Afghan Resistance Groups Eye Spring Offensive

But internal divisions and the Taliban get a vote, too.

ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
Lynne O’Donnell
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author.
Afghan resistance forces take a rest as they patrol on a hilltop.
Afghan resistance forces take a rest as they patrol on a hilltop.
Afghan resistance movement and anti-Taliban uprising forces take a rest as they patrol on a hilltop in Panjshir province, Afghanistan, on Sept. 1, 2021. AHMAD SAHEL ARMAN/AFP via Getty Images

Armed resistance against the Taliban is picking up momentum across Afghanistan, with militias run by former political and military leaders of the collapsed republic recruiting and arming fighters, notably from the ranks of the former republic’s U.S.-trained security forces. Some are trying to drum up international support for forcible regime change, according to sources among the groups, who have eyes on a spring offensive.

But the lack of unity among leaders of the armed opposition groups, who regard each other more as rivals than comrades, could mean they are unlikely for now to make much progress in their shared ambition to overthrow the Taliban, a movement that has been galvanized by the extremists’ repression of women, girls, and ethnic groups.

“The Taliban have proven they cannot govern, cannot address their own differences, and cannot address the concerns of neighboring countries, so there is an awareness of new geopolitical dynamics and realities,” said Mirwais Naab, a former deputy foreign minister working with the National Resistance Front, the most prominent of the opposition groups.

Armed resistance against the Taliban is picking up momentum across Afghanistan, with militias run by former political and military leaders of the collapsed republic recruiting and arming fighters, notably from the ranks of the former republic’s U.S.-trained security forces. Some are trying to drum up international support for forcible regime change, according to sources among the groups, who have eyes on a spring offensive.

But the lack of unity among leaders of the armed opposition groups, who regard each other more as rivals than comrades, could mean they are unlikely for now to make much progress in their shared ambition to overthrow the Taliban, a movement that has been galvanized by the extremists’ repression of women, girls, and ethnic groups.

“The Taliban have proven they cannot govern, cannot address their own differences, and cannot address the concerns of neighboring countries, so there is an awareness of new geopolitical dynamics and realities,” said Mirwais Naab, a former deputy foreign minister working with the National Resistance Front, the most prominent of the opposition groups.

While the Taliban’s repression, which has included house-to-house killings and kidnappings for ransom, has spurred the resistance into open opposition, there are two big obstacles. Foreign aid is not forthcoming, and internal divisions are only growing, undermining the resistance’s capability to confront the Taliban head-on.

“Disparate local insurgencies do not represent a strategic threat to the Taliban’s emirate, even if they could weaken it,” said a source who advised the former government on military strategy. “The Taliban can deploy forces against resistance groups and eradicate them one or more at a time. They are sending thousands of fighters to regions they believe are vulnerable, but that then spreads them thin in places they are coming under pressure.”

The National Resistance Front is led by Ahmad Massoud, son of the late Northern Alliance general Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was killed by al Qaeda two days before the 9/11 attacks. He is supported by former Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh. The Panjshir Valley, where many of the leaders, including Massoud and Saleh, come from, has been the focus of Taliban offensives, and Panjshiris living elsewhere are regularly arrested, beaten, disappeared, and killed.

Other militia leaders include former Defense and Interior Minister Bismillah Khan; former Chief of General Staff Yasin Zia; former Interior Minister Masoud Andarabi; Hazara militia leader Abdul Ghani Alipoor; and others with political and military backgrounds. They go by names such as the Afghanistan Freedom Front, Turkestan Freedom Fighters, Afghanistan Liberation Movement, Tehrik Islami Azadi Milli Afghanistan, or the Islamic People’s Freedom Party of Afghanistan.

The lack of international support for the resistance isn’t existential, so far. There is no lack of money among the old Afghan warriors, many of whom ran private armies alongside smuggling and drug operations that made them enormously wealthy. Nor is Afghanistan short of firearms after 40 years of Soviet occupation, civil war, and insurgency.

The bigger problems are internal divisions. The old guard of the failed republic with ambitions of a return to power include warlords, power brokers, and ethnic leaders such as Abdul Rashid Dostum, who is ethnically Uzbek, and Muhammad Mohaqiq, who is Hazara. They are generally reviled among Afghans who see them as a cause of the republic’s collapse.

“They all believe they will be the leader and so they fight for themselves rather than for the people and for the country,” said one of the militia leaders, himself a former politician and soldier, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In the meantime, the Taliban have their hands full. They have battled significant pockets of armed resistance, especially in the Panjshir Valley and Andarab district in Baghlan province. Unrest has also arisen in recent months, according to a former Afghan army general now leading an anti-Taliban group, in Kapisa, Parwan, Badakhshan, Takhar, Sar-e-Pol, Ghor, and Jawzjan provinces and north of the capital, Kabul. Another resistance figure said around 200 Taliban had been killed in fighting in the past couple of weeks. Another said around 40 Taliban fighters were killed in the Panjshir Valley last week.

Resistance forces are hoping to rely on another weapon: highly trained Afghan troops who are still loyal to the old republic. Former members of the Afghan army and special forces, as well as former government workers, are being ruthlessly targeted by the Taliban, though contrary to some reports, the former politician and soldier said, they are not signing up with the local branch of the Islamic State. Many are joining resistance groups, he said, as “we don’t need to join our enemies to fight the Taliban.”

“We fought for democracy and human rights, and that is what we want to see returned to Afghanistan,” he said. “Our politicians failed, but we don’t have to start again. We are here.”

Lynne O’Donnell is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

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