Taliban Search Operation Echoes Resented U.S. Tactics

Thomas Gibbons-NeffChristina Goldbaum and 

The New York Times

An intrusive sweep that has spanned several provinces risks alienating Afghans and fueling the insurgency the new government is trying to stop.

Dozens of Taliban checkpoints have sprung up across Kabul, part of a broad search operation in several provinces.
Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — Trucks with heavy machine guns stopped at street corners, unloading men in camouflage carrying radios and assault rifles. Going door to door, they barged into homes, tossed open drawers and pored through cellphones — looking for any connection to an armed insurgency.

These soldiers carrying out a cordon and search operation in Afghanistan’s capital were not American troops, who for nearly 20 years conducted similar operations that drove many Afghans into the arms of the Taliban.

They were the Taliban.

The sweep, which began on Friday, has spanned several provinces and remains underway, is the largest operation of its kind since the Taliban seized power in August and the first carried out in daylight.

The searches stoked alarm among many Afghans, some of whom reported mistreatment and property damage by Taliban forces, and offered the latest evidence that the new Taliban, like the old ones, were relying on police-state tactics to assert their authority and stamp out dissent.

In recent months, the Taliban have issued restrictions on local media and cracked down on peaceful protests. They have also been accused of detaining female activists and arresting people associated with the former government despite having declared a blanket amnesty.

At a news conference on Sunday, the Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, insisted that the recent searches were aimed at rooting out “kidnappers, thieves, evil elements and other criminals.” He also dismissed accusations of misconduct, characterizing the operation as “professional” and “well-planned.”

The Taliban’s spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said the search operation was aimed at rooting out “kidnappers, thieves, evil elements and other criminals.”
Credit…EPA, via Shutterstock

The operation began in areas seen as resistant to Taliban rule and comes ahead of spring, long known as Afghanistan’s “fighting season,” when the Taliban would launch offensives against the previous government.

Now, the insurgents-turned-rulers are contending with a reinvigorated threat from the Islamic State affiliate in the east and a budding armed resistance in the north.

“What the Taliban are doing is counterproductive to what they want to achieve,” said Ibraheem Bahiss, an International Crisis Group consultant. “When it comes to military and policing tactics, the Taliban has been observing and learning from their erstwhile enemy over the past 20 years. Now they are imitating many of those tactics to consolidate control.”

The Taliban, he said, “used to capitalize” on these same tactics, when the Americans were doing it, to gain recruits and financing. “Now they’re relying on them to police urban areas.”

The search operation began early Friday as dozens of checkpoints spread across Kabul, initially focused on the city’s northern neighborhoods. During the last 20 years, these areas, mainly inhabited by the Tajik minority, often flew the tricolor flag of the Northern Alliance, an insurgent coalition that fought the Taliban government in the 1990s.

Ghulam Farooq Alim, a Kabul resident and university professor, was ready for the Taliban’s arrival on Saturday, having been alerted to their approach by his neighbors.

He sent his family to a nearby neighborhood before a group of Talibs arrived, pushing their way into his home. They looked for weapons and other military equipment, and scrutinized the registration papers for his cars, threatening to impound one because he didn’t have proper documentation. Next door, at his friend’s house, they tore off freshly installed roofing material, finding nothing.

Some residents said that the Taliban forces conducted only cursory searches and reported no damage to property.

A Taliban patrol in Kabul in November.
Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

But at other homes, mostly in neighborhoods belonging to ethnic minorities, Taliban soldiers broke the locks on front doors, damaged televisions and storage boxes, and destroyed yards by digging for contraband, according to interviews with nearly a dozen Kabul residents.

In a country where privacy is sacred, many saw the home intrusions as an unforgivable offense reminiscent of two decades of foreign occupation.

“People in my neighborhood are talking about joining the resistance in the spring,” Mr. Alim said. “They are angry about how the Taliban behave. They are not respecting human dignity by coming to our houses. If we don’t have privacy in our homes, we don’t have any other option.”

The Taliban rarely acknowledges the existence of the resistance forces, often referring to them as “criminals.” Still, the new government has committed at least 1,000 more troops in the north, where the resistance is based, and the search operation suggests they are concerned about the possibility of renewed fighting.

The resistance, for now, consists of a smattering of armed fighters spread across some of the most inhospitable mountains of northern Afghanistan, according to interviews with more than a dozen resistance fighters and leaders.

The best-known group is the National Resistance Front, or N.R.F., which was formed in the twilight of Afghanistan’s Western-backed government before it collapsed last summer.

The force has an estimated several hundred fighters, many of whom were low-ranking officers in the former government’s security forces.

Most are Tajik, an Afghan minority from the northern provinces once home to the Northern Alliance, and the group’s leader, Ahmad Massoud, is the son of the deceased Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud. Mr. Massoud left the country after the Taliban seized power and has led the N.R.F. from abroad.

The group has limited resources, no significant public backing from foreign governments, and no clear chain of command, according to N.R.F. fighters and leaders in Afghanistan.

“So far, we have not received equipment and supplies,” said a commander, Maj. Sediqulla Shuja, 29. “The promise has been made by the leadership of the N.R.F., but it has not arrived yet. We still spend from our own pocket.”

Still, even with infrequent deliveries of supplies, the group has carried out more than 100 hit-and-run attacks, mostly on Taliban checkpoints and outposts in the country’s north, according to data compiled by ACLED, a data collection, analysis, and crisis mapping project.

But misinformation is rampant and claims about the group’s success and setbacks are difficult to assess.

The Taliban search operation is led by Mullah Fazel Mazloom, the acting deputy defense minister and a well-known Taliban commander who had been imprisoned by the United States at Guantánamo. Mr. Fazel was accused of leading the Taliban’s scorched-earth campaign in the 1990s, where orchards, homes and fields were destroyed as he pursued the very militias the group is now again trying to stamp out.

Mullah Fazel Mazloom, the acting deputy defense minister and former Guantánamo detainee, is leading the search operation.
Credit…Department of Defense

Reaction to the search operation in Kabul has broken largely along ethnic lines. Some residents — mostly Pashtuns — are thankful that the Taliban are taking a hard stance against criminality, a policy the Taliban has long been known for.

But members of ethnic minorities have accused the Taliban of targeting them for their ethnicity, adding to their resentment of an interim government that, like the Taliban itself, is composed mostly of southern Pashtuns.

Taliban officials have denied those claims.

“Our operations are not against a specific ethnic group,” Mr. Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, said on Sunday. “Our operations are a reason for people to support us, not a reason to stand against us.”

Taliban officials also downplayed complaints about the invasion of privacy, citing their cooperation with neighborhood elders, a sign of respect, and using female officers to search women. But this approach has played out unevenly across Kabul, with some residents interviewed by The New York Times noting that no women or local elders were present when the Taliban arrived and forced their way inside.

Hamid, 31, woke up Friday morning in northern Kabul to his mother yelling that the Taliban were at the door. About a dozen Talibs entered his home soon after, placing him in handcuffs before releasing him several hours later.

That night, over dinner, Hamid’s younger brother announced that he would join the resistance.

“In my neighborhood I think there are two types of people,” said Hamid, who asked to be identified by only his first name out of fear of retribution. “Some will want to join because they don’t want to live like this. The others are educated, like me, and they don’t want war anymore. Even if the resistance comes to Kabul, there will be nothing. There will be war and we will lose everything.”

A Taliban patrol in Kabul in November.
Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Christina Goldbaum reported from Kabul, Afghanistan, and Najim Rahim from Houston. Fahim Abed contributed reporting from Houston, and Safiullah Padshah and Yaqoob Akbary from Kabul.

Taliban Search Operation Echoes Resented U.S. Tactics