Taliban founder and spiritual leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, and Sher Mohammad Abbass Stanekzai, a member of the Taliban’s Doha political office, in senior government positions.
"All the top leaders have arrived in Kabul, where preparations are in the final stages to announce the new government," a Taliban member said under condition of anonymity.
Another source said that Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhunzada will focus on religious matters and governance within the framework of Islam, according to Reuters.
A Taliban spokesman told AFP on September 3 that the announcement of a new administration would not happen until September 4 at the earliest.
While the Taliban has spoken of its will to form a consensus government, a source close to the militants told Reuters that the interim government being formed would consist solely of Taliban members.
Baradar spent eight years in prison in Pakistan after reportedly being arrested in Karachi in 2010 in an operation by U.S. and Pakistani intelligence agents. He was eventually released at the request of the United States.
He helped negotiate the landmark February 2020 agreement with the United States aimed at ending the 20-year war in Afghanistan.
The militants face the challenge of shifting gears from being an insurgent group to governing more than two weeks after seizing control of most of the country and days after the United States fully withdrew its troops.
Many of the world's leading nations are waiting to see who will be in the government and whether the next administration's actions will be in line with the Taliban's promises of being more moderate than during its brutal rule between 1996 and 2001, when it enforced a radical form of Islamic law.
"We have to judge them on their actions, not on their words," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said September 3. "We will hold them accountable to what they have promised -- on preventing Afghanistan being a safe haven for international terrorists, on human rights, especially the rights of women, and on free passage."
The European Union laid out its conditions for stepping up engagement with the Taliban, saying it has no plans to recognize Afghanistan's new government, once announced, but will engage with the Taliban-led administration on an "operational" basis.
The legitimacy of the new administration in the eyes of international donors and investors will be crucial for the economy, which is in tatters as the country battles drought and the ravages of a conflict that took the lives of an estimated 240,000 Afghans.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will travel to Geneva to convene a high-level conference on aid for Afghanistan on September 13, his spokesman said.
"The conference will advocate for a swift scale-up in funding so the lifesaving humanitarian operation can continue; and appeal for full and unimpeded humanitarian access to make sure Afghans continue to get the essential services they need," UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said on September 3 in a statement.
Development gains must also be protected and the rights of women are an "essential" part of Afghanistan's future stability, Dujarric said.
Meanwhile, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said that any migration wave from Afghanistan should be handled in neighboring countries.
Kurz, who has long taken a tough approach to migration issues, said on September 4 that a potential wave toward Europe must not take place. “This is why we are in contact with countries in the region,” he said.
Kurz recently said that Austria won’t accept any migrants from Afghanistan because it has taken in a “disproportionately high” number since 2015, when 1 million people entered Europe from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.
Tens of thousands of Afghans have left their country as the Taliban took control. Many others continue to flee through land borders to Pakistan and other neighboring countries.