By Shivam Shekhawat
Backtracking on its commitments, the Ministry of Higher Education of the self-declared Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) has banned women from attending universities ‘until further notice’.
Following this, another order was issued barring women from working with NGOs and humanitarian organisations, expediting their erasure from public life in Afghanistan. The decision, criticised by the international community as well as common Afghans will have far-reaching implications for the crisis-ridden country. Many aid organisations have had to stop their programmes while women have taken to the streets to reclaim their space. Having the potential to push Afghanistan further into an abyss, these decisions also quash hopes that some had about the group dialling down its hardline tendencies to improve its prospects of gaining international recognition. Instead, the Taliban have only demonstrated their intransigence in the face of external pressure.
While 2022 didn’t see any progress in bringing about peace and stability in Afghanistan—sections of Afghan society did resist and push back against the Taliban. At present, the two biggest challenges that the Taliban face are from international terrorist groups as well as local resistance groups. While the conflict with the Islamic State – Khorasan Province (ISKP) for influence has continued unabated, it is the presence of other insurgent groups, like the National Resistance Front (NRF), which have grandiose plans for a post-Taliban government in Kabul, which is also a cause of concern. Although the potential of NRF in weakening the Taliban is questionable at the current juncture, together with the growing discontent amongst common Afghans, which is now spilling out into the streets, they can pose a risk to the Taliban’s unity and strength in the long term.
Status of the anti-Taliban insurgency
Recently, reports about intensive fighting between the Taliban and the forces of the NRF in the last week of December surfaced online. Concentrated in the Andarab, the NRF forces repelled both ground and air attacks from the Taliban with both sides facing heavy casualties.
Since the Taliban’s ascent to power, skirmishes have happened quite frequently between the two. Under the stewardship of Ahmad Massoud, the NRF has initiated an insurgency from its stronghold in the north to defeat the Taliban. Focusing on a two-stage insurgency, the group’s emphasis in the short run is on draining the enemy by conducting targeted strikes followed by liberating regions and accumulating resources to prepare a full-scale offensive in the future. While Massoud has been trying hard to co-opt their struggle in the legacy of the Northern Alliance, many analysts believe that the NRF commanders’ do not enjoy the same type of legitimacy.
Focusing on a younger demographic, the NRF aims to set up a ‘federal, decentralised, democratic republic’ in Afghanistan. Refusing to categorise their struggle as a civil war, Massoud situates it within the overall ‘Global War on Terror’, effectively othering the Taliban and claiming for itself the title of the last anti-terrorist force. Deriding the Pashtuns for monopolising power, it talks of devolving power to the ethnic minorities. While support for the resistance, both financial and material has been abysmal, they are confident of taking their fight further in 2023, refusing to stop till the Taliban’s exploitation continues.
Other groups which have emerged post the ‘fall of Kabul’ include the Afghanistan Freedom Front which claims to have a presence in all 34 provinces, the Afghanistan Islamic National and Liberation Movement which fights for former security officers killed by the Taliban and smaller groups like the Soldiers of Hazaristan, Freedom Corps, the Liberation Front of Afghanistan, etc. Not much is known about their members or their presence on the ground, with their social media handles sometimes being the only proof of their existence, where they share posts about claiming responsibility for attacks or upload undated videos of fighting. Some former members of the Afghan security forces have also taken up arms against the group.
The Taliban has consistently downplayed the threat posed by any insurgency but the stationing of troops in the north, reaching 10,000 in February 2022 and the deployment of important leaders like Chief of Defence Staff, Qari Faishuddin; Minister of Defence, Mullah Muhammad Yaqoub, etc signals otherwise. While they denounce the NRF as warlords taking orders from abroad, the leadership is cognisant of the threat it poses, as was evident by the talks between the two sides in January 2022. But its counter-insurgency measures have failed to tame the insurgency in the north due to the ethnic composition of the fighters on both sides.
Taliban soldiers with Tajik ancestry refuse to fight the NRF, with some even defecting to the latter and the deployment of ethnic Pashtuns in the north only fans the differences. This places the Taliban between a rock and a hard place, with some local units withdrawing unilaterally from their forward posts in July.
Lobbying for international support
At the 10th Herat Security dialogue, the first since the Taliban came to power, leaders from across the political spectrum of Afghanistan convened, along with delegates from the European Union and the United States (US), Afghan diaspora and former resistance leaders to deliberate on an inclusive political system in Afghanistan and create a roadmap for the future. Ahmed Massoud stressed on the importance of all anti-Taliban groups uniting against their common adversary for their common goal of peace in Afghanistan. He also exhorted India to shed its pragmatic approach and support the resistance like it did the last time.
While the Taliban is the common adversary of all the opposition groups in the country, there are still differences over a common approach as the disappointing experience with the Republic, as well as the pre-existing divisions have made reaching at a consensus extremely difficult. Most resistance groups are composed of ethnic minorities like the Tajiks and Uzbeks but there are also non-Taliban Pashtun resistance groups. Their perception of how to move forward varies, especially on the question of the degree of centralisation.
These ethnic divisions apart from efforts to one-up each other make any long-term collaboration difficult. While the international community is averse to the idea of directly supporting the resistance groups, the US and other countries have started limited engagement with them. Other regional efforts addressing the humanitarian situation in the country and calling for inclusive and representative government, like the Moscow format consultations hosted by Russia have also continued in parallel.
‘Either all of us or none of us’
Since the proclamation of the new edict banning women from universities, there have been instances of protests and demonstrations around the country. Standing in solidarity, many male students refused to sit for their university exams in Kandahar university and the Nangarhar medical faculty, staging a walkout and refusing to continue their education if women aren’t allowed to study. Some male professors and lecturers also asked for a policy reversal, resigning from their jobs or doing symbolic acts of protest to register their discontent.
Apart from acts of armed insurgency, the coming of the Taliban and the group’s incremental actions aimed at invisibilising women has brought women to the streets, chanting slogans of ‘bread, work, and freedom’ and calling for justice, something unprecedented. Braving harsh reprisals and torture, they have pushed back at efforts to hide their person from the Afghan polity.
‘The Taliban’s response to these peaceful protests has ranged from complete denial of any discontent to arbitrarily detaining the protestors. The group adopted brutal measures like electric shocks or hitting the protestors with their rifle butts. These protests are also supported by the NRF which also welcomed statements of support from the international community and called for ‘joint actions’.
The Deputy Education Minister of the IEA justified the ban by blaming women for not following the Islamic dress code fully and doing ‘prostitution in the name of education’. Downplaying the importance of an education for a woman, he stated that a woman’s foremost obligation is towards her husband. He also blamed them for interacting with the other gender and studying subjects that they do not necessarily need. This exercise of power by ostracising the women and curbing their agency has become a consistent troupe in the Taliban’s playbook. Defying the restrictions and ignoring the threat to their life, the very act of male and female students protesting together against these regressive policies is thus a brave act of defiance.
While the past year saw the mushrooming of different resistance groups in Afghanistan, cooperation between them is limited by geography and ethnicity. Their actions and attacks are in their ‘spheres of influence’, with ideological and political differences persisting among some. The main demands of these groups are somewhat similar, focused on the devolution of power and forming an inclusive government, with representation from all ethnic minorities, but the chances of cooperation and forming a united front seem bleak in the near future.
Without a coherent approach, their attacks and targeted killings will fail to materialise into a credible threat to the Taliban’s unity. Apart from Tajikistan which allows freedom of movement and supplies owing to the composition of the resistance groups, the prospect of other countries, both in the region and the west supporting their resistance efforts seem dismal. Without external support, the coming year might not see a major transformation in the resistance.
What distinguishes the current anti-Taliban insurgency from resistance in the 1990s is also the presence of social media and how different resistance groups are leveraging it.
While it does help in propagating their message and keeping people abreast with their plan of actions, the tendency of the groups to take credit for an act that they didn’t do or of two groups claiming to have committed the same attack dents their legitimacy and raises questions about their claims of their growing footprint and influence in the country. The Afghan populace is also well aware of the propaganda about the number of attacks and casualties, knowing that both sides inflate and downplay their numbers as per their convenience to get support from the common people.
According to Kate Clark, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent research organisation based in Kabul, while the resistance is historically not that strong, the Taliban itself took years to regroup and so mapping how the resistance shapes moving forward is imperative. As the Taliban are predominantly experienced fighters and militants, the group would be prepared to face an armed resistance more than a civil disobedience movement. This is exactly why the current protests and symbolic acts of resistance become significant.
While international sanction might not dissuade them from taking hardline postures, it still refocuses attention on the Afghan people and their fight. With the group already battling factionalism, an external stimulus can be a double-edged sword: It can unite the factions or exacerbate their differences. Women-led protests have the potential to widen the cleavages in the administration. As winter ebbs, the sporadic attacks and fighting will continue, but with no indication of the anti-Taliban groups gaining an upper hand in the short term.