A Year After U.S. Exit, Afghan Rebel Groups Are Waging War on Taliban Rule

One year since the departure of the final U.S. military plane from Kabul marked the end of a 20-year war effort in Afghanistan, the Taliban's reign over the country remains powerful, but not undisputed.

While jihadi groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS) present a threat to the Taliban's Islamic Emirate on one front, a number of rebel groups are also locked in combat with rulers of Afghanistan, who are still unrecognized by the international community.

The actual strength of these organizations remains a matter of dispute, especially given their geographical and geopolitical isolation, but their common goal of overthrowing the Islamic Emirate makes them a lingering challenge for the Taliban's project to legitimize and secure their lasting control over Afghanistan.

Newsweek spoke with five such groups, nearly all of whom claimed to be made up mostly of former Afghan National Security Forces personnel now fighting against the Taliban in support of a democratic Afghanistan without any international backing. Each warned that, rather than posing as a force for stability, the Taliban had opened the floodgates to other militant groups including ISIS, Al-Qaeda, the Islamic Union of Uzbekistan, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, Jamaat Ansurallah (sometimes referred to as the Tajik Taliban), and the Pakistani Taliban.

The most prominent of the anti-Taliban factions is the National Resistance Front. The group is led by Ahmad Massoud, son of famed militia leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, known as "the lion of Panjshir," who fought against the Soviet military in the 1980s. He then battled the Taliban in the 1990s until he was assassinated by Al-Qaeda just days before the 9/11 attack that sparked the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan.

Afghan government forces quickly collapsed in the face of nationwide lightning Taliban advances in the leadup to the U.S. withdrawal last August. But the National Resistance Front held out for months in Massoud's stronghold in the Panjshir Valley before being forced out into the side valleys of northeastern Afghanistan.

Ali Maisam Nazary, head of the National Resistance Front's foreign relations, told Newsweek that despite the Taliban's victory in Afghanistan last year, "there are still parts that are free, that are controlled by us at the moment."

He said the group remains active in Panjshir as well as in the Andarab district of neighboring Baghlan province, while its forces are actively fighting in six provinces and operating in a dozen.

"In order for us to fight we need territory," he told Newsweek, "we need to have permanent bases, places for our forces to regroup, to re-energize, for us to be able to store our equipment or arms and munitions, so we actually have territory under our control."

He said the group has not yet fully taken any provinces as it remains in "phase one" of its strategy, which consists of trying to "exhaust the enemy, to gather as many resources and to expand as much as possible before moving into phase two, which is liberating districts and provinces and being able to sustain our control."

The National Resistance Front is one of the few anti-Taliban factions to claim actual territory and broadcast relatively significant offensives against the ruling Islamist movement. In fact, Nazary argued that the National Resistance Front is in a class of its own, and therefore deserves international support.

"This has to be an international effort," Nazary said. "We can't be left all alone fighting international terrorism."

"This isn't only our battle; this isn't only our struggle," he added, "and for us, if it's not only our security and stability, global security and stability are at stake. So it has to be an international effort and the last remaining anti-terrorist force, the last remaining democratic forces are our forces, the NRF."

Citing recent high-profile attacks against Taliban forces, including an offensive on August 15 as the Taliban celebrated the anniversary of their taking of Kabul, Nazary asserted that the National Resistance Front has demonstrated itself as a capable force.

"We've shown our competence, we've shown our motivation, our morale," Nazary said. "Now it's time for the international community to act and to help us suppress international terrorism, contain and eradicate terrorism from Afghanistan before it becomes a greater threat, before we see terrorist attacks originating and emanating from Afghanistan and the region in Europe, North America and elsewhere in the world."

National, Resistance, Front, pose, with, Taliban, captives
Members of the National Resistance Front pose with individuals said to be Taliban captives on August 15, the one-year anniversary of the Taliban's takeover of Kabul. National Resistance Front

And though Nazary argued that the National Resistance Front was "the only group that is on the ground, that has bases and has a clear leadership today," he also acknowledged that "there might be groups that have announced their existence" more recently.

"We welcome any group, even if they're independent from us, any group that shares our vision for a democratic, free Afghanistan," he said, "where every single citizen enjoys equal rights, regardless of race, religion and gender, any group that's against terrorism and extremism."

"We welcome them," he added, "and we're willing to cooperate."

One such group is the Afghanistan Islamic National & Liberation Movement, or Afghanistan Liberation Movement, whose military commander, Khalid Aziz, told Newsweek it was his forces that were "at the forefront of the fight against Taliban, ISIS and Al Qaeda."

He too appealed for international aid in his fight against the Taliban.

"The cooperation of the international community and NATO against these threats is necessary, important and valuable as they are fighting the war for the peace of whole world," Aziz said.

In the absence of this support, he warned that Afghanistan "seems to have once again become a safe haven for terrorist groups that may become a launching pad for terrorist activities across the world."

There are more groups that are reported to have taken up arms against the Taliban, as many as 25, according to Afghanistan Liberation Movement spokesperson and former security adviser Nasser Waziri.

Waziri said the National Resistance Front was the most dominant force in the north, while the Afghanistan Liberation Movement is "mainly" present in the south, where he said the Taliban was most vulnerable.

"ALM has checkpoints in 28 provinces," Waziri told Newsweek, "and we are fighting for education for both girls and boys, women's rights, liberating Afghanistan from rules such as requiring women to wear burqas, and giving women their jobs back in the public sector."

When it came to interactions between the Afghanistan Liberation Movement and other rebel groups, Waziri explained that various anti-Taliban factions "have different agendas, but we continue to talk to each other, especially when it comes to fighting proxies."

And though he said some groups include "members who were corrupt officials in the former Afghan government," he said such individuals were banned from joining the Afghanistan Liberation Movement. He said his faction sought to diversify its ranks because "in order to fight corruption, we need new faces, more women delegates," and "we have a lot of educated young Afghans who are waiting for a chance."

"Every group is fighting the Taliban in a different way," Waziri said. "But mostly the women's resistance is more effective against the Taliban. I call them the real heroes of Afghanistan."

He specifically acknowledged the activities of two other groups, the Afghanistan Freedom Front and the Andarab Resistance Front. He said they share "the same supply chain" as the National Resistance Front, with whom he said the pair has ties.

A spokesperson for the Afghanistan Freedom Front said the group was currently operating in a wide range of areas: Salang valley in Parwan province; the Andarab and Khost-Farang districts in Baghlan province; the Ishkamish district in Takhar province as well as Sar-e-Pol, Nuristan and Faryab provinces.

Rather than holding ground, the Afghanistan Freedom Front's bases "are mobile," according to the spokesperson.

"This means that the AFF forces are not supposed to hold a specific area as a main base while the whole valleys or hard mountain passes are used as bases and ambushes by our forces," the spokesperson told Newsweek. "Nonetheless, the AFF is not seeking to gain territorial control because of the overall military situation that doesn't necessarily accommodate such a tactic. Our main military approach is to cause damage to the enemy without endangering our own troops and the civilian population."

Two tactics employed to this end are "open operations" in the parts of the country in which the group is active, as well as "operations in the urban areas such as Kabul, Kandahar, Herat and other capital cities," the spokesperson said.

Discussing the group's goals, the spokesperson said the Afghanistan Freedom Front "is fighting to achieve a democratic society free from any kind totalitarian and backwardness, which the Taliban are imposing on our people."

"We want a new constitutional order, which can embrace democratic aspirations of our people which are the equality of every man and woman before the law and no discrimination of any kind such as race, language, belief, sex, color and within our society," the spokesperson said. "We want our people to enjoy a free electoral system to elect their servicemen and women to public offices."

"Therefore, we extend our cooperation to any forces, including the NRF, which are fighting for freedom and democracy and aligning our activities to that path," the spokesperson added.

Map, Afghanistan, 34, provinces, United, Nations
A map shows Afghanistan, its 34 provinces and their capitals, all of which are under effective Taliban control despite persistent efforts by resistance groups. United Nations Geospatial

As for the Andarab Resistance Front, a spokesperson for that group discussed its "struggle for the complete freedom of our country, people, social justice and the destruction of the terrorists who have killed our people in the most brutal way possible in the last two decades."

"We are fighting for the establishment of a people's government based on democratic methods and transparent elections," the spokesperson told Newsweek, "for a government where women can live and study freely, and our people can play a role in their destiny and determining the government and the law."

The spokesperson also touted "a close and strong relationship with the National Resistance Front."

"We are in sync with them on international issues and basic structures," the spokesperson added.

In terms of territory, the spokesperson said that "the Andarab Resistance Front is present in different parts of Andarab, we have more than ten villages in Pol-e-Hesar district and several villages in Banu and Deh-Salah districts, from where our operations and battles against the Taliban take place."

"The main areas of our activities are in Andarab districts and the border areas with Panjshir and Khost (Hindukush)," the spokesperson added. "The majority of our activities are defensive, but offensive guerilla operations and heavy ambushes are carried out by our resistance fighters in the mentioned areas, and we have inflicted numerous and heavy casualties on the enemy."

A fifth group, the Watandost Front, has also taken on the Taliban. The organization's spokesperson, Zahra Sadat, told Newsweek its forces "are active in big cities like Kabul, Kapisa, Ningarhar, Laghman, Ghazni, Maidan Wardak, Zabul, Paktika, Paktia, Kandahar, Helmand, Logar, Herat and Urozgan."

She said Watandost Front holds that all Afghans are equal, and that its ranks included "lots of Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek" — the three largest ethnic groups in Afghanistan behind Pashtuns. She asserted the group was actively striving to increase its representation from every Afghan ethnic community.

Echoing comments provided earlier this month to Jamestown Foundation analyst Daniele Garafolo, Sadat said Watandost Front doesn't "have any relation with Mr. Massoud" of the National Resistance Front.

"But I respect him, and I can say his father is one of Afghanistan's biggest heroes, and all of us respect Ahmad Shah Massoud," she said, adding that his son, Ahmad Massoud, "is also an anti-Talib figure like us, and due to this sometimes we help their forces north of Kabul city."

Sadat said the tenets of Watandost Front "follow the Islamic law," and that "everyone deserves human rights," including women, who "are half the population" of Afghanistan. She held out hope for making the group's vision a reality, saying, "Inshallah, one day we will defeat the Taliban, and after that everything must be run by election."

The multitude of other groups that have claimed anti-Taliban actions range from ideological outfits such as communist formations to ethnic militias, including those aligned with the Hazaras, a largely Shiite Muslim community that has suffered some of the worst atrocities both before and after the Taliban takeover.

Kamran Mir Hazar, a Norway-based human rights activist from Afghanistan's Hazaristan region and founder and editor-in-chief of Kabul Press, said much of the Hazara resistance overlapped with that being mounted by the National Resistance Front, whose leadership is known to include a number of Tajiks, including former Vice President Amrullah Saleh, as well as Massoud himself.

Hazar noted, however, that the Hazara fighters "are not necessarily under the command of Massoud," even if "they do support each other, when possible."

The Taliban, a predominantly Pashtun and Sunni Muslim movement, has repeatedly rejected accusations that it has singled out other religious-based communities in Afghanistan. Officials have also downplayed the presence of other militant groups, claiming it was the U.S. military presence that allowed organizations such as ISIS to thrive.

"With the arrival of the Islamic Emirate, all these problems ended and complete security was ensured in the entire country," Alhanafi Wardak, a prominent Taliban member, told Newsweek. "This is the biggest achievement in terms of security."

And while ISIS has claimed a number of significant attacks against both civilians and Taliban forces, Hanafi said that "the detection and security forces of the Islamic Emirate managed to thwart the most sophisticated attacks of ISIS in the capital city of Kabul, conducted successful operations and discovered and destroyed their most important hideouts."

"Now, day by day, our intelligence and security forces are becoming organized and strong," he said. "ISIS has been severely beaten and defeated, and ISIS can no longer pose any threat."

"The world should be sure that the territory of Afghanistan will not be used against any country," he added.

Hanafi said of the National Resistance Front that "this is an empty name. Their propaganda and claims are only limited to the media." He said that a trip to Panjshir and other northern provinces would show that "no one will recognize" the National Resistance Front, "and if they have heard this name, the answer will be empty laughter."

He also blamed the U.S. and others involved in the protracted foreign intervention for still bearing "the thought and ideology of creating problems and war" and exaggerating ISIS presence to justify sanctions and military action at a time when the Taliban was conducting semi-regular diplomacy with regional countries such as China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan.

"The international community should no longer support America's orders and negative views regarding Afghanistan," Hanafi said. "On the basis of its responsibility, the international community should choose the way of interaction and understanding for the improvement of the human condition, the development of relations and negotiations."

Taliban, forces, parade, Kabul, anniversary, takeover, Afghanistan
Taliban soldiers ride down the street in a pickup truck during a celebration of the first anniversary of the Taliban's return to power on August 15 in Kabul, Afghanistan. A year after the Taliban retook Kabul, cementing their rule of Afghanistan after a two-decade insurgency, the country is beset by economic and humanitarian crises, and Western governments have frozen billions of dollars in Afghan assets as they press the Taliban to honor unmet promises on security, governance and human rights, including allowing all girls to be educated. Nava Jamshidi/Getty Images

Washington has continued to issue warnings about the Taliban's human rights record and potential links to outlawed organizations such as Al-Qaeda, especially after President Joe Biden announced the killing of the militant group's chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in a drone strike in Kabul late last month.

A spokesperson for the State Department told Newsweek that U.S. officials "remain committed to further degrading al-Qa'ida, ISIS-Khorasan, and other terrorist groups that pose a threat to the United States and our partners and allies," adding that "it is also in the Taliban's interest to continue their efforts to eliminate terrorist groups."

But the Biden administration continues to discourage open rebellion against the Taliban.

"We call on all sides to exercise restraint and to engage," the spokesperson said. "This is the only way that Afghanistan can confront its many challenges. We want to see the emergence of stable and sustainable political dispensation via peaceful means."

Though peace continues to elude Afghanistan on the first anniversary of the U.S. exit, bloodshed has yet to return to wartime levels.

Sam Jones, head of communications for the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), pointed out that "the overall level of violence has decreased significantly since the American withdrawal." At the same time, he noted that "violence targeting civilians, specifically, is back on the rise after an initial drop in the immediate aftermath of the Taliban takeover in August 2021."

Jones told Newsweek that around 59% of these attacks have been blamed on the Taliban, though "due to reporting challenges the attacker is often unidentified." He argued that the most common targets were members of the former Afghan security forces, followed by women and journalists as well as those who appear to have been singled out due to their ethnic and religious affiliations.

The Taliban's rivals have also made waves in terms of violent activity.

"In addition to the shift toward violent repression targeting civilians, trends since the fall of Kabul have also been marked by rising levels of fighting between the Taliban and anti-Taliban resistance groups like the National Resistance Front (NRF), as well as elevated Islamic State activity," Jones said.

He highlighted data showing that the National Resistance Front "has ramped up attacks on Taliban forces in 2022," with up to 300 clashes reported in the first six months of this year. Most of these engagements have taken place in northeastern Baghlan and Panjshir provinces. A particular spike in confrontations has emerged in recent months, coinciding with the "spring offensive" — a hallmark of the traditional Taliban strategy now being launched by its foes.

Jones also stated that "at least nine other armed anti-Taliban resistance groups have emerged in 2022, engaging in over 100 armed clashes with Taliban forces during the first half of the year," the most active of which appeared to be the Afghanistan Freedom Front, "which has reportedly engaged in at least 59 clashes with the Taliban since its formation in March."

ISIS attacks against the Taliban have also increased after an initial lull earlier this year, spiking in June, according to Jones. And as ISIS targeted civilians too, he said that about half of the 20 attacks attributed to the jihadis this year were aimed at Hazaras and Shiite Muslims.

Yet another risk the Taliban faces is from within. Jones said "infighting has also escalated in 2022, with nearly 60 incidents reported in the first half of the year," constituting "a rate nearly quadruple that of the period between the Taliban takeover last August and the end of 2021."

On the sidelines of these inter-Afghan battles, clashes involving neighboring nations have also increased, including reported Pakistani strikes on Afghan territory and exchanges of fire across the Afghan-Iranian border. Jones said that "over 40 cross-border incidents were reported during the first six months of 2022, including cases where neighboring state forces engaged in clashes with the Taliban, perpetrated direct attacks against Afghan civilians, or fired artillery or launched airstrikes into Afghan territory."

"In short, despite the total decline in conflict events since the fall of Kabul," Jones said, "violence has continued to evolve significantly in Afghanistan, and civilians are bearing the brunt of persistent, and in some cases escalating, insecurity."