Arab News

Taliban and the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan

Senior Fellow, Center on Europe and Eurasia
Taliban security personnel arrive to destroy a poppy field in Argo district on May 12, 2024. (Photo by Omer Abrar/AFP via Getty Images)
Taliban security personnel arrive to destroy a poppy field in Argo district on May 12, 2024. (Photo by Omer Abrar/AFP via Getty Images)

Since the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan, most of the international focus has been on the worsening humanitarian situation in the country. Millions of Afghans live in poverty and the economic situation remains bleak.

This month, Afghanistan also reached a grim milestone: It has been more than 1,000 days since young girls were able to attend school.

But there is another story that offers a glimmer of hope for the country and deserves more attention: the activities of the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan.

The NRF is the main, nonextremist, armed opposition group the Taliban faces. Its leader is Ahmad Massoud, the son of the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, who led resistance efforts against the Soviets and Taliban in the 1980s and 1990s.

When the Taliban rolled into Kabul in August 2021, Massoud returned to his ancestral homeland in the predominantly ethnically Tajik Panjshir Valley. Known as one of the most impregnable regions in Afghanistan, and located about 100 km north of Kabul, it was a perfect place to build a resistance movement. He was joined by thousands of members of the Afghan army, police and other security officials who had been abandoned by the US but wanted to continue the fight against the Taliban.

Almost three years later, the NRF has three primary goals. The first is to lead efforts among the various anti-Taliban groups to align and coordinate their activities. One of the main platforms for achieving this will continue next week in Austria when the so-called Vienna Process holds its fourth meeting.

The Vienna Process offers a way for disparate anti-Taliban groups to meet and, when appropriate, coordinate and align their efforts. The first such meeting took place in September 2022, a year after the Taliban regained power. An outcome of the meeting was that Massoud became the de facto leader of the anti-Taliban resistance.

However, it is quite clear that the Vienna Process is not only a platform for Afghanistan’s ethnic Tajik population. More than 50 groups participated during its most recent meeting in December 2023. They included representatives of the Hazara, Uzbek and even Sikh minorities. Almost half the participants were women. Representatives of more than 65 groups are expected to attend next week’s meeting.

The second goal of the NRF is connected to the first: The group seeks more engagement, and even simply recognition, from the international community. Tajikistan allows the NRF to maintain a political office in Dushanbe but, other than this, the group has not received support from any other country.

It is not only economic or even security support the NRF is seeking. It also wants the international community to engage with it and start a dialogue about the situation in Afghanistan.

The meeting in Vienna, which is funded by a private civil society organization and not the Austrian government, is also intended to raise the international profile of the NRF. During previous gatherings, some European parliamentarians attended as observers but this has been the extent of the international engagement with the group so far.  

If the international community can engage with the Taliban, as the de facto rulers of Afghanistan, then there is no reason why a dialogue cannot be established with the NRF.

The third goal of the group is to expand the scope and size of its anti-Taliban security operations across the country. The first winter the NRF spent in the rugged mountains of Panjshir was solely about survival. By the summer of 2022 it had started to carry out ambushes and limited attacks against Taliban forces in provinces near Panjshir and the predominantly ethnically Tajik regions of northeastern Afghanistan. Since then, the scope of its attacks has expanded to include eastern Afghanistan and Kabul.

During the spring and summer months, not a week goes by without the NRF attacking Taliban positions somewhere in the country. A quick tally of social media posts shows that it has already launched about 160 attacks this year.

Interestingly, there have even been several attacks in the past month on Taliban targets in Herat province, hundreds of kilometers from the NRF’s typical area of operations. It has also hit targets in the heart of Kabul, which is considered to be the Taliban’s sanctuary.

The NRF is mindful of its limited military capabilities right now. After all, the Taliban inherited billions of dollars worth of US military hardware, including rifles, armored vehicles, night-vision devices, and even helicopters left behind as the Americans rushed out.

Meanwhile, the NRF is getting no outside military support and relies on existing arms stockpiles or the purchase of weapons from corrupt Taliban officials. Therefore, while the group is continuously looking for opportunities to attack and weaken the Taliban, its efforts will remain limited until some level of military support is provided.

After more than two decades of international engagement and intervention in Afghanistan, it is understandable that there is a sense of “Afghan-fatigue” among policymakers. However, this is no excuse for ignoring the situation in the country.

If there is fatigue among the international community, imagine how the average Afghan must feel, considering their country has been in some state of perpetual conflict since 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded.

It is in the interests of the international community to engage with the NRF. The group offers an alternative view to that of the Taliban that could be useful when developing policies on Afghanistan. This is particularly true as Afghanistan continues to be a safe haven for transnational terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda, and also a hotbed of Daesh activity.

There is no shortage of problems in Afghanistan. Human-made problems such as the Taliban’s inability to properly govern the country, and the international community’s failure to support the Afghan people, are compounded by natural disasters such as earthquakes and flooding.

However, the NRF offers an opportunity for the international community to engage with a group that has the best interests of all Afghans at heart. The world should, therefore, keep a close eye on the meeting in Vienna next week.

Read this article in Arab News.