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Afghanistan over the next two years: what types of violence, what types of triggers?

September 15, 2021
Saleh and Massoud: The Afghan leaders challenging the Taliban | Taliban  News | Al Jazeera

Summary: Resistance to the Taliban is not yet inevitable.  Much depends on how they perform in government.  But resistance – and triggers of this resistance – could come from a diverse range of sources, not all of it violent. 

The sudden collapse of the Ghani government and its military in mid-August allowed the Taliban to walk into Kabul unchecked and victorious.  The entire country is now under the control of the Taliban.  Aside from ongoing, hard to verify, sporadic clashes in the Panjshir valley, fighting across Afghanistan has stopped. 

Every side was taken aback by the suddenness of the Taliban’s victory, including the Taliban.  Ahmad Massoud, self-styled leader of the National Resistance Front (NRF), based in the Panjshir, called for a “National Uprising” within days of the Taliban’s victory.  This call has not been heeded, largely because no one is resourced to achieve this and many sections of the population are appreciating a respite from nationwide violence – however it came about and whatever the concerns about “Taliban 2.0” as a guarantor of this peace.

There are many warning signs about a likely Taliban performance in its new role of nation builder.  The Taliban, absolutely acknowledged as fierce and effective guerrilla fighters, do not appear to have any credible skills or competences for governing, despite having had twenty years in which to formulate a plan and learn from the mistakes of their previous stint in government and the fresher mistakes of the Karzai and Ghani governments.  Their announced selection of ministers – almost entirely drawn from Taliban military and religious cliques – is painfully narrow and self-serving, excluding women, ethnicities and religions.  Reports of post-victory revenge killings and abductions are multiple and credible.  Indications of angry disputes within the Taliban leadership as they divided up the spoils of government also point to future turbulence. 

Many see a return to conflict as unavoidable.  Some, such as Mr Massoud, are advocating it.  But wider conflict – the collapse into a new version of the four decade civil war – may not (yet) be inevitable.  The Taliban are broadly expected to deliver three things: governance, human rights and counter terrorism.  They have made lukewarm commitments to all three.  But it is not realistic to judge the Taliban on progress thus far: they have barely formed a government and have not begun to announce detailed policies, let alone implement them.  It will need at least the rest of the year to form a picture of the direction in which the Taliban intend to travel.  If they are able to demonstrate efforts to address these issues – perhaps not succeeding, but at least showing some willingness to try – it is possible that the population may grudgingly tolerate extensive restrictions of social and cultural life in exchange for a respite from violence and a large reduction in government corruption.

But the early indicators suggest that the Taliban are likely to provoke, alienate and discriminate.  They already seem more disposed towards the use of coercion and violence to secure compliance rather than persuasion, advocacy and diversity of opinion to develop good governance and popular support.

There are several factors that could serve as a trigger for resistance against the Taliban.  Resistance does not necessarily mean violence, but some triggers could certainly lead to violent resistance.  Resistance could come in different forms and violence from different directions.  

What could trigger resistance to the Taliban?

  • Taliban policies – abusive human rights, harsh justice, discrimination against minority social groups, refusal to share power, counter-narcotics (leading to unemployment and economic collapse in some parts of the country). 
  • Taliban incompetence – poor of clumsy governance leading to (further) deterioration of the economy and national infrastructure.  Poorly handled security issues, e.g. actions taken against ISKP leading to civilian casualties in the course of counter-terrorist operations.  Failure to deliver on signature Taliban policies (e.g. corruption and counter-narcotics).
  • Taliban repressionabuse of human rights, excessive violence against peaceful demonstrations, eviction of social groups, illegal detention, torture.
  • Taliban internal conflictdisputes over policies and power-sharing between different factions of the Taliban.
  • Popular protest – marches, demonstrations, social media, calls to action.
  • External actions/actors – US/CIA overt/covert activities (e.g. backing the NRF with weapons and funding).  Pakistan/ISI overt/covert interference in Taliban governance, leading to backlash from some Taliban factions and/or parts of the Afghan population.
  • Humanitarian problems in the country – poorly handled by the Taliban, unemployment, food insecurity, collapsed infrastructure, population displacement.

What forms could resistance and violence take?

  • Internal to the Taliban government – (in the worst case a collapse of government and a “Taliban civil war”) power struggles, battles over succession and leadership, battles over policies such as counter-narcotics and their relationship to Al Qaeda.  Internal Taliban resistance could see factions disengaging with the leadership, perhaps setting up semi-autonomous areas of influence in the country or leading to stagnation of policies and governance.  It could also look like a shooting war between factions.
  • Resistance movement(s) – the classic form – local “mujahideen-style” groups, hearkening back and emulating the strategies and tactics of resistance against the Soviet Union.  The NRF has already declared its hand (although calling for national resistance so soon looks highly premature).  They may have the lead in the months to come: Ahmad Massoud (left in the top picture) has been educated, styled and designed to be a resistance leader (think: if all you have is a hammer, you see every problem as a nail).  But he is largely unproven.  He appears to have joined forces with the “caretaker President”: the former First Vice President from the old government, Amrullah Saleh (right in the top picture).  These are two potentially very powerful rallying flags for disaffected groups and holds open the door for a strong “Taliban are illegitimate” narrative.  But other warlords escaped the country and have the potential to regroup and return to the great game: Dostum and his son, Yar Dostum, Mohammed Atta, Ismail Khan.  Other, lesser, warlords and militia leaders may also enter the fray, perhaps capitalising on, or driven by, local events (Taliban repression) in their own provinces.  They are unlikely to act any time soon: survival is prized over premature and vain-glorious demonstrations.  They will watch and wait, biding their time and assessing the state of play.  The Panjshir valley and Bamian province may see their own indigenous resistance groups developing if the Taliban drift into aggressive repression rather than respectful negotiation.  Other provinces might throw up spontaneous leaders and localised resistance, dependent on Taliban action (or inaction).
  • Terrorist – The Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) will remain operational inside Afghanistan in the eastern provinces, Laghman, Nangarhar, Kunar, Nurestan.  They will continue to present a direct challenge to the Taliban.  The guerrilla poacher has now turned government gamekeeper: it will be interesting to see how the Taliban approach counter-terrorism, particularly now they they have the military hardware and trappings of an American-style army.  Other terrorist groups may also prove a threat to the Taliban government if it is perceived that they are not sufficiently hard-line or there are local disputes over assets, influence and religious interpretation.
  • Popular – It is a cliché that the Afghan population are not the same as they were under the last Taliban regime.  They are younger, better educated and far better connected and networked through the same media that the Taliban benefited from.  They have a much better understanding of their country, their politics and the international community outside of Afghanistan.  Their expectations have vastly changed.  We have already seen demonstrations, protests, passive resistance since the return of the Taliban – both inside Kabul and across the country.  Women’s protest movements seem to particularly perplex the Taliban.  Social media footage of journalists and women being beaten and dispersed with gun butts and gun fire spread quickly.  The Taliban may soon understand that they are now as much at the mercy of film showing death and injury to civilians as were the Ghani government and the US  military.  Protests that are violently targeted can lead to more protests and more clampdowns by an inexperienced government commanding ill-trained fighters.  It is possible that forms of “passive resistance” could become more creative, particularly if the Taliban use violence to suppress more overt demonstrations – graffiti, art, music, historical cultural references, fashion, Islamic debate, quotations from the Koran, underground media organisations, websites, blogs.  A few weeks before the collapse of the government, thousands of Afghans raised their voices above the roofs of the major cities to reject the Taliban.  Such massed vocal protest could be difficult for the Taliban to suppress and could rapidly catch on.
  • US/external – If the Taliban are patently failing to rein-in extremist groups (Al Qaeda is the most prominent) or the Taliban are otherwise proving problematic, the US has a sliding scale of overt, deniable and not-so-deniable options – sanctions, drone strikes, missiles, assassinations, bribes and arrests. 
  • Pakistan/external – military support for the Taliban (or a particular faction of the Taliban) and targeting of opponents of the Taliban, either of the military or covert type.
  • “Rogue violence” – contractors and mercenaries (Erik Prince, Wagner…), local Illegal Armed Groups, militias or criminal gangs/narco-traffickers, aiming to knock out an opponent or destabilise an area for a specific agenda.

Conclusions

Some of these forms of resistance are already happening – fighting in the Panjshir, anti-Taliban demonstrations and internal Talban disputes.  More organised forms of resistance – the NRF and other local warlords – will take longer, perhaps months, perhaps years.  To rally supporters, secure external backers, gather finances, create networks, access weapons and develop popular support takes time.  Mr Massoud and Mr Saleh would do worse than to look at the example of the Taliban’s defeat twenty years ago: spend a year or three in exile in a safe haven, regroup, mourn your dead, lick your wounds, identify the lessons and reach out to possible supporters.  And, above all develop a very powerful media machine that exposes every real, imagined or invented mistake the Taliban make.

But sudden incidents, such as a Taliban violent clampdown, Taliban internal fighting or a humanitarian disaster might trigger spontaneous resistance in particular parts of the country, perhaps exacerbated by a specific grievance or social, economic and geographical condition.  There are a lot of weapons and trained gunmen, many of them currently unemployed, across Afghanistan.  Many could be motivated and mobilised if the cause (or price) was right.  Such flashpoints might snowball.  But no one – certainly not “old school” warlords like Dostum or Ismail Khan – will want to jump in too early, while the Taliban still have the intangible factor of “momentum” in their favour and the population are still insufficiently angry.  Time must be bided.

It is striking how many of these triggers are dependent upon the Taliban’s actions.  The Taliban have entered government in a rush and extremely naively.  The totality of their victory has made them arrogant and intolerant.  Their language and actions are very “macho” and aggressive, their narrative at pains to celebrate military victory as proof that they are right.  Will they embrace the decidedly non-macho, complex, boring and largely thankless task of administration?  Is it possible they will moderate their stance once they fully comprehend the social, political, economic and humanitarian obstacles facing them?  Do they have the stomach for compromise and discourse?  Hard to tell, but probably not.  At any rate, the early signs are not very encouraging.  Twenty years ago, it was the Americans that proved to be the agents of the Taliban’s destruction.  This time, it could be the Taliban themselves.   

3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 15, 2021 7:05 pm

    I shudder at the prospect of much collateral damage as the factions sort themselves out. I agree with the tenor of your article that winning a war and running a country take vastly different skills. Who among the warriors has had the experience of leading a slow-moving but necessary bureaucracy?

    • September 16, 2021 9:08 am

      Hi Ron – nearly 10 years ago I quoted The Economist in one of my blog articles:

      23 June 2012 – Quoting The Economist in my article. On the situation in Egypt:

      “The best way to tame the Islamists, as Turkey’s experience shows, is to deny them the moral high ground to which repression elevates them, and condemn them instead to the responsibilities and compromises of day-to-day government”

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