Analyzing Armed Opponents of the Taliban and Their Future
In Afghanistan, it's no secret that the Taliban’s current model of government is unsustainable. With a lack of funding, international recognition, or a unifying goal, the collapse of their “Islamic Emirate” is a matter of when and not if. When the Taliban ultimately collapse, Afghanistan, barring any sort of foreign invasion, will be in a state similar to the 1990s in which control of the country is contested between various groups. Within this chaos, anti-Taliban armed groups will once again have their chance to throw in for control of the country and how they will operate and if it will lead to success will be the next great puzzle for any country attempting to become involved in Afghanistan.
In the 20 years that the republic ruled, Afghanistan rapidly urbanized, with the urban population growing to 26% in 2020, the largest it's ever been in the country’s history. Afghanistan also has one of the youngest populations in the world. This young population has grown up during 20 years of prosperity and freedom and is not used to their current state of starvation and subjugation. These conditions, along with the Taliban’s inability to compromise on social issues or provide even the most basic government services to the population, have created the potential for an urban insurgency similar to Iran or Tunisia to emerge for the first time in the country’s history.
Afghanistan has only seen one notable urban insurgency in the past 20 years in the form of a riot in Kabul in 2006, in which the rioters nearly took the presidential palace, and the authorities had no ability to contain them. Unlike the previous government, which had NATO-trained police and military, the Taliban have no training for responding to such a situation, therefore, would likely fare even worse. The seeds of an urban insurgency have already been sown with frequent women’s protests in Kabul, an event unheard of during the previous Taliban period.
But with the increasing volatility of the Taliban regime begs the question, who could replace them? Since their takeover, multiple armed groups have emerged to challenge their rule, but their success or failure is dependent on many factors, including their tactics, ideology, and support network. This article will attempt to explain the two largest armed opposition groups and their chances of success.
On August 31, 2021, America’s war in Afghanistan officially came to an end. The last US troops departed the country, which had almost fully fallen under the control of the Taliban and their self-declared “Islamic Emirate” sixteen days earlier. Just like the Soviets 30 years before, the west could now claim that the war was over. But just like back then the truth was it hadn’t, the sides had simply changed and new actors emerged.
Even before the last US Globemaster took off from Hamid Karzai International Airport, this new conflict had started. On August 17th, two days after the Islamic Republic government had collapsed and the Taliban had entered Kabul, Amurullah Saleh, vice president to the recently fled President Asharaf Ghani traveled to his home province of Panjshir, the last province not under the control of the Taliban. There, he joined Ahmed Massoud, the son of the legendary Mujahideen commander Ahmed Shah Massoud and declared the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRF) in a last-ditch effort by supporters of the Islamic Republic to fight the Taliban.
On August 26th, another party to the next stage of the Afghanistan War struck a blow. Amid a crowd of evacuees at the Kabul Airport, a suicide bomber detonated himself. The resulting blast killed thirteen US soldiers and over 170 Afghans. The bomber came from Islamic State Khorasan Province, the Afghanistan-based chapter of the Islamic State, abbreviated as ISIS-K. ISIS-K had been waging war against the republic with its international forces and the Taliban since its creation in 2014 and sought to continue their fight against all infidels and apostates no matter who controlled the country.
Although both President Joe Biden and Taliban Supreme Leader Hibatullah Akhundzada were able to conclude that the Afghanistan War had ended with the Taliban in control of almost all of the country, armed opponents of the “Islamic Emirate” were already emerging. With Afghanistan’s future very uncertain, many have speculated what the future of resistance to the Taliban regime might look like and the current groups’ chances of success.
The two most prominent groups currently opposing the Taliban regime are ISIS-K and the NRF, but opposition to the Taliban is where their similarities stop. Both groups have radically different ideologies, tactics, and support networks and therefore have different factors that will determine their chances of success.
ISIS-K was founded in 2014 by defecting members of the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and the Pakistani Taliban in Eastern Afghanistan but did not become officially affiliated with the wider Islamic State until 2015. Initially, the Taliban tried to ally with the group, but ideological differences caused them to go to war in 2015 the pressure of Taliban, Pakistani, Afghan, and NATO forces led to their territory being recaptured by 2019, but although their territorial strongholds had been destroyed, they continued to pose a threat to both sides of the Afghan war, carrying out large-scale attacks throughout 2020.
During the Taliban’s rapid advance in the summer of 2021, they opened the Afghan prisons they captured, allowing many captured ISIS fighters to escape and their ranks to expand. In 2021, ISIS-K was estimated to consist of roughly 2,000 fighters but prison breaks are estimated to have roughly doubled their numbers. After the collapse of the republic on August 15th 2021, ISIS-K quickly denounced the Taliban’s new “Islamic Emirate” as insufficiently hardline and western analysts were quick to warn that attacks against the US evacuation efforts were imminent. That attack came on the 26th.
After the US withdrawal, ISIS-K attacks continued relentlessly and increased dramatically as the group expanded to every part of the country. In the last four months of 2020, ISIS carried out 39 attacks, but in that same period the next year, they carried out 119. These attacks targeted Taliban checkpoints as well as civilian targets, often leaving dozens dead.
ISIS-K follows the same apocalyptic Salafist ideology as their counterparts in Iraq and Syria but has to make a few adjustments due to circumstances within the country. In Iraq and Syria, ISIS had a relatively easy time gaining support with its narrow Salafist ideology. In Iraq, the minority Sunni population felt oppressed by the Shiite-controlled government, which had largely excluded them from powerful positions. This animosity was co-opted by the novel Islamic State of Iraq, which preached that Shiites were apostates who needed to be removed from power and killed.
This meant that they captured large Sunni-majority cities, such as Mosul, and held them with ease. They gained further support by providing the population with services that the previous government had not.
ISIS-K has had a slightly different situation. Instead of fighting western-backed governments, they are now primarily fighting other jihadists in the form of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. This means that ISIS-K has the unique challenge of having to prove to other jihadists that they are the purest and most extreme terrorist group to attract their support. To do this, ISIS-K has tried to criticize the Taliban’s Afghanistan-focused aims, branding them as nationalists who do not believe in global jihad, framing their attempts to negotiate with the west as collaborating with foreign infidels and criticizing their tolerance of Shiites within the country. This rhetoric has been successful at times in attracting dissatisfied Taliban hardliners.
Unlike Iraq and Syria, where there already existed a large population of dissatisfied Sunnis who were desperate for any group to bring down their western-backed government, in Afghanistan, Islamists already rule and most of the population, including the Taliban, follow the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam. Hanafi Sunnis allow the practice of Sufism, a mystical form of Islam widely practiced in Afghanistan and allowed in some circumstances by the Taliban. Hanfi Sunnis are also less concerned with waging war against Shiites, and even for the Taliban, their destruction is not at the top of their list of priorities. ISIS-K ideology, on the other hand, denounces both Shiites and Sufism and believes that they must be destroyed. This automatically puts them at odds with a majority of Afghans and therefore makes their movement hard to expand.
Because of the differences in sects and the fact that most leaders and about half of the fighters of ISIS-K are foreign, the group is perceived by many Afghans to be little more than a foreign group imposing a foreign ideology.
And this unpopularity has led to overall weakness. Despite a massive campaign of bombings, ISIS-K has rarely openly confronted the Taliban as they had done in their early years, save for a few ambushes at checkpoints. They have also avoided attempting to contest them for territory, which has led some to conclude that they lack the capabilities to directly challenge the Taliban for dominance even in their former strongholds.
Another drawback for ISIS-K is the lack of funding. Unlike their Levantine counterparts, ISIS-K never possessed billions of dollars in stolen oil, meaning they were forced to rely on less stable means of income, such as extortion or donations from other ISIS cells.
While ISIS-K opposed the Taliban for not going far enough in their extremism, the NRF opposed the Taliban for the opposite reason. The NRF is the largest group in a loose coalition of resistance groups that represent the last remnants of the Islamic Republic fighting to overthrow the Taliban’s Emirate and restore the former republic.
The NRF mostly consists of what remains of the republic’s armed forces and, for the first few weeks after Kabul fell, controlled the entire Panjshir province before the Taliban, with the help of Pakistani forces, forced them to retreat to the mountains.
Unlike ISIS, whose ideology was developed in the Arab world and imposed from the outside, the ideology of the NRF is very Afghan and originates from the country itself. Since the founding of the state in 1747, Afghanistan has gone through periods of political centralization and decentralization. In the early 1840s, during the first Anglo-Afghan War, for the first time in the country’s history, non-elite groups led a popular uprising that played a significant role in resisting foreign occupation. This tactic became a historical trend. In the face of foreign occupation, the country became ungovernable through loose networks of armed resistance until foreigners withdrew. This left the country in a decentralized state in which regional powers usually had more power than the central government.
Unlike the Northern Alliance, the resistance movement against the Taliban in the 1990s, the NRF does not directly control any territory. But an NRF spokesperson stated, “Our aim at the moment is not to sustain control of areas that we liberate. We are fighting an unconventional war with an enemy that is heavily armed with 7 billion dollars worth of US-made arms. Our objective is to show that we are able to challenge the Taliban, liberate large areas like districts, and gather as many resources as possible.”
In the most recent fighting season, NRF launched frequent ambushes and raids on Taliban positions in the north of the country. The Taliban faced massive casualties and were forced to call up reinforcements from other parts of the country who are not as experienced with fighting in the treacherous mountains. While the Taliban are being starved of men and materials, the resistance has faced few casualties and seldom lost their fortified positions.
If the NRF wants to see the same success of the old Mujahideen, they need to succeed in another factor: gaining foreign support. The Mujahideen were able to sustain their campaign against the communists with millions of dollars worth of military equipment and general funding provided by the CIA, Pakistani ISI, and a few other countries. They launched attacks from their safe haven in Pakistan.
Currently, as of 2023, the NRF lacks both of these things. Massoud and Saleh are based in Tajikistan, but resistance-heavy areas such as Panjshir do not border them making it difficult to deliver supplies. However, there are reports that they do visit these areas by helicopter, meaning foreign resupply is likely still happening, albeit at a much lower level.
Overt foreign support has also been hard to come by. According to a Turkish journalist, the US and UK initially considered supporting the NRF but decided against it due to Massoud’s close relations with Iran. The source claimed that Massoud has close connections and sympathizers in Iran, which has led to Tehran providing some financial assistance to the NRF. Tajikistan is the largest foreign supporter of the NRF, with its headquarters based in the country; Russia has also been reported to be selling weapons to the NRF.
Both of these groups pose a threat to the Taliban’s attempts to subjugate the country to their will, but given the different ideologies, tactics, and support networks of the NRF and ISIS-K, their futures depend on different factors. ISIS-K is attempting to undermine the Taliban’s legitimacy and attempts to provide nationwide security. But Afghanistan is very different from Iraq, ISIS-K lacks the support base and funding opportunities that their Levantine counterparts enjoyed and although they will continue to be a nuisance to the Taliban government, it is unlikely that they will be able to seriously contest them for territory anytime soon.
The NRF, on the other hand, is playing on its home court with a homegrown ideology that is much more acceptable on an international level and a strategy that has worked in the past. The lack of overt political support and significant outside aid complicates their attempts to emulate the old Mujahideen. Even if aid arrived in significant amounts, it might still take years to successfully topple the Taliban government.
The NRF does have one other option for success that does not rely on outside aid. The young urbanites who have been protesting believe in the same ideals that the NRF hold and essentially share the same goal: the restoration of the Islamic Republic and the empowerment of women and minorities. If the NRF can ally with these urban insurgents, they could project their power into the areas their fighters cannot reach, and if they can secure the countryside like the old Mujahideen were able to, the Taliban will have nowhere to run. And unlike a rural insurgency, research shows urban insurgencies are not dependent on foreign support and are more likely to produce defections from the ruling regime. Both of these factors could give the NRF the push it needs to topple the Taliban in the future, especially in a culture where perceptions of power matter more than power itself.