KABUL, March/April 2022
After the Taliban’s toppling of the Afghan Republic in August 2021, several Afghan groups have announced armed resistance against the new Taliban emirate. The Swiss Institute for Global Affairs (SIGA) takes a closer look at such resistance groups, showing that, while much is propaganda, some have the ability to attack the Taliban, but are — at least for the foreseeable future — unlikely to become an existential threat to Taliban rule.
Afghans fighting for the anti-Taliban National Resistance Front (date and place unknown; shared on Twitter on 14th of January 2022)
«The Mujahideen Resistance to the Taliban Begins Now»
In the first half of August 2021, the Islamist Taliban took over one Afghan province after the other, finally marching into the capital Kabul on 15th of August 2021. The latter happened shortly after then Afghan president Ashraf Ghani and other officials had fled the country at the Hindu Kush and the Afghan republican security forces had melted away. The only province that did not fall like a domino was Panjshir, a mountainous redoubt that had, amongst others, gained fame as the centre of resistance against the first Taliban emirate in the years preceding the U.S.-led intervention in late 2001.
From Panjshir, only days after the Taliban entered the Afghan presidential palace in Kabul, Ahmad Massoud, the leader of the then announced National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, wrote that «the mujahideen [holy warriors] resistance to the Taliban begins now». Ahmad
Massoud further wrote that he is «ready to follow in [his] father’s footsteps», referring to late Ahmad Shah Massoud who had led the resistance against the first Taliban emirate and, back then,
holding out in Panjshir and other northeastern provinces, managed to prevent the Taliban from taking over all of Afghanistan.
Ahmad Massoud, leader of the anti-Taliban National Resistance Front (source: website of National Resistance Front)
However, this time around Panjshir was encircled by areas that had been captured by the Taliban and, on 6th of September 2021, three weeks after the fall of Kabul, the Taliban declared to have also conquered Panjshir. Reports stated that Ahmad Massoud and other National Resistance Front leaders had fled Afghanistan. While the latter was rejected by the Front that vowed to continue its armed struggle, during a visit to Panjshir in mid-September 2021, reporters of The New York Times found «few signs of an active resistance, or any fight at all». Many concluded that the resistance was over before it really started. This, however, turned out to be false.
The National Resistance Front
In October 2021, videos were published in which armed masked men, claiming to be in the Afghan provinces of Kapisa, Parwan, and Badakhshan, announced to have joined the National Resistance Front. While these videos could not be independently verified, some of them were officially endorsed by retweets of Ali Maisam Nazary, the head of foreign relations of the National Resistance Front
Logo of the National Resistance Front (source: website of National Resistance Front)
«We started in Panjshir and Andarab [a part of neighbouring Baghlan Province], but by now we are active in more than 12 provinces in various parts of Afghanistan, including in most cities as well as in the south and in the east of the country [where there was no notable resistance during the first Taliban emirate]», Nazary told SIGA in an interview conducted via WhatsApp on 29th of March 2022. That the National Resistance Front is present in additional provinces was already earlier corroborated by the Taliban who, in December 2021 and January 2022, boasted to have killed National Resistance Front fighters in the northern Afghan provinces of Samangan and Balkh.
As an example of the Front’s activity, Nazary mentioned a battle with Taliban forces that had taken place earlier on the day of the interview in Andarab. According to an article on the official website of the National Resistance Front, in the wee hours of 29th of March 2022, the Taliban launched an operation in a part of Andarab which triggered a counter-attack by the National Resistance Front. During the subsequent hours-long fighting which ended in a retreat of the Taliban forces, the National Resistance Front claimed to have killed 13 Taliban, including one commander, and wounded 17 others. The Front also acknowledged to have lost one of their own commanders. This, including the approximate casualty numbers, was confirmed by independent local sources, with one National Resistance Front member on the ground in Andarab correcting that the Taliban commander who was reportedly killed actually survived with severe injuries.
«We have also conducted offensive hit-and-run attacks elsewhere and continue to do so on a weekly basis, some but not all of which we claimed», Nazary added. «And in the coming months, there will be more movement and actions [from the National Resistance Front», he promised. Asked about the so far limited activity of the Front, Nazary stated that «the start of operations depends on the weather», elaborating that still cold winter weather and snow in stronghold’s of the Front have so far prevented larger offensives. In line with this, available footage from National Resistance Front fighters was indeed taken in remote mountainous areas, most likely in Panjshir, that are still snowed in. That said, Nazary claimed that the Front’s strength amounts to «a few thousands» armed men, whereas this could not be independently verified.
What is intriguing to note is that some of the photos of National Resistance Front members that surfaced in January 2022 showed them with new Russian-made weaponry that is, as far as it could be determined, not readily available inside Afghanistan. This suggests that the Front has found an outside source to obtain or buy weapons that will allow them to sustain their armed struggle. Nazary declined to comment on this.
National Resistance Front fighters with what appears to be new Russian-made PG-7VR tandem charge projectiles that suggest an outside source (date and place unknown; shared on Twitter on 14th of January 2022)
Other Resistance Groups
That said, while the focus of reporting on resistance has been and still is on the National Resistance Front, an array of additional resistance groups have announced their existence since the Taliban’s return to power. These groups are namely:
- the National Resistance Council, which allegedly includes major anti-Taliban key figures of the past decades such as Abdurrab Rasul Sayyaf, Mohammad Younus Qonuni, Ata Mohammad Noor, Abdul Rashid Dostum, Muhammad Mohaqiq, Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal, and Engineer Mohammad Khan;
- the Unknown Soldiers of Hazaristan, referring to a part of central Afghanistan predominantly inhabited by the ethnic minority of the Hazaras;
- the Liberation Front of Afghanistan;
- the Afghanistan Islamic National & Liberation Movement;
- the Afghanistan Freedom Front;
- the Freedom and Democracy Front, another apparent Hazara-centred resistance group; and
- the Freedom Corps that claims to be active in parts of the northeastern province of Takhar.
Regularly, these groups proclaimed their existence in short videos published on social media, whereas the at times dilettante rendition of their vows to resistance raised credible doubts to what extent such groups actually exist. This was all the more the case as from some groups, namely the Unknown Soldiers of Hazaristan, the Liberation Front of Afghanistan, the Freedom and Democracy Front, and the Freedom Corps, there was, as far as it could be determined, no news after their initial announcements.
Still from an amateurish video of the Liberation Front of Afghanistan (source: Aamaj News, 4th of February 2022)
Others, however, appear to be active although their alleged capabilities and claims of attacks are at times subject to questions.
The Afghanistan Islamic National & Liberation Movement
One example is the Afghanistan Islamic National & Liberation Movement which announced its establishment in a 10 minute long audio message that was sent to journalists by e-mail on 18th of February 2022. The group is led by Abdul Matin Suleimankhel, a commander of the former Afghan National Army Special Operations Corps, who was forcibly retired a few months before the fall of the Afghan Republic
Logo of the Afghanistan Islamic National & Liberation Movement (source: e-mail of the movement to this author)
As reasons for their resistance, Suleimankhel, in a WhatsApp conversation with SIGA on 15th of March 2022, stated that «the general amnesty announced by the Taliban is a lie; the Taliban kill former members of the Afghan security forces across the country, even people who just support them. That’s why we had to rise up to defend ourselves.» While numerous cases of revenge killings have been documented, there is no clear indication that the Taliban are systematically hunting down former government soldiers on a large scale. In addition, Suleimankhel also mentioned the Taliban’s oppression of the Afghan people in general and his movement’s goals to re-establish a democratic government in Afghanistan as causes for their resistance.
«Our movement has thousands of people, many of them former Afghan security forces but also many civilians», he asserted. «Even some Taliban joined us,» he alleged, «as they saw how their leaders work for Pakistan.»
«We are active in 26 [out of Afghanistan’s 34] provinces,» Suleimankhel further told SIGA. While Suleimankhel mentioned mainly provinces in the south and east of the country that are predominantly inhabited by ethnic Pashtuns, he insisted that they are present across the country also in the north, where resistance against the Taliban by non-Pashtun ethnicities was historically strongest.
Screenshot from a video message of Abdul Matin Suleimankhel, leader of the Afghanistan Islamic National & Liberation Movement (source: YouTube, posted on 26th of March 2022).
This is, however, questionable as the group has, as of the time of writing, only claimed a handful of attacks, some of which doubtfully. Specifically, the Afghanistan Islamic National & Liberation Movement has taken over responsibility for attacks in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, the southeastern province of Paktika, and the eastern province of Nangarhar.
In one questionable example, on 15th of March 2022, the movement claimed responsibility for the killing of five Taliban, including the commander Qari Hafizullah, in Ghani Khel District in Nangarhar, indicating that this attack happened in the night from 8th to 9th of March 2022. However, while three independent sources confirmed the killing of Hafizullah in Ghani Khel, all of them pointed to members of the self-declared Islamic State’s Afghan chapter as perpetrators. That said, the self-declared Islamic State’s Afghan chapter had indeed taken responsibility for an attack on Taliban in Ghani Khel on 6th of March 2022, placing the ambush on 5th of March 2022. As this was seemingly the only attack around that time in Ghani Khel, the claim of responsibility of the Afghanistan Islamic National & Liberation Movement is questionable. Confronted with this, Kholed Aziz, the spokesman of the movement, only stated that the movement rejects the claim of the self-declared Islamic State and insisted that they were behind the attack.
Other examples are credible though. An explosion that took place on 27th of March 2022 in Lashkar Goh, the capital of Helmand and for which the Afghanistan Islamic National & Liberation Movement claimed responsibility, was apparently indeed conducted by them. This not only derives from the fact that the movement took over responsibility within a few hours after the explosion, but also as an independent source stated that locals confirmed as much.
In view of this, the Afghanistan Islamic National & Liberation Movement seems to have some capacities to conduct small attacks inside Afghanistan, even though they are arguably much more limited than what Suleimankhel claimed. This was implicitly acknowledged by the latter as he told SIGA that the movement has sufficient men willing to fight, but is short of funds and other supplies.
Afghanistan Freedom Front
Another group that apparently exists on the ground in Afghanistan is the Afghanistan Freedom Front, which announced its establishment with a communiqué dated 11th of March 2022. Said communiqué was shared via the Front’s official Twitter and Facebook accounts, on which the front subsequently claimed several small attacks. According to the mentioned communiqué, the Afghanistan Freedom Front declared resistance against the Taliban due to the latter’s oppression of the Afghan people, their link to international terrorists, and the need to restore law and order in Afghanistan.
Logo of the Afghanistan Freedom Front (source: official Twitter account of the Front)
«Our Front is active in all 34 provinces of Afghanistan», a leader of the Afghanistan Freedom Front told SIGA in a WhatsApp call on 2nd of April 2022, requesting anonymity. «In some places, the [continuing winter] weather still prevents to conduct operations and in others we are so far just recruiting and preparing and not yet conducting attacks», he later clarified though.
According to the Front’s Twitter feed, as of 1st of April 2022, they had staged attacks in seven provinces, namely Parwan, Kapisa, Baghlan, Takhar, Badakhshan, Sar-e Pul, and Kandahar. Although the Afghanistan Freedom Front is regularly posting videos of their alleged attacks, it is — especially as most videos are shot in the darkness of night and do not show much that is discernible — difficult to independently verify such claims. However, at least one attack, namely the firing of shots against the police station in Takhar’s Warsaj District on 23rd of March 2022 that was claimed by the Front, was confirmed by Taliban officials.
Asked about the strength of the Front, the mentioned leader stated that he cannot give exact numbers due to operational security reasons, but that they have thousands of armed men and capacities to operate in the whole country. More specifically, he claimed that the majority of generals and other officers of the former republican security forces have joined his front, as have several former members of parliament and cabinet ministers of the toppled Republic.
At the moment, the Afghanistan Freedom Front does, according to the cited leader, not receive any assistance from outside Afghanistan. «We don’t need [U.S.] B-52 bombers to bombard Afghanistan. This is our land and we have to fight ourselves», he said. However, later he added that «we need help from the world, but it has to be legitimate counter-terrorism support». In the meantime, the Front fights with what it has in Afghanistan. «After 40 years of war, there is a lot [of arms and ammunition] in the country with which we can fight», he elaborated.
No United Front
While all of the mentioned groups voice the same or very similar goals and say that they welcome other groups that fight the Taliban for the same reasons, there is, at least at the moment, no significant cooperation or coordination amongst them. «In Panjshir and Andarab, where not only our [Afghanistan Freedom] Front is present, but also the National Resistance Front, we have connexions and coordinate with them», the above-cited leader of the Afghanistan Freedom Front said to SIGA. «In other parts of the country, there is just our front, but no other resistance group; so there is no need for coordination», he added, rejecting the claims of a widespread presence of other groups.
The former, however, was explicitly contested by Nazary, who told SIGA that «there is no other resistance group except for the National Resistance Front in Panjshir and Andarab». In general, Nazary stated that the National Resistance Front is «in touch with some groups whose leadership we know; but so far we remain separate». In this context, he further explained that the National Resistance Front does «not have details on most of the other [resistance] groups or on their leadership, as many of these groups are still in their infancy».
Suleimankhel for his part said that his movement does not have any connexions or collaboration with other resistance groups at all.
All the above paints a picture of every resistance group priding itself as being the most capable as well as having absorbed the most special and regular security forces of the erstwhile Afghan Republic and, thus, being the natural lead of the anti-Taliban resistance, while contesting statements of other groups. The latter goes sometimes as far as belittling and slandering others. For example, one member of a resistance group slandered the members of several other groups frauds who sit in rooms in- or even outside Afghanistan, recording videos, but having no capabilities to do anything. And another termed the leaders of other groups as «not professional» and outright «bad». All this makes it, at least for the time being, unlikely that existing resistance groups with fighters on the ground will pool their capacities to pose a more formidable challenge to the Taliban regime.
In view of all the above, the most likely conclusion is that some Afghan resistance groups have some capabilities to attack the Taliban and will expand or are already expanding their activities. However, given the lack of a clear and strong territorial rear base of any of the resistance groups, their seemingly limited strength in manpower and armament, as well as the lack of a united front and apparent tensions between such groups, they currently do not pose an existential threat to the Taliban regime. And are unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future.
The latter was acknowledged by the interviewed leader of the Afghanistan Freedom Front. «It would be wrong, if we would say we can topple the Taliban tomorrow. Our fight will be longterm and probably continue for years», he stated. «If we get [outside] support, we might reach our goals faster, but it would also then take long.»
While some argue that people like the cited men and other resistance members are failing to recognise the signs of the times, namely that the Taliban regime is here to stay and that the resistance is a spent force tainted by the failures of the toppled Republic, this might be shortsighted. After all, about two decades ago, similar things were said about the Taliban.