World needs to start paying attention to Afghan resistance
With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine now in its third month, it is easy for policymakers to lose focus on the other major geopolitical issues around the world. The situation in Afghanistan is a great example. Major fighting recently broke out in the Panjshir Valley between members of the National Resistance Front and the Taliban. Dozens have been killed and many more wounded, yet this story barely makes international headlines.
Panjshir, which is a predominantly ethnic Tajik region located 100 km northeast of Kabul, is famous for its ability to resist outside aggression. It is strategically located and easily defended thanks to its unforgiving terrain of mountains and valleys. In the 1990s, after the Taliban first swept into Kandahar and Kabul, the main resistance movement also began in the Panjshir Valley. The leader of that resistance, Ahmad Shah Massoud, famously stated: “I will resist even if the last region left is the size of my hat.”
Today, with the Taliban back in power, Ahmad Massoud, the late Massoud’s son, is leading resistance efforts.
Soon after the Taliban captured Kabul last summer, Massoud Jr. relocated to Panjshir. Since then, thousands of former members of the Afghan army and police have made their way to the region to join the effort. By early autumn, the Taliban had encircled the region and captured large sections of the main valley. However, throughout the winter, the NRF controlled all the crucial side valleys, which make up about 60 percent of the province, and then entered defensive mode. At this time, the focus of the NRF was not to take on the Taliban, but to make it through the winter intact. It did this successfully and has now started its spring military offensive.
At first, the Taliban denied any fighting was happening, but in the age of social media it is almost impossible to keep the truth from surfacing. In recent days, photos of dead Taliban fighters have appeared on social media platforms. Reports of funerals taking place in Helmand and Kandahar confirm the fighting. Just this week, the Taliban sent thousands more fighters to Panjshir.
There is no evidence that the Taliban have been able to take any NRF-held positions. But there is evidence of the Taliban taking civilian hostages and targeting noncombatants in Panjshir and the surrounding region. Civilians who are known to be family members of resistance fighters have reportedly been targeted by the Taliban. This amounts to nothing but a desperate and brutal intimidation campaign against innocent civilians with the aim of demoralizing NRF fighters.
The NRF knows that many local leaders are becoming increasingly disgruntled due to the incompetence displayed by the Taliban in Kabul
There is a general dissatisfaction among the Taliban’s fighters too. Many are asking why it is necessary to keep fighting in Panjshir when the Taliban leadership claims the war ended last August. Also, Taliban fighters from southern Afghanistan are unfamiliar with the terrain.
So what is the NRF trying to achieve? In the coming months there are three goals.
The NRF’s first goal and top priority will be to defend its stronghold in Panjshir at all costs. Without control of at least the side valleys in Panjshir, the NRF will not be able to grow, train and prepare to take on the Taliban. When and where possible, expect the NRF to use military force to liberate villages and districts inside Panjshir and the surrounding region. However, do not expect any major military operations against the Taliban this year.
Secondly, the NRF will likely focus on facilitating defections from local leaders. Through local deals brokered by various tribes and villages, it is inevitable that the NRF will roll back some Taliban control by convincing their opponents to switch sides. This is the peculiar Afghan way of conducting warfare in what is a deeply tribal society. The NRF knows that many local leaders are becoming increasingly disgruntled due to the incompetence displayed by the Taliban in Kabul. Already, some non-Pashtuns have defected to the NRF. The most senior official to join so far was formerly the intelligence director of the Taliban’s police in Panjshir.
Finally, the NRF will want to create a land bridge with Tajikistan. The group is aware of how important Tajikistan is to its cause. Expect the NRF to try expanding its territorial control, primarily through defections but also with limited military operations, to the north in the Afghan provinces of Badakhshan, Takhar and possibly Baghlan. These provinces have a sizable number of Afghan Tajiks and would be more welcoming to the NRF.
Many of the NRF’s local successes — and the Taliban’s weaknesses and problems — show how quickly the situation can change in Afghanistan. The Taliban suffer from infighting over power and their forces are thinly stretched. Once the NRF gains some momentum in Panjshir, it will likely make further gains in the north.
It is time for the international community to start watching the emerging situation in Afghanistan closely and to begin to seriously engage with the NRF.
• Luke Coffey is the director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey