Since the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan in August, one group has remained strident in its resistance, with plans of expanding on both a national and global level.
The National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRF), a grassroots resistance movement that emerged from the rugged terrain of the Panjshir Valley, has vowed to keep its momentum strong against Taliban aggression, despite the group’s rise to power with its taking of Kabul four months ago.
Historically, the Panjshir Valley served as a pocket of resistance in the past against the Soviet invasion and subsequently the Taliban’s rise in the 1990s. A little north of Kabul, its mountainous landscape provides a defensive advantage that has played a strong role in making it the epicenter of guerrilla warfare, withstanding all types of foreign interlopers that have knocked on its doors.
Today, the NRF finds itself trapped in a deja-vu moment as it grapples with the challenges of ridding Afghanistan of the Taliban once again, and this time alone.
Who Are the NRF?
The NRF is led by Ahmad Massoud, son of Ahmad Shah Massoud or the “Lion of Panjshir,” a key figure who led multiple offensives against the Taliban in the 1990s.
Ahmad Shah Massoud played a critical role in forming an anti-Taliban resistance after the group’s first rise to power in 1996. The powerful commander was known for his larger-than-life personality and keen leadership. He was assassinated by al-Qaida just two days before the 9/11 attacks.
For his now 32-year-old son, Massoud junior, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Ahmad Massoud is closely following in his late father’s footsteps through the formation of his own resistance movement.
“Ahmad Massoud is young, clean, and educated, he is not associated with the corruption of the past 20 years,” says NRF foreign relations head Ali Nazary.
“We resist for freedom, justice, independence and for the welfare of every single citizen inside the country. The NRF was formed by people, not political parties and its platform is not for a specific region or a specific ethnic group. We are fighting for everyone in the country. The only resistance group that has a legitimate presence inside Afghanistan at the moment is the NRF,” says Nazary.
For many people joining the resistance movement, the NRF is more than just an idea.
Dadgar, a commander with the uprising who goes by his last name, says he joined the resistance because of his shared values with the movement. “We have respect for the law, human rights, women’s rights, children’s rights and freedom. Those who control Afghanistan today do not value these things and they challenge anyone who is against them. This situation inspired me to join the resistance and stand up against the Taliban. We are not in favor of war or the continuation of war. Our resistance is not for war but for peace. We want a government that respects and values these basic rights.”
The demographics of those involved in the resistance vary, and these days and weeks, recruiting for the NRF has become simpler due to Taliban aggression.
“In Panjshir we have around 17 bases and it’s well protected with ground and aerial forces. Same with Parwan, Kapisa, Badakhshan, Balkh and Takhar. People are also reaching out to us from the east and the south but it’s going to take time for them to announce their forces, it’s because you have the Taliban oppressing many Pashtuns, the Achakzai tribe is a good example,” says Nazary.
He also mentions that the Taliban’s ethnocentric policies throughout the country, especially in the north, have convinced people that they should join the resistance, making it easier for the NRF.
“We haven’t been making much of an effort. The people themselves willingly come and reach our bases. We have been getting many youth [to] join our ranks, middle-aged men, remnants of ANDSF and former professionals; it’s been a drastic increase compared to September and our pockets of resistance are in many provinces not just Panjshir or Andarab.”
The Taliban contests the NRF’s claims, with spokesman Muhammad Suhail Shaheen recently telling Russian media that the Taliban is not militarily engaged with the group. According to TASS, Shaheen said, “What they call National Resistance exists only on paper, there’s no place you can see them on the ground. They don’t really care about the people of Afghanistan, they care about some former rulers, they have no grassroot support. They depend on social media and spread fake news; this is it.”
Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center, weighs in on the NRF’s ground potential by stating that they are a modest movement with limited military capacity but still a very determined group of fighters, nonetheless. He believes that the resistance is finding it difficult to operate inside the country as the Taliban control the majority of Afghan territory, but this notion could change depending on how the coming months unfold.
“If the Taliban are unable to consolidate power and gain legitimacy domestically then that could allow the resistance to strengthen and that could benefit the current resistance. But right now, we are looking at an anti-Taliban force that is quite modest and doesn’t really have the military capacity to do much at this point,” says Kugelman.
Kugelman argues that the satisfaction or dissatisfaction of the Afghan people will be largely dependent on how the Taliban deal with their handicaps such as their internal divisions or whether they can address incredibly challenging policy conundrums such as the unfolding catastrophic humanitarian crisis. This will either push Afghans toward or away from the resistance; only time will tell.
Out With the Old, In With the New
Moving forward, the NRF believes in revamping Afghanistan’s outdated social and political systems in order to bring forth something that will serve the people first. From the movement’s perspective, Afghanistan has experienced a vicious cycle of conflict and to end this perpetual conflict, they have proposed certain systematic and political changes that can undo the divisions of the past few decades thus creating a new social contract.
“The only way of ending this conflict which has always been over power is to distribute power from Kabul to elsewhere, so everyone sees themselves being part of the power structure, which has never happened in this country. We believe the best political system is a decentralized system which can devolve power from the center to the peripheries,” says Nazary.
For a multiethnic and multicultural country like Afghanistan where no particular group enjoys dominance, a political system that embraces diversity and could guarantee political and social pluralism is what the NRF find most fitting.
“We believe, to have social justice, freedom, for everyone to enjoy their rights and be equal under the law — you need a new political system, a new Afghanistan. And the best political system in our view is a federal system, which many multinational/multicultural states have embraced and have been successful in bringing stability and lasting peace in their country,” says Nazary.
Leaders of the NRF have noted the importance of learning from other countries’ experiences and adapting them to fit Afghanistan’s unique mold.
“This is why we have been emphasizing a new formula that is compatible with our traditions, and our realities, and could be acceptable to every citizen in the country. Unfortunately, the models of governance that have been used in the past few decades and generally in the past few centuries have never been based on these realities,” says Nazary.
However, experts like Kugelman view a completely new form of governance as unrealistic and untimely. “I think it’s much too ambitious of a goal to impose a new form of governance at this time. That would require another war, which I don’t think there is much stomach for.”
“Mobilize, Organize, and Influence”
In the four months since the Taliban takeover, the NRF has experienced heavy clashes, late night ambushes, and skirmishes with the Taliban. Fighting continues despite the coming cold months ahead.
Commander Dadgar says, “The weather has gotten cold, but we are continuing our efforts, we are constantly changing our locations for our safety, and we are in touch with all resistance members in every active province, there is no stopping.”
In terms of formal plans, Nazary says, “We have both political efforts and military efforts. We are preparing ourselves militarily and we have a military strategy that we are pursuing.”
Politically, the NRF are lobbying against the possible international recognition of the Taliban’s government as the legitimate government of Afghanistan.
“We believe we need representations throughout the world. Our first representation is here in the United States, we have the rights to operate and be able to lobby and advocate here. We are working on opening more offices to bring such awareness throughout the world,” says Nazary.
In late October, the NRF registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act in the United States in order to engage in political lobbying. Registration is not tied to any sort of political recognition on the part of the U.S. government.
With these activities, the NRF positions itself as very different from the Taliban and hopes to take advantage of those differences.
“We are different from the Taliban, they are a sanctioned group, considered a terrorist group, with limited movement. However, we can travel and have any type of activity based on the laws of the countries we are operating from. We have the support of the diaspora communities which could make a big difference. We are also present on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Clubhouse, Twitter Spaces etc. We are using every possible approach and means there is to organize, mobilize, spread awareness, and influence opinion. This is our greatest strength,” Nazary says.
Kugelman sees the NRF’s efforts to spread awareness as justifiable, but argues that the group must jump through many hoops in order to make any noticeable change.
“The NRF have to get the word out, they are trying to emphasize the urgency of their fight, which is the right thing to do, but it’s tough in a context where so many key players and key countries want to move on and unfortunately forget about the war. The U.S., for example, has no compelling motivation to get involved with internal players of the resistance. If anything we have heard the Biden administration saying that they perceive bigger priorities elsewhere.”
In terms of the use of social media as a tool, Kugelman mentions the heavy risks it has posed ever since the Taliban takeover.
“There has been so much misinformation about Afghanistan that has flooded social media, both relating to the Taliban and to the NRF. In that sense it’s important for the NRF to correct their record. More and more analysts like me have become increasingly mistrustful of content that’s posted on social media, especially [from accounts] that are not verified.”
A Message to the World
With Afghanistan’s rapidly worsening humanitarian and economic crisis, the NRF predicts that there are only two paths for the future. Either Afghanistan is saved, and democracy is reestablished, or the current situation continues, and international terrorism increases its presence and threatens Afghanistan’s existence.
Afghanistan is at a very critical juncture in its history, much worse than anything the people have experienced before. Despite this, Nazary believes the international community can reverse many of these changes.
“There is still time to make a new trajectory that could bring lasting peace and freedom, but without a proactive policy or role from the international community, it is very difficult for only the NRF to save the whole nation. We are going to do our best and continue our struggle until we free every single inch of Afghanistan but to be successful in this endeavor, we will need the support of the international community and ignoring this problem will not help anyone.”