A new war comes to Afghanistan?
AFGHANISTAN, every now and then, is hit by a bomb attack. Most of the recent attacks have been claimed by the Islamic State in Khorasan. Its ability to orchestrate highly sophisticated attacks shows that the group, contrary to the claims the US military officials made during the US occupation of Afghanistan, has not lost its strength at all. But, to the surprise of many, the IS-K, while a potent threat to the Taliban, a radical organisation, banned in Russia, and the wider region of South and Central Asia, a new armed resistance is emerging against the Taliban, this time led by local Afghans rather than transnational jihadis. Afghanistan’s National Resistance Front being led by Ahmad Massoud and Amrullah Saleh, Afghanistan’s former vice-president, has officially launched an offensive against the Taliban. Scores of other armed groups, too, have announced their formations and declared their intentions, on their Facebook pages and otherwise, to resist the Taliban on their own or in alliance with the NRF.
According to claims made by the NRF’s Ali Nazary, head of NRF’s foreign relations, a fully-fledged offensive has been launched in the Panjshir valley, in at least three districts. The NRF has a presence across Afghanistan’s many provinces. As Ali Nazary told the Associated Press of France in an interview, the NRF will launch operations in all the provinces to drive out what it calls illegal occupants, ie, the Taliban, of power in Kabul.
To be sure, the NRF is not the only group. A former general in the Afghan army, Sami Sadat, recently vowed to ‘continue to fight.’ In an interview given to the BBC, Sadat said he would ‘do anything and everything in our powers to make sure Afghanistan is freed from the Taliban and a democratic system is re-established.’
Most of the media projection — especially in the west — about the emerging resistance against the Taliban is tied to the failure of the Taliban to develop a politically and ethnically inclusive system. Many important political groups have been excluded and the Taliban high command has captured power, with most of the key ministries being led by key Taliban commanders, including the Haqqanis. On top of this is the Taliban’s gradual return to implementing an orthodox interpretation of Islam to regulate politics and society at large.
While all of these issues do point to certain political problems, the emerging resistance has some geopolitical underpinnings too. Consider this: Sadat, who was until recently was nowhere to be seen, emerged out of thin air and suddenly became so important as to attract the BBC for an interview. The fact that the BBC interviewed him and published his views shows how new anti-Taliban personalities are being dug up by the west, and how they are being given international projection.
While the criticism the Taliban are facing has a valid foundation, it is also true that Afghanistan’s new war is being planned somewhere else. As some reports have shown, US envoys have been holding meetings with the NRF in Tajikistan, where the latter is based.
Media reports in the west are already predicting a ‘new fighting season’ in Afghanistan. While Sadat was interviewed by the BBC, Britain’s state broadcaster, a news report carried by the Voice of America, the United States’s state-owned broadcaster, too, showed how anti-Taliban resistance is already coming of age.
According to the report, apart from the NRF, there is an ‘Afghanistan Freedom Front.’ According to the VoA, it is being led by general Yasin Zia, a former defence minister and chief of general staff. Another group is the ‘Afghanistan Islamic National and Liberation Movement’, being led by Abdul Mateen Sulaimankhail, a former Afghan army special forces commander.
Why is the west giving state-level projections to these groups? This sudden projection comes against the backdrop of Russia’s and China’s growing ties with the Taliban, and an ever-increasing possibility of both Moscow and Beijing extending legitimacy to the Taliban rule by recognising it. This comes against the backdrop of an emerging understanding between the Taliban and China and Russia that the former will make sure not to allow anti-China and anti-Russian groups to spread into their territories. In exchange, Beijing and Moscow will help the Taliban.
In his latest visit to Kabul, China’s Wangi Yi told Taliban officials that ‘China respects the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Afghanistan, respects the independent choices made by the Afghan people and respects the religious beliefs and national customs of Afghanistan.’ In the same meeting, Wang was assured that the Taliban will improve the ‘security environment’ of Afghanistan in ways to make it safe for China and the region.
For China, therefore, Afghanistan is turning into a hospitable country, offering an increasing possibility of extending the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to Afghanistan as well. Indeed, Wang Yi hinted during the same visit that China is considering it seriously.
Improving the security and political environment is something that Russia also believes is developing in Afghanistan. In a statement released on April 29, 2022, the Russian foreign minister said that ‘since the Taliban’s accession to power, the military-political situation in Afghanistan has become relatively stable,’ which means that Russia thinks the Taliban might be able to rule Afghanistan effectively.
It is against this geopolitical backdrop that we must understand the emergence of anti-Taliban resistance. A challenge from within Afghanistan, led by Afghans themselves, against Kabul would challenge the Russian and Chinese claims, and indeed the Taliban’s own claim, that Afghanistan is stabilising. A large-scale insurgency, or a civil war, in Afghanistan will, yet again, force China to withdraw its CPEC extension plans, as well as forcing Russia to rethink the possibility of extending its cooperation. On the other hand, it will also allow the west to withdraw whatever support it has been providing to the Taliban in favour of supporting these resistance groups.
In short, therefore, there is as much, or even more, geopolitics tied to the emerging resistance as domestic politics, ie, the Taliban’s decision to exclude regional elites and the latter’s decision to resist their exclusion.
New Eastern Outlook, May 19. Salman Rafi Sheikh is a research analyst of international relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs.