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Anti-Taliban resistance building up despite chaos in Kabul

Ahmad Massoud, son of anti-Soviet resistance hero Ahmad Shah Massoud, speaks to supporters, Bazarak, Panjshir, Sept. 5, 2019. (Reuters)
Ahmad Massoud, son of anti-Soviet resistance hero Ahmad Shah Massoud, speaks to supporters, Bazarak, Panjshir, Sept. 5, 2019. (Reuters)
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28 Aug 2021 04:08:26 GMT9
28 Aug 2021 04:08:26 GMT9

More than a week after the Taliban swept to power across much of Afghanistan, the situation remains chaotic and unstable. On Friday, Daesh took advantage of the situation and attacked numerous locations in Kabul with suicide bombers. At the airport alone, one attack by Daesh led to the deaths of at least 13 US troops and more than 150 Afghan civilians.

The collapse of President Ashraf Ghani’s government was swift. It caught most by surprise. Very few people, even the Taliban, suspected it would happen in only 11 days. While the Taliban were able to capture most of the country with barely a shot being fired, it remains to be seen if they will be able to govern and control the country in any meaningful way. The attack by Daesh shows the Taliban’s inability to provide security.

Although the Ghani government gave in to the Taliban, many more Afghans have not. Already, a new resistance movement against the Taliban is building in Afghanistan. The backbone of this emerging resistance, the so-called National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, is centered around the Panjshir Valley. This region, located 120 km northeast of Kabul, is famous for its ability to resist outside aggression. During the 1980s, the Soviet army tried multiple times to capture Panjshir and failed to do so. Even today, one can see rusted Soviet armored vehicles littered across the countryside.

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 this resistance, Ahmad Shah Massoud, famously stated: “I will resist even if the last region left is the size of my hat.” Massoud was assassinated in his own Panjshir Valley by Al-Qaeda two days before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America.

Today his 32-year-old son is following in his footsteps and leading the new anti-Taliban front from Panjshir. The younger Massoud was only 12 when his father was assassinated in 2001. He holds degrees from prestigious schools in the UK and is also a graduate of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. While he did not enter Afghan politics in any meaningful way until 2019, he has put a lot of effort over the years into building and expanding a bottom-up grassroots movement. This is paying off for him now. He will also have a broad following because of his father’s legacy and, as he leads the resistance front, he will be acutely aware of this point.

Also with him is Afghanistan’s former Vice President Amrullah Saleh. Saleh is originally from Panjshir and played an important role inside the Northern Alliance’s fight against the Taliban in the 1990s.
After Ghani escaped to the UAE, Saleh claimed that, according to the Afghan constitution, he was Afghanistan’s acting president. It is not clear what role, if any, he has in the day-to-day operations of the resistance front. However, the fact that Saleh is from Panjshir and did not flee the country like Ghani, together with his role in the Northern Alliance in the 1990s, means he is likely to be a significant player in any anti-Taliban movement.

The ‘forever war’ in Afghanistan may have ended for the US, but the Afghans have just entered a new phase of a never-ending conflict.

Luke Coffey

Although there are few details emerging from the situation in Panjshir, it is estimated that more than 10,000 soldiers and commandos of the former Afghan army have made their way to the region and that more are arriving daily.

Although the Taliban have not launched a major military operation to take Panjshir, there have been reports of minor skirmishes. If the resistance front can survive until winter, and use that time to build up its forces, it increases its chances of becoming a significant force next year.
In addition to Massoud and Saleh, there are two other big personalities that outside observers should watch as resistance against the Taliban builds up.

The first person to watch is Atta Mohammed Noor. He was a powerbroker in northern Afghanistan during the 1990s and later served as governor of Balkh province. Noor is an ethnic Tajik, was generally considered to be an effective governor, and remains popular among the people of northern Afghanistan. He claims that, during the Taliban’s attack on Mazar-e-Sharif, he was betrayed by Ghani and had no choice but to flee the country. It is thought that he went to Uzbekistan, but his current whereabouts are unknown.

Also it will be worthwhile to keep an eye on Abdul Rashid Dostum. He is an ethnic Uzbek and is no stranger to controversy. In the past he has proven to be an effective military commander and is well liked among the ethnic Uzbek and Turkmen populations in Afghanistan. In common with Noor, Dostum also claims that he was betrayed by Ghani and had no choice but to flee to Uzbekistan.

It remains to be seen how the resistance movement against the Taliban will develop. If history is any indication, the Taliban will not be able to easily capture the Panjshir Valley. However, many thought the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in such a short period of time was also unlikely.

If the anti-Taliban movement can grow in size and survive for the next few months until winter, it could become a formidable movement against the Taliban, like the Northern Alliance was in the 1990s.

Daesh and the Taliban have fought each other in the past. The Taliban will want to show the Afghan people that they can provide security.  If Daesh continues with its attacks, as seen on Thursday in Kabul, then the Taliban will have to devote a lot of manpower and resources to dealing with the terror group. This could reduce the Taliban’s focus on the resistance movement building up in Panjshir and give that movement time to grow.

With President Joe Biden’s actions, the “forever war” in Afghanistan may have ended for the US, but the Afghans have just entered a new phase of a never-ending conflict that has been going on since the Soviet invasion of 1979.

  • Luke Coffey is the director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey
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