The anti-Taliban resistance: A battle for Afghanistan's future

Analysis - Illustration - anti-Taliban
8 min read
27 September, 2022

Since the United States left Afghanistan, the new regime in Kabul has pledged to establish peace and security in the country.

Officially now the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA), the Taliban’s security forces have been busy working to eradicate Afghan militant groups that are intent on ensuring their new stint in power is short.

At a gathering of the Afghan opposition in Vienna in September, Ahmad Massoud, the son of the famed Afghan mujahideen commander, announced that they were prepared for a new phase against the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan.

In a Foreign Affairs article in August, the spokesperson for the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, (NRF), Ali Nazary, called for international support.

The Supreme Council of National Resistance for the Salvation of Afghanistan, a coalition of former Afghan political figures, and the NRF released a political platform in August that includes fighting tyranny, holding elections, and establishing a decentralised government.

"The Taliban have taken the threat posed by the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan quite seriously"

The brutal struggle for Panjshir province

Since the US left Afghanistan in August 2021, the fight between the NRF and the IEA has largely centred on Panjshir Province, a rugged and mountainous region which historically was never fully conquered by the Soviet Union or during the Taliban’s first period of rule.

In mid-August, the Taliban ordered hundreds of additional reinforcements to deploy in the Panjshir Valley. On 14 September, the Taliban claimed they killed 40 NRF members in Panjshir Province.

Nazary remarked in an interview with Sky News that the Taliban had suffered heavy casualties and have not been able to capture “even one” of their bases in Panjshir, noting that the NRF had more than twenty bases in the province.

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Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai has condemned the violence unfolding in Panjshir Province. Richard Bennett, the UN Special Rapporteur for Afghanistan, expressed concern about the allegations regarding the extrajudicial summary executions.

“The Taliban have taken the threat posed by the NRF quite seriously. They recently appointed Mullah Qayoum Zakir as overall military commander over Panjshir and Andarab, indicating a will to eliminate the group,” Ibraheem Bahiss, an Afghanistan Analyst with the International Crisis Group, told The New Arab.

“It seems unlikely the Taliban will be able to completely destroy the two main anti-Taliban resistance groups, the NRF and Islamic State in Khorasan Province (IS) in the foreseeable future,” he added.

“However, all the resistance groups have so far only posed a minimal threat to the Taliban's rule and it seems unlikely that these groups will expand in scope or capacity in the near future. In my opinion, IS [Islamic State] is the best-placed group to capitalise on the anti-Taliban sentiment and expand its operations in the medium term.”

Security remains a major challenge for the Taliban. Although the US military withdrawal has alleviated the many years of war that plagued Afghanistan’s rural population, the vicious acts of terrorism carried out by Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) remain ever present in the country’s urban centres.

How the Taliban turned social media into a weapon
A Taliban fighter pictured in Kabul following the hardline group's takeover of the capital in 2021. [Getty]

Assessing the NRF's support

Though it has been over a year since the US involvement in Afghanistan ended, there have been no signs that the NRF is receiving substantial foreign military assistance. The NRF reportedly fields some 4,000 battle-hardened fighters.

Michael Kugelman, Director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center, told The New Arab, “The Taliban tend to understate the NRF’s strength while the NRF and their supporters tend to overstate its strength”.

He added, “In reality, it has a presence in Panjshir, it has some fighters, and it has the capacity to mount operations. But with many top leaders based outside Afghanistan and with the group struggling to secure material support from regional players, it currently lacks the capacity to qualify as a viable armed opposition to the Taliban”.

"All the resistance groups have so far only posed a minimal threat to the Taliban's rule and it seems unlikely that these groups will expand in scope or capacity in the near future"

He explained, “It primarily derives support from Afghan diaspora supporters of the group and increasingly we are seeing some willingness by western countries to tolerate their activities. The recent conference in Vienna was an example of this. Other than Tajikistan, few of the regional countries have offered any type of overt support for the group.”

Nazary told CNN in an interview that the late anti-Taliban mujahedeen commander Ahmad Shah Massoud “was able to build his resistance against the Soviets with a limited number of resources and successfully defeat the mighty Red Army. So international aid and support are not a requirement for us to be able to fight for our values and rights”.

The NRF and other anti-Taliban groups are also active outside of Panjshir. The NRF attacked a Taliban base in Nangahar Province in early August. In September, the anti-Taliban rebels carried out attacks against Taliban fighters in Samangan and Takhar provinces.

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For the regional countries that border Afghanistan, there is a notable sense of fatigue in the prospect of fuelling a new military effort to topple the powers that be in Kabul.

Kugelman explained that the NRF and the anti-Taliban armed resistance groups’ main challenge was the lack of external support. “Unlike 2001, the regional players have grudgingly accepted Taliban rule, even if they don’t formally recognise it. They’d rather move on from decades of war in their backyard, and arming or bankrolling anti-Taliban forces would hasten the return of conflict,” he said.  

“So at least for now, these groups are banking on support from sources inside Afghanistan, and from diaspora supporters abroad,” he said.

A missing political blueprint

Speaking on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York, Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said, “We’ve been advising the international community that we need to arrange a blueprint for the way forward—what are the required series of conditions we need from the current leadership in Afghanistan, in exchange of what we can provide as an international community”.

With this in mind, the global community appears intent on moving forward with diplomatic engagement with the IEA, and not supporting the burgeoning anti-Taliban militant groups. Bahiss said, “In the current environment, it seems the NRF will not be in a position to completely topple the Taliban in the short or medium term”.

Massoud himself has clearly indicated that a political solution is the primary objective to solving Afghanistan’s crisis.

A Taliban fighter stands next to a poster bearing the image of late Afghan commander Ahmad Shah Massoud at the Massoud Square in Kabul on 16 August 2021. [Getty]

“Given this reality, NRF's ultimate aim, for the short and medium terms at least, is like to centre around some form of a power-sharing agreement rather than the complete elimination of the Taliban,” Bahiss said.

The United States still maintains a channel of communication with the IEA. Doing so provides Washington with a way to resolve key issues, such as evacuating at-risk Afghans who cooperated with the United States during its two decades in Afghanistan, along with high-profile prisoner exchanges. An American hostage, Mark Frerichs, was recently freed from captivity.

Following the exchange, Afghan Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi expressed hope that the move would mark “a new chapter” in the bilateral relations with the United States. However, the IEA continues to demur on establishing a clear policy for the future of girls’ education in Afghanistan, which has led to intense diplomatic criticism.

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Ultimately, it will be the Taliban that has the most influence on the future of the resistance groups operating in Afghanistan. If the IEA is able to change direction on its policies towards women, it might attract more international backing.

On 21 September, the Taliban named Habibullah Agha as the IEA’s new education minister, a move which could be interpreted as either buying more time for internal deliberations or sending a positive signal to the West.

The same goes for the Afghan economy. The biggest hurdle to improving US-IEA bilateral relations remains that the United States and international community do not trust the Taliban with the Afghan Central Banks’ $7 billion frozen assets.

The IEA’s foreign ministry, in turn, has slammed Washington for opting to move $3.5 billion of the assets to a Swiss-based trust fund.

"Unlike 2001, the regional players have grudgingly accepted Taliban rule, even if they don't formally recognise it"

“If the Taliban are unable to ease the country’s acute economic stress, if they can’t reduce terrorist attacks, and if their internal divides impact their ability to practice basic governance, then this could intensify public anger and provide an opening for anti-Taliban groups,” Kugelman noted.  

In the short run, the NRF and other anti-Taliban militants operating in Afghanistan do not pose any significant threat to the IEA’s rule. However, Kugelman noted that, “the calculus could change down the road if the Taliban continue to struggle to gain legitimacy”.

Kugelman remarked, “We could see more recruitment, arms, and other support flowing to them. It’s that type of momentum that could put these groups in a better position to pose a genuine threat to the Taliban. But let’s be clear: We’re nowhere near that point right now.”

Christopher Solomon is a Middle East analyst, researcher, editor, and writer based in the Washington DC area. He works for a US defence consultancy and is the author of the book, In Search of Greater Syria (I.B. Tauris/Bloomsbury). Christopher is a Co-Editor for Syria Comment and a contributor to the Economist Intelligence Unit. 

Follow him on Twitter: @Solomon_Chris