Taliban face growing armed resistance across Afghanistan
22 Jun 2022|

Ten months into their extremist theocratic rule in Afghanistan, the Taliban are facing growing resistance in different parts of the country. Leading the way is the National Resistance Front (NRF), headed by Ahmad Massoud—the son of the legendary commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, who, from his native strategic Pajnshir Valley (north of Kabul), valiantly fought the Soviet occupation in the 1980s and later the Pakistan-backed Taliban–al-Qaeda alliance. He was assassinated in 2001 by the alliance’s agents two days before the 11 September terror attacks on the US.

Contrary to the Taliban’s claim that an atmosphere of calm and security prevails in Afghanistan, there has been growing resistance to their rule. The NRF has mounted increasingly organised and coordinated operations in Panjshir and the adjacent provinces of Takhar, Baghlan and Badakhshan in the northeast. Sporadic armed operations, led by various individuals and groups, have gained momentum in several other provinces, including Ghor, located at the centre of Afghanistan, and Samangan.

Some non-Pashtun figures who had initially been enticed by the ethnic Pashtun Taliban to join them have now turned against the group. One of them is Mawlawi Mehadi Mujahid, an influential leader from ethnic Hazara, whose Shia Islamic sect forms some 15–20% of the predominantly Sunni Afghanistan. Mehadi broke away from the Taliban after he was sacked as head of intelligence in Bamyan, the stronghold of Hazaras in central Afghanistan.

Concurrently, the Taliban leaders do not represent a cohesive group. They hail from rival eastern and southern provinces. Whereas the radical Haqqani network, which is intimately linked to Pakistan’s powerful military Inter-Services Intelligence, claims ascendancy from the east, its more nuanced counterpart, led by Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob’s group, hails from the Taliban’s original heartland of the southern province of Kandahar.

Initially, when the Taliban seized power in August 2021 in the wake of the chaotic US and allied withdrawal and the collapse of the dysfunctional government of Ashraf Ghani, the Taliban and their Pakistani backers could only rejoice over what they viewed as an easy victory. They appeared confident that the trophy was theirs for good.

However, they either failed to understand or underestimated the complexity of Afghanistan, as the Soviets and Americans had done before them. Afghanistan is composed of numerous ethno-tribal micro-societies, with none of them constituting a majority. This, plus the landlocked but crossroads location of the country in a traditional zone of regional and international rivalries, has historically rendered the task of nation-building in Afghanistan very arduous. The job becomes even more taxing when elements of one of those micro-societies seek to exclusively rule the others, whether with or without an outside backer’s support.

The Taliban hail from the Ghilzai tribe of ethnic Pashtuns—the largest minority in Afghanistan. This is the first time that elements of the tribe have seized power, in contrast to their Durrani tribal counterparts, who led the country for most of its over two centuries’ life. The Taliban leaders are largely trained in a version of Islam that approximates to a mix of Deobandi, Wahhabi and Salafist Sunni. Most of their commanders and foot soldiers are poorly educated, even in literary Islam, in Pakistani madrassas (religious schools) and have known little more than an austere rural existence. They are divided from within and insecure in relation to the rest of Afghanistan’s population, especially in the urban centres, where many experienced liberalist political–social and economic changes during the two-decade-long US occupation.

While exuding a sense of religious, political and ethnic supremacy and triumphalism, the Taliban leaders have expediently targeted women and girls and, more specifically, two other groups. They essentially view the defiant Shia Hazaras as deviants and the Sunni Panjshiris and their Tajik kindred, who constitute the second largest ethnic category in Afghanistan, as traditionally recalcitrant. The Taliban have unleashed unspeakable discriminatory, horrific operations against the opposition, involving beating, arrest, torture, disappearance and killing, to suppress any form of opposition across the country.

Nowhere are their atrocities more pronounced than against the NRF and people of the rapidly dwindling 150,000 or so inhabitants of Panjshir. This is because the NRF, led by the 34-year-old, Sandhurst-educated Ahmad Massoud, along with most compatriots in the country, want a free, sovereign and prosperous Afghanistan. It has advocated a publicly mandated, inclusive pluralist and democratic system of governance, with Islam as the state religion.

Fearing Panjshir’s resistance, the Taliban occupied the centre of the valley shortly after assuming power. As reported by social media and private sources, they have subjected the Panjshiri inhabitants to heinous punishments. There are reports of an instance where the Taliban killed a captured NRF fighter and beheaded his father in front of crowds. Arrest, torture and the disappearance of any suspected Panjshiri or, for that matter, their Tajik kindred have become the order of the day in Panjshir and beyond. The Taliban have engaged not only in massive human rights violations and curtailment of freedom of expression and press freedom, but also in operations that amount to ethnic cleansing. This is something that urgently requires a thorough investigation by the United Nations Human Rights Commission and the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.

The Taliban, whose continued alliance with al-Qaeda has once again been confirmed by the UN, have recently raised more fighters wherever they can, given their own growing numbers killed and injured since March this year. They are hurriedly focused on building a 100,000-strong force, including a suicide regiment, fully equipped with billions of dollars’ worth of modern arms left behind by the US, to battle the opposition, and also their rival terror group, Islamic State’s Khorasan branch, which the Taliban haven’t been able to control. In addition, while abhorring modern education, they have reportedly supported many new madrassas to train jihadis.

The scene is now set for continued conflict and bloodshed until such time that the Taliban change their barbaric ways in the name of their self-centred version of Islam. They currently don’t enjoy the support of a cross-section of Afghanistan’s mosaic population or satisfy the criteria for international recognition. The only politics that can work in Afghanistan are those of plurality, inclusiveness and consensual processes of state-building. Any attempt by the Taliban to cut their way through by such orchestrations as a ‘Loya Jirga’ (Grand Assembly), which is advocated by former president Hamid Karzai, who hails from the Durrani Pashtuns, will produce nothing more than a propaganda tool for the Taliban leaders to claim false domestic legitimacy to gain global recognition.