Taliban Struggles to Contain Afghan National Resistance Front
By Peter Mills
Co-produced by the Institute for the Study of War and the Critical Threats Project
Key Takeaway: The Taliban government is struggling to defeat the National Resistance Front (NRF), a growing anti-Taliban insurgency in northeastern Afghanistan. Taliban leaders appointed a new slate of military commanders to lead anti-NRF operations, indicating dissatisfaction with the previous commanders’ performance. Political and ethnic divisions are also likely undermining Taliban forces. Continued Taliban failures against the NRF could lead to the strengthening of the Haqqani Network within the Taliban’s military leadership.
The Taliban government appointed several successive commanders who have struggled to defeat the NRF in Panjshir and Baghlan provinces. Senior Taliban military leaders have launched repeated operations against the NRF but have achieved only intermittent short-term success and failed to decisively quash NRF activity. Taliban Minister of Defense Mohammad Yaqoub, his Chief of Army Staff Qari Fasihuddin, and his Deputy Defense Minister and senior Taliban military leader Fazl Mazloom have all previously led operations against the NRF. Fasihuddin originally led the operation to conquer the Panjshir Valley in September 2021. Although Fasihuddin’s initial operation saw rapid short-term success, the continued deployment of large numbers of Taliban forces was an early indicator of long-term problems. By February 2022, more than 10,000 Taliban troops were reportedly involved in the operation to suppress NRF insurgent activity in northeastern Afghanistan. Fasihuddin and Mazloom jointly conducted counter-NRF operations in the Andarab Valley, Baghlan Province in April. Mazloom later led a separate offensive against the NRF in northern Panjshir in mid-May. Yaqoub also repeatedly visited the Panjshir Valley and commanded offensive operations against the NRF in February, May, and July 2022. Local Taliban units retreated without orders in early July, allowing the NRF to capture territory in the east of neighboring Baghlan Province. Yaqoub took direct command of the counteroffensive to retake that territory later that month to prevent further disobedience among Taliban forces.
The Taliban government appointed another military commander to the counter-NRF fight in August 2022, indicating ongoing concern with the state of the campaign. Senior Taliban military commander and Deputy Minister of Defense Abdul Qayum Zakir took command of Taliban forces fighting the NRF in the Andarab and Panjshir Valleys on August 21. Zakir previously served as head of the Taliban military commission from 2010-2014 and became Yaqoub’s deputy in 2020. Zakir is likely bringing in hundreds of Taliban reinforcements from Helmand Province to fight the NRF. Zakir’s counteroffensive against the NRF in Panjshir has not seen notable success so far, though major flooding in the Panjshir Valley in August may be hindering his ability to move forces within the valley and conduct offensive operations against the NRF. Reports from mid-August indicate that the NRF is capturing outlying villages within Panjshir Province.
Local Taliban forces in Panjshir and Baghlan provinces are likely struggling to unite their efforts due to ethnic divisions within their forces. Taliban forces in Panjshir Province come from a variety of different backgrounds and include local Tajik Taliban units from Panjshir Province and neighboring Badakhshan Province as well as many Pashtun Taliban fighters from southern and eastern Afghanistan. Local Tajik Taliban forces appear to be increasingly unwilling to fight the NRF, which would likely force the Taliban to draw increasing numbers of Pashtun Taliban forces from southern Afghanistan. A local Tajik Taliban commander defected from the Taliban and joined the NRF in May while Tajik Taliban units from Badakhshan reportedly refused to continue fighting the NRF in the Panjshir in July. These events likely fed into pre-existing mistrust between Pashtun and Tajik Taliban units. Taliban fighters have previously committed war crimes, including torture and extrajudicial killings, against the local, predominantly Tajik, population in the Panjshir Valley. An influx of Pashtun Taliban fighters will likely exacerbate the pre-existing inter-ethnic tensions and worsen cooperation between Pashtun and Tajik Taliban fighters.
Factional infighting within the Taliban is also likely affecting its campaign against the NRF and continued failure could empower Taliban commanders from the Haqqani Network. The Haqqani Network is a branch of the Taliban movement that has existed for decades as a sophisticated extremist organization that maintains ties to Al-Qaeda. The leader of the Haqqani Network, Sirajuddin Haqqani, hosted former Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri at a house in Kabul until Zawahiri’s death in a US drone strike. The Haqqani Network is known to exert extensive influence over southeastern Afghanistan, including Khost and Paktia, and often competes for influence and power with the Kandahar-based Taliban leadership. Taliban forces based in Panjshir are drawn from Kandahar, Helmand, and Haqqani-dominated provinces in southeastern Afghanistan. Leader of the Haqqani Network Sirajuddin Haqqani and Minister of Defense Mohammad Yaqoub—who draws his support base from Kandahar—compete for influence within the Taliban movement. The Taliban security chief for Panjshir declared his allegiance to Sirajuddin Haqqani in an online video and criticized Taliban forces under Yaqoub’s command. Soon after, the Yaquob-aligned Taliban governor for Panjshir removed this security chief from command. Taliban forces later arrested troops affiliated with the former security chief, indicating continuing tensions between the rival commanders. If Taliban commanders affiliated with Yaqoub continue to fail to quash the NRF rebellion, the Taliban leadership could decide to shift responsibility to other factions within the Taliban, increasing their influence at the expense of Yaqoub.
Taliban forces are increasingly using air assets to support their operations in the Andarab and Panjshir but this is unlikely to have a decisive strategic effect. The Taliban Air Force has been using Mi-17 transport helicopters to ferry troops and supplies around mountainous terrain within the Panjshir and Andarab Valleys. The Taliban have also used Mi-24 attack helicopters on at least one occasion to carry out airstrikes on NRF positions in Eastern Baghlan Province. The NRF shot down a Taliban-operated Mi-17 in mid-June 2022, despite lacking any man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS). The Taliban Air Force continued to use American-made helicopters, including at least four MD-500 light attack helicopters, during Zakir’s Augustoffensive into Khenj District, Panjshir Province. Taliban Chief of Army Staff Fasihuddin stated recently that the Taliban Air Force has 60 working aircraft in service, an increase from the 40 claimed in January. The Taliban government is clearly prioritizing the air force and will likely continue to keep some aircraft operational for the foreseeable future. Despite these additional aircraft, the Taliban Air Force is still less than half the size of the former Afghan Air Force. The addition of a few more helicopters will help Taliban operations against the NRF on a tactical level but is unlikely to result in significant strategic effects due to the limited number of airframes and constraints surrounding securing additional spare parts to keep aircraft operable.
NRF activity is expanding beyond the Andarab-Panjshir Valleys despite Taliban pressure. NRF attacks in Takhar Province have recently surged with increased attacks in Taloqan, Namakab, Rustaq, Kalafgan, and Fakhar districts. NRF forces also reportedly clashed with Taliban forces in Kishm and Ragh districts in Badakhshan Province. Several local Tajik Taliban commanders in Badakhshan have reportedly defected to the NRF over the past few months. The loss of local commanders who are intimately familiar with the rough, mountainous terrain in northeastern Afghanistan will hinder the Taliban’s ability to govern and control these areas. The defection of Tajik Taliban commanders will also likely increase mistrust between Tajik and Pashtun Taliban forces, further hindering the Taliban’s ability to carry out operations against the NRF.
It remains to be seen whether the NRF threat will unite Taliban factions or further divide them. A credible internal threat to the Taliban’s rule may help the movement overcome its internal divisions and remain cohesive. Alternatively, worsening Taliban divisions in response to the growing NRF insurgency would indicate that those divisions run deep. The longer the NRF is able to grow its insurgency, the greater the chance that it could eventually acquire support from another state. External support could enable the NRF to eventually become powerful enough to threaten Taliban control over parts of Afghanistan. If local Tajik Taliban fighters lose their willingness to fight the NRF, or defect outright to the NRF, then NRF capabilities will continue to grow at the expense of the Taliban’s ability to govern and control northeastern Afghanistan. In this scenario, the Taliban leadership may increasingly deploy southern Pashtun Taliban fighters to the Panjshir and Andarab, likely further exacerbating pre-existing ethnic tensions and possibly driving increased support for the NRF. Finally, the Taliban’s counter-NRF fight may have implications for national inter-Taliban power struggles. If Yaqoub’s commanders continue to fail to defeat the NRF, then Sirajuddin Haqqani may be able to argue for appointing his own commanders, increasing the Haqqani Network’s influence in northeastern Afghanistan.