Afghanistan in Review: Taliban and Opposition Groups Prepare for a New Spring Fighting Season in Afghanistan
January 28-March 1
Taliban and Opposition Groups Prepare for a New Spring Fighting Season in Afghanistan
By Peter Mills
Key Takeaway: Increasing numbers of anti-Taliban opposition groups are announcing their intent to fight the Taliban during an impending spring offensive. The Taliban government is redeploying its military forces and standing up new military units in order to preempt this offensive and increase security in areas that are likely to see anti-Taliban activity. These opposition groups are actively working toward setting the conditions for an offensive but the extent of their fighting capabilities remain uncertain.
The National Resistance Front (NRF) openly states that it is preparing for an offensive in the spring of 2022 and continues to carry out attacks targeting the Taliban government. The NRF is the primary non-Islamic State group opposed to the Taliban and is led by Ahmad Massoud, son of the late Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud. The NRF attempted to assassinate the Taliban security chief for Panjshir Province, Abdul Hamid Khorasani, by attacking his convoy with an improvised explosive device (IED) in Rukha District on January 29. Khorasani survived the attack and shortly afterward released a video that threatened “consequences” if the NRF did not cease its attacks. NRF forces carried out a similar ambush on a Taliban vehicle patrol in Parenda Valley, Bazarak District, Panjshir Province, on February 7. This attack led Taliban soldiers to fire on villages nearby and conduct operations searching for NRF militants. NRF capabilities appear to be limited and predominantly confined to the Panjshir Valley and adjacent mountains, with NRF-allied groups operating in the neighboring Andarab Valley. A Taliban mass arrest and torture campaign has reportedly targeted up to 500 civilians and is likely increasing local support for the NRF. This campaign is reportedly led by Ghorzang, a senior Taliban commander with ties to the Haqqani network.
The Taliban government is proactively moving military forces into northern Afghanistan to limit anti-Taliban forces’ ability to conduct an offensive in the spring.
The Taliban are sending reinforcements to the Panjshir Valley in response to continuing attacks from the NRF. Taliban representatives from the Ministry of Interior and Special Forces met with the local Taliban leadership in the Panjshir Valley on January 31. Shortly thereafter, the Taliban began deploying reinforcements, including Taliban Red Units—Taliban special forces—to the Panjshir Valley on February 2. Videos by locals showed convoys of buses and pickup trucks moving into the valley. Local journalists reported that several thousand Taliban fighters moved into the valley over several days, including forces from the Ministry of Interior. The head of the Taliban General Directorate of Intelligence, Abdul Haq Wasiq, met with local Taliban leaders in the Panjshir Valley to discuss the security situation on February 7. Shortly after that meeting, Taliban Security Chief for Panjshir Province Abdul Hamid Khorasani began leading local Taliban forces in counter-NRF operations that involved searching and occupying mountaintops and caves in remote areas of the Panjshir Valley. As part of these operations, Khorasani released a video pledging to hunt down and repress any dissent toward the Taliban government. Taliban Minister of Defense Mullah Mohammad Yaqoub reportedly entered Panjshir Province with the intent of directing military operations against the NRF on February 21. Collectively, these actions indicate that the Taliban central leadership is concerned about NRF attacks in the Panjshir Valley and is taking a more proactive and aggressive stance toward NRF forces.
The Taliban Air Force is increasing its operations in both the Andarab and Panjshir valleys. Taliban helicopters have been pictured operating over the Panjshir Valley, including receiving fire from NRF forces, since February 22. The Taliban are likely using these helicopters for reconnaissance and to ferry special forces into hard to reach places in the Panjshir Valley. Two Taliban helicopters reportedly conducted airstrikes targeting the Andarab Resistance Front, an ally of the NRF, on February 18.
New anti-Taliban militant groups are forming beyond the Panjshir Valley in northern Afghanistan. One of these new militant groups, the Liberation Front of Afghanistan, released a video stating its determination to fight the Taliban on February 4. This group used a unique flag and does not appear to be affiliated with the NRF. The group spokesperson criticized the Taliban as a "terrorist group" that has kidnapped and killed women, journalists, and civil activists and is responsible for millions of Afghans starving. The group called for an ethnically pluralistic government, in contrast to the Pashtun-dominated Taliban movement.
Unconfirmed reports in early February indicated that Yar Mohammad Dostum, the elder son of prominent Uzbek Afghan warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, was preparing to enter Afghanistan and form a new resistance group, the so-called “Wolf Unit.” Yar Dostum led the defense of Sheberghan city, the provincial capital of Jowzjan Province, during the Taliban’s 2021 summer offensive, before he was forced to retreat in early August. Yar Dostum still may have supporters within Jowzjan Province, though he will likely require more time to assemble a force which can substantively oppose the Taliban in northern Afghanistan.
An anti-Taliban group, the National Front for Free Afghanistan, released a video announcing its presence and determination to wage armed resistance against the Taliban from the mountains of Kapisa Province. The video noteably included several women who spoke out against the Taliban government and referred to them as “occupiers.” The speakers spoke both Dari and Pashto, indicating this group may be multi-ethnic. Another armed militant group, the Turkestan Freedom Tigers, attacked a Taliban checkpoint south of Sheberghan city in Jowzjan Province on February 7. This attack likely caused few, if any, casualties.
None of these groups have demonstrated the ability to carry out significant kinetic attacks against the Taliban government or to conduct company-sized operations.
The Taliban government is deploying additional forces into northern Afghanistan and conducting military exercises in areas where they face anti-Taliban opposition groups.
- The Taliban’s 207th Corps based in Herat Province deployed three battalions to Jawand, Ab Kamari, and Tagab Alam districts in Badghis Province on February 10. Unidentified militants bombed a mosque in Qala-e-Naw, the capital of Badghis Province, on February 11. Two local Tajik Taliban commanders, Noor Agha and Saleh Mohammad Pardel, operating in Ab Kamari and Qadis districts respectively, reportedly revolted against the Taliban leadership in Badghis Province in mid-January.
- The 207th Corps deployed another battalion to Parchaman District, Farah Province, on February 14. Idris Mubarez, an NRF commander, announced a new NRF group operating in this same district on February 18.
- Taliban military units from the 3rd Brigade, 217th Corps, conducted military exercises and maneuvers in Baghlan Province on February 19.
- Taliban military units from the 7th Brigade, 217th Corps conducted military exercises in Takhar Province southeast of Taloqan city near Fakhar District on February 21.
- The Taliban’s 203rd Corps based in Paktia Province deployed 1,500 troops to Bamiyan Province on February 22.
These deployments and exercises came at the same time as prominent pro-Taliban social media accounts reported that the Taliban are deploying thousands of additional security forces to Takhar and Badakhshan Provinces. Other Afghan journalists report that the Taliban government has deployed as many as 10,000 additional troops to Badakhshan, Takhar, Baghlan, and Kunduz provinces. Those deployments have been followed by additional deployments by the 203rd Corps, indicating that deployments are ongoing and that the Taliban may send more troops to northern Afghanistan.
Taliban security forces led by Deputy Defense Minister Mullah Fazel Mazloom began conducting house-to-house searches for anti-Taliban opposition forces in Kabul and nearby provinces on February 25. Both the Haqqani Network and Kandahar-based Taliban factions reportedly support these operations. These operations predominantly target Uzbek and Tajik neighborhoods because of their perceived support for anti-Taliban groups like the NRF. Consequently, support and discontent toward these operations is divided along ethnic lines, with Pashtuns expressing more support for Taliban operations and non-Pashtun minorities complaining about Taliban abuses. These operations may temporarily reduce the ability of anti-Taliban groups to conduct attacks in Kabul at the cost of increasing support for those groups among the general public.
The Taliban government continues to create new military units in northern Afghanistan. The Taliban government’s 313th Central Corps established a new battalion in Kohistan District, Kapisa Province, on February 12. It is unclear if this battalion is the same as the Mujahidin Reinforcement and Operational Battalion inaugurated on February 22 by Kapisa Province Police Chief Mawlawi Zia-ul-Haq Hamid. Qari Fasihuddin, the chief of staff of the Taliban military, presided over the inauguration of the new Omar Salih Division based in Badakhshan. It is unclear if this unit will actually have the full size and capability of a full division. It also unclear whether or not this unit will fall under the 217th Corps’ command.
The Taliban are also focusing on security in eastern Afghanistan. In Nanagarhar Province, the local Taliban leadership inaugurated a new military unit, the Panipat Operational and Security Unit of the Nangarhar Governor's Office. This unit will reportedly be responsible for conducting “specific targeted operations,” indicating a possible special forces role. According to Abdul Hamid Khorasani, this unit was created to deal with a resurgent IS-KP. Although IS-KP activity has decreased significantly over the last few weeks, the fact that the Taliban continue to create new military forces in the area indicates that it remains concerned about IS-KP.
1. Iran and the Taliban government are attempting to address tensions over water issues and expand economic cooperation. Iranians demanding the Taliban government release water from the Kamal Khan Dam on the Helmand River protested on January 28 and attacked Afghan truck drivers leading to minor border clashes in Zaranj, Nimroz Province. The casualties from this border clash were unclear; Iranian protesters clashed with Afghan security forces and Iranian police and smashed car windows in the process. These protesters were demanding that Iran cut off electricity exports to Afghanistan until water is released from the dam into Iran. Despite this incident, representatives from Iranian water and power companies met with the Taliban Minister of Water and Power, Mullah Abdul Latif Mansoor, and the CEO of Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat, Hafiz Mohammad Amin on February 7 to discuss economic cooperation on various projects to increase power generation in Afghanistan. The Taliban Ministry of Water and Power later reaffirmed their commitment to the 1973 treaty between Iran and Afghanistan that delineates water access for the Helmand River. The Taliban claim they are fulfilling their obligations under the treaty, but Iran claims it is only receiving 5 percent of the water it is owed. If forced to choose, the Taliban government will likely prioritize water supplies for Afghans over Iranians. Such a choice may complicate relations between Iran and the Taliban government, but is unlikely to single-handedly alter Iran’s strategic calculus toward engaging economically with the Taliban government.
2. US President Biden’s executive order seizing Afghanistan’s central bank (DAB) assets provoked protests and condemnation across the Afghan political spectrum from average Afghans, non-Taliban politicians, and the Taliban government. Biden’s decision would freeze $3.5 billion in DAB assets to act as compensation for court cases put forth by family members of victims of 9/11. The remaining $3.5 billion would be liquidated and put toward funding humanitarian assistance for Afghanistan’s ongoing crisis. The Taliban released a statement on February 14 condemning this decision, claiming it is a violation of their agreement with the United States and could lead the Taliban “to reconsider their policy with the United States”. Other Taliban leaders, including the head of DAB and Minister of Defense Mullah Yaqub, released separate statements condemning the decision as cruel and an injustice to Afghans. Non-Taliban political leaders, such as Hamid Karzai, echoed that rhetoric, emphasizing that Afghans were also victims of Osama bin Laden and the conflict since 9/11. Local Afghans protested this decision in most Afghan provinces, including most major cities, with hundreds of demonstrators marching in Kabul. The Taliban will likely rally political support against the DAB decision and attempt to shift blame for the current dire socio-economic crisis in Afghanistan onto the United States.
3. Abdul Ghani Baradar was announced as the new Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs on February 7 and is moving to replace Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Salam Hanafi as head of economic policy for the Taliban government, which may increase ethnic tensions. Abdul Salam Hanafi is one of the senior-most Uzbek Taliban leaders in the government, therefore his sidelining may contribute to increasing ethnic tensions. Abdul Salam Hanafi and Taliban Minister of Mines and Petroleum Shahabuddin Delawar were both seated at the head of the table alongside Baradar as he chaired his first meeting of the economic commission. However, when Baradar chaired another meeting of the economic commission the following day, Abdul Salam Hanafi was absent while the other Taliban leaders who normally attend the Economic Commission, such as Minister of Commerce Nooruddin Azizi, Minister of Finance Hidayatullah Badri, and Shahabuddin Delawar were all present. Shahabudin Delawar appears to be working closely with Abdul Ghani Baradar and is often photographed alongside him, so he will likely assist Baradar in influencing the Economic Commission. As the Haqqani Network and Kandahar-based Taliban factions jockey for power and try to increase their own influence, they could increase ethnic tensions within Afghanistan.
4. Continuing border clashes complicate Taliban government and Pakistani efforts to resolve disuputes over the Durand Line diplomatically. Pakistani National Security Advisor, Moeed Yusuf met with Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, Taliban Deputy Second Prime Minister Mawlawi Abdul Salam Hanafi, and other Taliban economic officials to discuss bilateral relations on January 29. Moeed Yusuf likely intended to discuss the ongoing tensions over the Durand Line. The visit appeared to focus predominantly on trade and transit issues instead. Yusuf stated later on February 3 that Pakistan and China are critical to stabilizing Afghanistan. Taliban deputy spokesman Inamullah Samangani stated on February 7 that the Taliban government is willing to discuss the Durand Line issue and denied allegations that the Pakistani Taliban was using Afghan territory to conduct attacks in Pakistan. There are some indicators that Pakistan may be starting to lose patience with the Taliban government. Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi stated the Pakistani government considers the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) a test case of the Taliban government’s ability to control militant groups in Afghanistan. These comments came shortly after attacks by the TTP and Baloch militants killed a number of Pakistani soldiers and the Pakistani government claimed these attacks were planned in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan stated on February 13 that there is no alternative to the Taliban government and the world must work with them. The Pakistani military launched artillery strikes on TTP militants’ positions in Sarkano and Naray Districts, Kunar Province on February 15 shortly after TTP militants conducted sniper attacks on Pakistani border posts. Local Taliban units returned fire and the Taliban government allegedly sent hundreds of reinforcements, including special forces, to the border after these clashes.
The most significant clash came on February 24 when Taliban soldiers fired on Pakistani Frontier Corps soldiers at the Spin Boldak-Chaman border crossing. Exact Taliban and Pakistani casualty figures are unknown, but more than twenty people were reported killed and wounded. Similar to prior clashes, the Taliban responded by sending additional reinforcements, likely from the 205th Corps, to the border. A few days later, talks between the Taliban governor of Kandahar, Yusuf Wafa, and Pakistani officials reportedly led to the border reopening. These reoccurring border clashes demonstrate the Taliban is either unable or unwilling to prevent its soldiers from attacking the Pakistani border. The Taliban are also either unable or unwilling to prevent TTP militants from carrying out attacks against Pakistan. Both dynamics will seriously complicate Pakistan’s efforts to support, cooperate, and engage with the new Taliban government.
5. Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Chief Nadeem Anjum likely met with important Afghan warlords including Abdul Rashid Dostum, Mohammad Atta Noor, and Mohammad Mohaqiq, in Ankara, Turkey, on February 13. Anjum reportedly also met with NRF leader Ahmad Massoud in an unnamed regional country, likely Tajikistan, before the meeting in Turkey. Anjum requested the meeting to address Pakistani concerns about Afghanistan’s “deteriorating situation” and allegedly said Pakistan wanted to maintain a strategic relationship with non-Pashtun Afghan politicians who might be more amenable to compromising over the Durand Line. Waqif Hakimi, a close aide to Atta Noor, reportedly said Anjum was unhappy with the Taliban government’s unwillingness to compromise and include other Afghan political factions in policy decision making. Prominent pro-Taliban social media accounts condemned the meeting as indicative of Pakistan’s “treachery” and called for military action against Pakistan. Ongoing border tensions will continue to complicate the relationship between Pakistan and the Taliban government and may eventually lead Pakistan to increase its engagement with anti-Taliban opposition forces.
6. China has yet to commit to providing substantive humanitarian aid or investment into Afghanistan’s economy despite continued diplomatic engagement with the Taliban government. Chinese Ambassador to Afghanistan Wang Yu met with Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Mutaqqi on February 3 to discuss the expansion of bilateral trade between China and Afghanistan as well as potential Chinese investment in Afghan solar energy and mining. Wang Yu also met with Taliban Interior Minister and leader of the Haqqani Network Sirajuddin Haqqani on February 10 to discuss bilateral relations. Yu likely tried to push Sirajuddin Haqqani to control terrorist groups such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and restrain them from carrying out attacks against Chinese interests. China previously delivered a small shipment of humanitarian aid on January 27 to the Haqqani-run Taliban Ministry of Refugees. The lack of substantive aid and investment indicates that China is not yet convinced the Taliban will be both willing and able to control militant groups hostile to China.
7. The Russian President’s Special Envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, announced that Russia has accepted a request on February 10 from the Taliban to send diplomats to the Afghan Embassy in Moscow. Kabulov said the Taliban asked him to allow them to send two or three new diplomats to Moscow. His statement that Russia regarded the management of Afghan embassies as an internal matter indicates that Russia is likely to accept these appointments. The Taliban do not appear to currently have personnel stationed in Moscow. These new Taliban diplomats will likely attempt to exert control over the Afghan Embassy in Russia, possibly keeping some career diplomatic staff from the prior Afghan Republic. Former Afghan government diplomatic personnel still control all Afghan embassies with the exception of Pakistan, possibly Iran, and possibly China.
8. Senior Taliban Ministry of Defense official Mufti Latifullah Hakimi and Taliban Minister of Health Qalandar Ibad led a Taliban diplomatic delegation to Geneva to engage in talks with humanitarian non-government organizations and European officials from February 7-11. The Taliban delegation also included representatives from the ministries of Interior, Foreign Affairs, and Justice. These talks were hosted by the Geneva Call Foundation and covered solutions to the current humanitarian crisis, human rights, healthcare, and unexploded ordinance. The delegation met with the Red Cross and various other non-government organizations. The Swiss Foreign Ministry has emphasized that the Taliban presence on Swiss soil does not amount to Swiss recognition of the Taliban government. At the end of the talks, the Taliban delegation called upon the international community to facilitate the delivery of aid and to engage with the Taliban government “in line with IEA policies and values.” This emphasis on respecting IEA policies and values is likely intended to show that the Taliban government will not compromise on its policies in response to international pressure. Geneva Call Foundation in turn agreed to promote the protection of health and aid workers as well as promote education for all Afghans.
Another 200 Taliban soldiers completed military training and joined local Taliban military units in Kapisa Province on February 9
 Panipat refers to a bloody historical battle fought between the Pashtun Afghan Durrani Empire led by Ahmad Shah Abdali and the Maratha Empire in 1761.