The Afghan Resistance Is Still Fighting

But without unity, arms, or a safe haven, it’s an uphill fight against the Islamists in Kabul.

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

Embers of resistance against the Taliban’s brutality are flaring up in Afghanistan, with clashes reported across the north and west of the country this week as armed resistance groups frontally take on the Islamists.

Fighting has been reported in a number of provinces, including Panjshir, Ghazni, Herat, and others, as anti-Taliban groups make good on pledges of a “spring offensive” and Islamists deploy thousands of fighters to quell the uprisings. One resistance source said the Taliban’s acting deputy defense minister, Mullah Mohammad Fazl, has arrived in the Panjshir Valley, north of Kabul, to oversee the fight, an indication of how seriously the extremists view the budding resistance.

Resistance groups are unlikely to defeat the Taliban’s superior firepower—some of which is American war booty taken after the rushed withdrawal last year—in the short term. But they could dig in for the long haul, embedding among local populations and using knowledge of the terrain for a guerrilla-style hit-and-run insurgency. This seems to be the Taliban’s greatest fear, and the vicious response to the uprisings, including reported arbitrary executions of civilians in some hotspots, is a clear attempt to stub out any signs of support for the resistance effort. 

Embers of resistance against the Taliban’s brutality are flaring up in Afghanistan, with clashes reported across the north and west of the country this week as armed resistance groups frontally take on the Islamists.

Fighting has been reported in a number of provinces, including Panjshir, Ghazni, Herat, and others, as anti-Taliban groups make good on pledges of a “spring offensive” and Islamists deploy thousands of fighters to quell the uprisings. One resistance source said the Taliban’s acting deputy defense minister, Mullah Mohammad Fazl, has arrived in the Panjshir Valley, north of Kabul, to oversee the fight, an indication of how seriously the extremists view the budding resistance.

Resistance groups are unlikely to defeat the Taliban’s superior firepower—some of which is American war booty taken after the rushed withdrawal last year—in the short term. But they could dig in for the long haul, embedding among local populations and using knowledge of the terrain for a guerrilla-style hit-and-run insurgency. This seems to be the Taliban’s greatest fear, and the vicious response to the uprisings, including reported arbitrary executions of civilians in some hotspots, is a clear attempt to stub out any signs of support for the resistance effort. 

The Taliban—after 20 years of roadside bombings, ambushes, and reprisal killings—are now bracing themselves for an insurgency by people who know the terrain and have support from the locals. The irony is rich.

The main problems facing the resistance are a lack of unity, leadership, and a true cross-border haven. There is no international support or supply lines, as neighboring Central Asian states backed by Russia as well as Pakistan and Iran do not want to empower an anti-Taliban resistance that could plunge Afghanistan into full-blown civil war. And after 40 years of conflict, an exhausted and traumatized population may shy away from more violence, even to bring an end to the Taliban’s unremitting savagery.

Taliban spokespeople did not respond to requests for comment but have made statements that reports of anti-Taliban offensives are “untrue” and that “thousands of well-equipped forces” have been deployed to contentious areas. 

Although anti-Taliban resistance is disparate, a number of groups have declared their willingness to take up arms against the Islamists who seized power last August, after the United States led a Western withdrawal and the Afghan government collapsed after 20 years of international support. Since then, the Taliban have proven incapable of governance, ruling with brutality and violence. The country has slipped further into hunger and poverty amid severe social repression. There is no security or rule of law. People of specific ethnicities and religious beliefs are discriminated against, detained, and often killed arbitrarily. Women’s rights are in a headlong retreat.

Some observers say the Taliban are riven by factionalism, but there appears to be unity on issues like repressing women and banning girls from school. The terrorist group has not been recognized as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, but some countries—including Russia, China, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan—have accredited Taliban diplomats.

If the Taliban have some divisions, the resistance has chasms. The National Resistance Front (NRF)—formed after the Taliban’s victory last year and led by Ahmad Massoud, alongside the former vice president of the failed republic, Amrullah Saleh—says it is fighting in the Panjshir Valley and the Andarab district in Baghlan province. The resistance claims success in “liberating” some districts and causing high Taliban casualties; evidence, however, is not forthcoming. NRF leaders were not available for comment.

Other nonaffiliated groups, like the Afghanistan Freedom Front and a group led by the former warlord-politician Atta Mohammad Noor, are also fighting in the north. The Jamiat-e Islami party, led by Salahuddin Rabbani, a former deputy foreign minister and son of a former president, made a rare statement imploring the United Nations Security Council and international community not to “ignore the growing crimes of the Taliban.” Afghanistan Freedom Front accused the Taliban of war crimes and genocide, and it said they continue to abduct and kill civilians.

But such appeals are fruitless, said another security source who expected Taliban brutality to escalate as the group, comprised of terrorists in most senior positions, “revert to type.”

“The Taliban’s modus operandi is rule through violence. They don’t care about humanity and basic rights. They don’t allow girls to go to school or women to wear what they want,” he said, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to speak to the press. “Appealing to them to adhere to international law is pointless.”

The Taliban, mostly Pashto-speaking southern Sunnis, have been accused of ethnic cleansing by targeting Tajiks and Shiite Hazaras. Social media has erupted in recent days with accusations that the Taliban are committing atrocities against Panjshiris, who are ethnically Tajik Persian speakers. Photographs and videos that have appeared on social media feeds are not immediately verifiable, but many Afghans inside and outside the country have provided harrowing accounts of killings of unarmed people of all ages.

Nangialai Amin, a former lieutenant colonel in the Afghan National Army who commanded a battalion in Kabul ahead of the republic’s demise, is from a district in Panjshir, where fighting has been intense. He joined the first anti-Taliban battles in Panjshir last September, but the resistance crumbled in the face of greater firepower, and he fled the country. He said Panjshiris are resisting with weapons left over from the anti-Soviet war of the 1980s. The only real advantage in the valley was the Taliban’s ignorance of the terrain, as they were kept out of it by forces led by Massoud’s father, Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud. The August 2021 takeover came as a surprise, so the valley’s residents were unable to effectively organize or arm, he said.

In the meantime, the Taliban are trying to scorch the earth—and the populace—in Panjshir. Amin and other sources said residents in some areas of Panjshir have not been allowed outside their homes to buy food or collect their dead for burial. The Taliban have rounded up local men to help them locate resistance forces and then killed them, Amin said. Relatives and friends in his home district shared photographs and video of what he said were Taliban atrocities, with some people forced from their homes and shot to death as well as having their homes burned.

Zalmai Nishat, a former public policy advisor to the Afghan government, said the Taliban’s tactics are aimed at obliterating any opposition. “The tactic is to scare them and scar them, with beatings, killings, and gang rapes of women, so that the Panjshir, Andarab,  and other areas do not become a center of resistance,” he said.

Amin said the resistance faces an uphill battle, at least without outside help.

“If we have the opportunity and if we have arms, we believe that we could stand against the Taliban,” he said. “But I think it will be two to three years that Afghanistan is a disputed zone before we find that other countries do not find the Taliban are good for their national interests. For now, other countries are just watching.”

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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