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Afghanistan's resistance alliance aims to pry Taliban's grip loose

Rulers Dismiss NRF Threat; U.N. Report Says They Consider It Graver Than ISIS-K

Resistance fighters in Panjshir, Afghanistan, in August 2021: Anti-Taliban forces were routed in the valley last year, but they are challenging the regime with guerilla tactics.   © Reuters

PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- Resistance forces in Afghanistan are challenging the country's Taliban rulers, prompting them to send reinforcements to the northeast.

The anti-Taliban National Resistance Front is vowing to "liberate" the country from the Taliban's "doctrinarian rule," and is employing guerilla-style tactics, especially in the Panjshir Valley region about 100 km northeast of Kabul. While experts say the loosely knit group has had little success so far, they see it complicating life for the Taliban. A recent United Nations Security Council report said that according to one member state, the Taliban considers the NRF to be a greater threat than ISIS-K -- the Islamic State group's regional affiliate -- though it acknowledged this is a matter for debate.

The NRF, an armed coalition of several militias and former Afghan military personnel, was formed after the Taliban recaptured Kabul last August. The alliance is led by Ahmad Massoud, the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, a legendary anti-Taliban fighter, who used the Panjshir Valley as a base to fight the Soviets in the 1980s and the Taliban in the 1990s. Panjshir is a predominantly ethnic Tajik region, whereas the Taliban are dominated by Pashtuns.

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In May, the NRF said it was launching a new offensive against the Taliban. Contrary to Taliban insistence that "there is no fighting at all," local residents have reported regular attacks on Taliban checkpoints, dozens of casualties, and sweeping arrests of civilians. Gathering accurate information on the ground, however, is challenging as local media outlets have either closed down to been strictly censored by the Taliban.

Musa Khalil, a 40-year-old farmer who fled his home in Panjshir's Shutol district and moved to Kabul, said that heavy fighting between the Taliban and NRF has been forcing residents to leave. "The Taliban have forcibly occupied several houses and turned them into their security posts," Khalil told Nikkei Asia in a phone interview.

The U.N. report in April said that NRF forces had stepped up operations in Badakhshan, Baghlan, Jowzjan, Kunduz, Panjshir, Takhar and Samangan provinces. It also said that the NRF's emergence has led the Taliban to "adopt aggressive measures against populations suspected of supporting anti-Taliban elements."

Apart from the NRF, there are several other smaller resistance groups concentrating their war efforts against the Taliban in their respective areas of influence. In mid-May, Afghanistan's former Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum met around 40 exiled political figures and former warlords, including the NRF's Massoud, in Ankara, where they agreed to form the High Council of National Resistance against the Taliban. This is aimed at bringing all the armed groups under a single entity.

Ahmad Massoud, son of the slain anti-Soviet resistance fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud, is seen in Panjshir in 2019.   © Reuters

The NRF has also attracted a large number of officers and personnel of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). After the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from the country last year, the ANDSF collapsed, while President Ashraf Ghani fled the country. Since then, the Taliban have executed and forcibly disappeared a large number of former ANDSF members after they surrendered, according to rights groups such as Human Rights Watch.

Experts said the NRF has been making a case for its uprising by citing the poor economic situation during the Taliban regime's nine months of rule, as well as the authorities' failure to develop an ethnically inclusive system. "But the NRF is itself a scattered resistance alliance with no international backing, and, by and large, has not had any tangible success, such as capturing quantifiable territory in the form of a provincial capital, against the Taliban yet," Abdul Jabbar, a former ANDSF official familiar with anti-Taliban resistance in the past, told Nikkei Asia.

Still, Jabbar believes that similar to ISIS-K, the NRF attacks will continue to challenge the Taliban's rule in the country.

Leveraging the U.S. withdrawal agreement with the Taliban to position itself as Afghanistan's last jihadi movement, ISIS-K has been unsettling both the new Taliban regime in Kabul and neighboring countries, including China, Pakistan, Iran and Tajikistan, through their terror attacks.

For their part, since routing the NRF from the Panjshir Valley last September, the Taliban have largely dismissed the resistance as opposition propaganda. "There is no fighting and some journalists and leaders based abroad through their false propaganda are trying to show the Taliban's regime a failed state," said a spokesperson for Maulwi Dad Mohammad Batar, the Taliban's police chief for Panjshir.

Yet, the Taliban is known to have attempted to reach out to the NRF for negotiation. In late January, a Taliban delegation led by Acting Foreign Minister Aamir Khan Mutaqqi met NRF leaders in Tehran, but the talks ended with no positive results.

The Taliban leadership in Kabul appointed an ethnic Pashtun from Helmand Province as governor of Panjshir Province, replacing a Tajik, because of the reluctance of the Taliban's Panjshiri members to fight against the uprising, the Daily Hasht-e-Subh newspaper reported on Wednesday, citing local sources.