Confronting The Taliban – OpEd

The Taliban regime, which swept away Afghanistan’s government on August 15, 2021, is far from secure. It is facing determined resistance from two main sources: contingents of the fallen Afghan republic, which are recruiting guerrilla fighters from among the hundreds of thousands of Western-trained security forces that served the former government but lost their jobs after the Taliban takeover, and a group calling itself ISIS-K, or sometimes ISKP (Islamic State in Khorasan Province).

In what seems to be an uncoordinated offensive, disaffected elements of the previous Afghan administration are claiming responsibility for attacking the Taliban in many provinces across Afghanistan. Anti-Taliban groups “are popping up everywhere in Afghanistan,” a former foreign ministry official is reported to have said. “They were just waiting to see how things would go under the Taliban.” The official said former government leaders involved in the resistance are trying to unite behind a vision in ongoing negotiations.

There are also signs that former Afghan Army leaders are trying to rally their troops. Former Lieutenant General Sami Sadat fought some of the most challenging battles against the Taliban last year. He has said: “The Taliban has left us no choice but to pick up our weapons again to win back our freedom.” Former leaders of the West-backed republic hope the rebellion will eventually turn into a national uprising.

A former official of the Afghan foreign ministry who is close to the emerging resistance is certain of it. He is reported as saying: “I am sure we will see a much bigger uprising against the Taliban.”

One of the most visible anti-Taliban groups is the National Resistance Front, led by Ahmad Massoud. Massoud is the son of the Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, who prevented the Taliban from overrunning Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, following the Soviet withdrawal, until he was killed by Al-Qaeda assassins two days before 9/11 in 2001.

Massoud’s close ally is former vice-president Amrullah Saleh, and their supporters have been launching sporadic attacks against the Taliban in remote Panjshir valleys. Regular attacks are launched against the Taliban in Andrab, a high-altitude valley in the northern province of Baghlan, by supporters of former Interior minister, Masud Andrai. Attacks have also been reported in recent weeks in seven other provinces.

Some reports suggest that supporters of late anti-Taliban police commander Abdul Raziq are ready to join the resistance in Kandahar. Former defense minister Bismillah Khan, ex-General Staff chief Yasin Zia, and militia leader Abdul Ghani Alipur are other notable names in the resistance.

As for ISIS-K, shortly after the Taliban took power in August 2021 its full resurgence was proclaimed to the world by way of the suicide bombing outside Kabul International airport, followed by another at the nearby Baron Hotel — explosions that killed 170 civilians and 13 US service personnel. The group had already launched no less than 77 attacks in the first four months of 2021, demonstrating its intention to inflict mass casualty and destabilize Afghanistan’s already precarious security situation.

Early in March 2022 the UN issued its first major human rights report since the Taliban seized power. Covering the period from August 2021 to the end of February, it said that 397 civilians had been killed, 80% of them in attacks by the ISIS-K group.

ISIS-K is the Afghanistan affiliate of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It emerged in January 2015, nearly two years after ISIS first declared its caliphate. Back then, the group’s aims include toppling the Pakistani government, punishing the Iranian government for being a “vanguard” of Shia Islam, and “purifying” Afghanistan by dislodging the Taliban as the main jihadi movement.

Over the years, ISIS-K’s anti-Pakistan and anti-Iran priorities have been overtaken by a more pragmatic agenda that concentrates on violent opposition to the Taliban and Afghani religious minorities. Now ISIS-K’s strategic objective is to bring Afghanistan within the Islamic caliphate envisaged by the ISIS movement.

On April 21 explosions inside the Seh Dokan mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif, the capital of Balkh province in northern Afghanistan, killed at least 12 worshipers and wounded scores more. ISIS-K claimed responsibility on its Telegram account, posting: “The soldiers of the caliphate managed to get a booby-trapped bag” inside the mosque, and once the place was packed with worshipers, detonated it from afar.

One week later, missiles targeted vehicles in Mazar-i-Sharif. Two explosions within minutes of each other killed at least nine people and wounded 13.

ISIS-K sees the Taliban as an irreconcilable enemy that needs to be defeated militarily. The enmity between the two organizations stems from their sectarian differences. ISIS-K subscribes to the Jihadi-Salafism ideology, while the Taliban adhere to the Hanafi madhab, a school of religious law noted for its reliance on systematic reasoning. Moreover ISIS-K, in line with its caliphate philosophy, fiercely rejects nationalism, while the Taliban is strictly concerned with ruling Afghanistan.

The Taliban regime in Afghanistan is still unrecognized by the international community. Most of the development aid which had been sustaining the previous Afghan government has ceased, and the country is in the midst of an economic crisis. Since the takeover at least half a million Afghans have lost their jobs. It is estimated that by mid-2022 up to 97% of people could be living below the poverty line.

Human Rights Watch has reported executions and enforced disappearances of former government officials. Patricia Gossman, an associate director, said: “Revenge killings, crushing women’s rights, strangling the media – the Taliban seem determined to tighten their grip on society, even as the situation grows increasingly unstable.”

The UN resolved on March 17 to re-establish its presence in Afghanistan. UNAMA (the UN mission to Afghanistan) will respond to the immediate humanitarian and economic crisis. The UN resolution also obliges UNMA to work towards establishing peace and stability in the country. Unfortunately, the new remit provides no indication of how to reconcile the religious objectives of ISIS-K, the political purposes of the anti-Taliban factions, and the utter determination of the Taliban to retain its grip on power.