It is now more than six weeks since jihadists took over Afghanistan. At the present time, there is little sign of a resistance movement, but there are a number of factors that make such a movement possible, depending on the decisions of some key regional players.
The jihadist coalition that captured Afghanistan—the most visible parts of which are the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and the Haqqani Network—are not independent actors. As Canada’s former ambassador to Afghanistan, Chris Alexander, recently wrote for European Eye on Radicalization, “Pakistan’s policy over half a century in pursuit of strategic depth [against India], culminating in several years of diversionary diplomacy while planning for the recent invasion of Afghanistan, has resulted in Pakistan’s generals managing to re-install their proxies at Kabul”. In an exhaustive EER report on the scope and scale of the Pakistani instrumentalization of jihadism for its goals in Afghanistan, Oved Lobel concluded: “Pakistan isn’t allied to the Taliban. It doesn’t support the Taliban. It doesn’t have influence over the Taliban. It is the Taliban.”
The Pakistani control of this new Taliban regime—which is in fact the old Taliban regime—has determined much of the geopolitical reaction to it. India is, of course, hostile. China, Pakistan’s patron, is friendly, seeing a chance to exploit Afghanistan’s vast mineral wealth. Iran and Russia, two of the three major sponsors of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in the 1990s (the other major sponsor was India), have been more cautious this time around, not least because Russia has engaged in various forms of outreach to the Taliban and Iran has solidified relations not only with the Taliban but also Al-Qaeda.
The base for any new resistance effort in Afghanistan would be the same as last time: Tajikistan. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tajikistan was buffeted by the furies raging in Afghanistan and in the early 1990s the Pakistani jihad breached its borders, inciting a rebellion that lasted for five years. The Russians helped the Tajik government restore order, but at the price of reasserting Moscow’s hegemony. As Lobel explains,
Once Russia was in full control of Central Asia again, the Russian military base in Kuliob, Tajikistan, became the fulcrum of joint aid [with Iran] to the Northern Alliance, especially once Kabul, Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, and the Hazarajat had fallen to the Taliban in 1998. Prior to this, from 1996-1998, Iranian military cargo flights were flying in and out of the latter areas to provide direct support.
Russia and Iran flooded [the Northern Alliance] with weapons, including helicopters, fighter jets, and tanks, as well as all fuel and every other necessary item, and oversaw maintenance and logistics via Tajikistan. Russian intelligence and the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps] advisers were embedded with the forces under the Northern Alliance umbrella, overseeing training and operations.
The U.S. invasion essentially put the Northern Alliance in power.
India has worked hard to expand its relations with Tajikistan since 2002-03, including creating India’s only overseas airbase in the village of Ayni, near the Tajik capital of Dushanbe. The facility is known as the Gissar Airbase. Unfortunately for India, Tajikistan has been a target of China’s neo-colonial Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the influence this gives the Chinese government in the political realm in Tajikistan has meant that the Indian airbase—perceived as a threat to China, as well as to China’s Pakistani client in Afghanistan and Kashmir—has not been as readily usable as it would like.
Tajikistan, like all the states in former Soviet Central Asia, remains under heavy Russian influence, and as outlined above, Moscow’s hedging strategy during the twenty years NATO was in Afghanistan makes it difficult to discern what current intentions are, not least because the Russians also have to manage their complicated and contradictory relationship with the Chinese. If Russia decides it wants to counter-balance Pakistan in Afghanistan, then Tajikistan will have to acquiesce, and India will regain access to Afghanistan; for now, India is shut out of Afghanistan.
Supposing a decision was taken to support the resistance in Afghanistan against Pakistan’s jihadists, to whom could these states turn?
Ahmad Massoud, son of the legendary Mujahideen commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, has announced the creation of a National Resistance Front (NRF), and the acting legal president of Afghanistan, Amrullah Saleh, is with him.
Both of these men, it should be noted, are ethnic Tajiks and both have been reported to be in Tajikistan. In early September, Tajikistan gave one of its highest state awards, posthumously, to Ahmad Shah Massoud. It is possible, as some have argued, that Tajikistan has taken these steps to set itself up as a prominent opponent of the Taliban regime in order to gain, politically and ultimately financially, from the West, but if its intentions are cynical, it is a dangerous game: as the 1990s showed, unless a buffer zone of friendly forces is created inside Afghanistan, Tajikistan is highly vulnerable to destabilization should factions in Afghanistan set about subversive activities against Dushanbe.
The resistance’s presence on the ground in Afghanistan is currently weak. The final major pocket of anti-Taliban control, the Panjshir Valley, the home of Massoud Jr. and Saleh, was conquered three weeks after Kabul fell by the Taliban-Al-Qaeda forces. That said, the Taliban have only taken the provincial capital, Bazarak, and the Valley floor, not the hills around it, where resistance fighters—possibly including Massoud and Saleh—are still operating. This pattern was repeated multiple times during the long Soviet war in Afghanistan: the Panjshiris’ objection to any rule but their own, and the simple facts of topography, mean that any occupation force’s hold is brittle, never extending into the mountains; with sufficient support, the Taliban hold on Panjshir can be broken.
The Taliban are, unsurprisingly, deeply unpopular in Afghanistan. They are seen—correctly—as the cat’s paw of a foreign occupier, namely Pakistan, and their behavior daily alienates larger and larger swathes of the country, whether it is (once again) banning girls’ education or continuing to hunt down and kill people associated with the fallen government. This political fact means, as one resistance leader recently pointed out, if there was the will to help free the Panjshir from the Taliban and show people that there was a viable alternative, momentum would gather rapidly for the resistance as the overwhelming majority of Afghans who are discontented with Taliban rule flocked to its banner.