Afghan opposition ‘very weak’ despite mounting public anger against Taliban
Taliban (AFP)

One year after the fall of Kabul, many of the opposition commanders famous for their stand in Panjshir Valley remain exiled in Tajikistan. Analysts paint a picture of a weakened armed resistance against the Taliban and an Afghan population that increasingly abhors the Islamic fundamentalist group – but is too exhausted to oppose it.

When Afghanistan captured the world’s attention shortly after the Taliban’s precipitous takeover on August 15, 2021, the media focused on the Panjshir Valley – where late Afghan commander Ahmad Shah Massoud held off both the Soviets in the 1980s and the Taliban in the 1990s. As the Taliban closed in, the lionised commander’s son, Ahmad Massoud, vowed to fight the Taliban from Panjshir once again.

But by September, Massoud had fled to neighboring Tajikistan along with other resistance commanders after the Taliban claimed victory in Panjshir. The apparent plan was to use Tajikistan as a staging ground to take on the Taliban. At the time, analysts lamented that it was a “non-viable prospect”.

Since then, the few journalists with access to Panjshir have reported on resistance attacks on Taliban positions. Washington Post journalists who visited Panjshir wrote in June that “residents say assaults on Taliban positions are a regular occurrence and dozens of civilians have been killed, with some civilians imprisoned in sweeping arrests”.

Resistance in the mountains

This situation makes a stark contrast to the state of play in Panjshir under Ahmad Shad Massoud – when the valley was the one holdout against the Taliban during its first reign over Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.

“It’s substantially different this time around,” said Omar Sadr, formerly an assistant professor of politics at the American University of Afghanistan, now a senior research scholar at the University of Pittsburgh.

“Panjshir is occupied,” Sadr went on. “At least Ahmad Shah Massoud could maintain a stronghold from which to resist the Taliban. Now the resistance is in the mountains; they don’t control the villages or the highways. That makes the task much more difficult in terms of the supply chains needed for fighting; it impacts upon the quality of the resistance.”

Looking at Afghanistan as a whole, the opposition is “very weak”, said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Security, Strategy and Technology. “In fact, it has turned out to be more feeble than many analysts expected.”

The opposition has struggled to mobilize tribal support as well as to mount any significant operations,” Felbab-Brown continued. “There was quite a bit of expectation that this spring they would engage in attacks – but the Taliban has been able to effectively neuter them.”

In this already difficult context, it was a strategic error for Ahmad Massoud and other resistance commanders to base themselves across the border, Sadr suggested. “The high-level leadership is in Tajikistan while the mid-level fighters are in Panjshir. Ahmad Massoud is a political leader, not much of a military leader – and it would have been much better if he and other senior figures could have joined the troops on the ground. It would have increased their legitimacy and boosted morale.”

‘More radical and more repressive’

When the Taliban seized Kabul last year they tried to present themselves as a reformed, more moderate successor to the outfit that brutally ruled Afghanistan two decades ago.

But the Islamic fundamentalists soon revealed that the “Taliban 2.0” they promised was nothing but a propaganda tool. In doing so, they alienated swaths of Afghan society and ensured that vehement anti-Taliban sentiment is by no means confined to the Panjshir Valley, according to Sadr.

“You can see this Taliban 2.0 business is not true – look at the way they’ve put in place political and economic discrimination of non-Pashtuns. They’ve banned girls’ education. They carry out extrajudicial killings,” Sadr said.

“Everybody wanted to finally end the conflict, so the Taliban had the chance to adopt a pathway to a political settlement that could have persuaded communities to accept them,” he continued.

“But the Taliban are fundamentalists – they’ve never believed in peace settlements. They’ve only become more radical and more repressive. So people feel misled.”

‘The Afghan people are very, very tired’

Nevertheless, there is a difference between feeling antipathy towards the Taliban regime and taking up arms against it.

An uprising against the Taliban would renew a chain of wars lasting two generations. Conflict has wracked Afghanistan since the USSR invaded in 1979 to prop up their puppet communist government. At least 1.8 million Afghans were killed before the Soviets pulled out in 1989.

Civil war broke out in Afghanistan upon the USSR’s withdrawal, leading to the downfall of Soviet-backed president Mohammad Najibullah in 1992. Four years of renewed civil war followed as mujahideen factions battled for power. The Taliban’s ascent to power, starting in 1996, sparked five years of resistance from Ahmad Shah Massoud’s Northern Alliance. Following Massoud’s death on September 9, 2001, and the September 11 attacks two days later, Afghanistan subsequently became the locus of the longest war in US history.

“Although they’re suffering under intensifying Taliban repression and the terrible economic situation, the Afghan people are just tired of war,” Felbab-Brown said. “Very, very tired.”

Afghanistan’s northeastern provinces provided the backbone of its army between 2004 and 2021. The Northern Alliance also drew on these regions in its fight against the Taliban in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

But after that recent history of grueling campaigns against the Taliban, renewed fighting is an unattractive prospect for many people in northeastern Afghanistan, Sadr said. “Look at Baghlan province, Badakhshan province – they contributed the highest number of soldiers to the republic’s army and they suffered the highest casualties. Every day there were corpses going back."

“It’s been more than forty years of war,” he went on. “This could be the third generation constantly giving sacrifices. So there are plenty of people saying, 'Irrespective of the type of government, maybe we should just accept it'.”

Pakistan will ‘never’ topple the Taliban

Throughout four decades of conflict, outside actors have used Afghanistan as a venue to project power by supporting proxies. Most significantly, Afghanistan’s neighbor Pakistan was the Taliban’s longstanding patron – keen to ensure the defeat of the US-backed republic in Kabul, which Islamabad deemed too close to its arch-nemesis India.

Yet the Taliban has long been close to the jihadi group Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP or simply the Pakistani Taliban), which wants to overthrow the Pakistani state.

Sections of the Pakistani security apparatus are aware that backing the Taliban risked blowback. The Taliban and the TTP are “two faces of the same coin”, Pakistani Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and ISI boss Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed acknowledged at an off-the-record briefing in July 2021.

That admission was vindicated in February 2022 when the TTP claimed an attack from across the Afghan border that left five Pakistani soldiers dead. In this context, Islamabad entered into peace talks with the TTP over recent months – held in Kabul, mediated by the Taliban. So far, little progress appears to have been made.

“Pakistan expected the Taliban to help it strike a political deal with the TTP so that the TTP wouldn’t threaten the Pakistani government, and that plan has already failed,” noted Weeda Mehran, co-director of Exeter University’s Centre for Advanced International Studies. A huge concern for the Pakistani authorities is that the Taliban have been giving Afghan passports to TTP members.

Clearly, some elements of the Taliban are “acting more and more independently of Pakistan”, Mehran continued. In light of these factors, she said, Pakistan is “revising its approach to the Taliban”.

However, Pakistan’s disappointment with the Taliban does not mean support for the opposition. So Afghanistan’s anti-Taliban resistance cannot look to Islamabad for the foreign support it needs for any chance of success, many analysts say.

“Pakistan’s end goal is never going to be to topple the Taliban government,” Sadr said. “At the very most, Pakistan will make it more difficult for the Taliban to rule. Like other countries in the region such as China, Pakistan sees the Taliban as anti-US – and, of course, it doesn’t see the Taliban as an Indian ally like it did the republic. So even if Pakistan turns against the Taliban, it’s not going to support the insurgency.”