But first they must present a united front to win the support they need to dislodge the Taliban.
Afghanistan is now perhaps the most dangerous country in the world, controlled by Taliban terrorists who are sheltering dozens of anti-Western jihadi groups while torturing, raping, starving, and killing their Afghan opponents. Yet the one person who could make a credible claim to be the leader of an opposition group to overthrow the Taliban has been unable to draw international support or unite fellow Afghans behind him.
Ahmad Massoud, the 33-year-old son of an anti-Taliban war hero, leads the National Resistance Front (NRF), which is concentrated in the Panjshir Valley, a lush and mountainous province close to the capital, Kabul, where the Taliban have been struggling to dislodge them in the year since they took control of Afghanistan. The NRF is one of at least 22 resistance groups the United Nations says have emerged since the Taliban’s takeover last year. A few thousand men are fighting in disparate groups, taking and holding territory in a dozen provinces mainly across the north, where anti-Taliban sentiment is strongest. But they’ve yet to form a cohesive opposition to the Taliban, who have an increasingly tenuous hold on power as factional feuds emerge and international legitimacy remains elusive.
Not that the Afghan resistance is getting any help from Washington. The Biden administration has insisted it will not support an armed opposition and seems to regard the Taliban—led by dozens of sanctioned terrorists—as partners in counterterrorism rather than part of the problem.
Despite repeated warnings of the Taliban’s long-standing relationship with al Qaeda and its affiliates, the world only just awoke to the danger, Massoud said, when a U.S. drone killed al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in a Kabul villa associated with Taliban deputy leader and interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani.
“Now the world is paying attention,” Massoud told Foreign Policy during a recent trip to Europe. “Afghanistan is turning into a hub for terrorism. And the goal of this terrorism is not to only have Afghanistan; the idea is to spread worldwide.” Afghanistan is a recruitment and training center, he said, where terrorist groups teach skills like bomb-making “in the languages of Central Asia.” The killing of Zawahiri, he said, brought home to countries like Qatar, Pakistan, Russia, China, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan that “the export of terrorism has already started.”
Like many Afghans, Massoud finds it difficult to understand U.S. policy toward the Taliban. “It’s very confusing and will leave a very bad stain on the reputation of the United States as a great country which always stands for great values,” he said. “I believe it is happening because it is cheaper [than an armed presence], but it is a catastrophic mistake.” He pointed to the consequences from the last time Washington ignored a Taliban power grab in the 1990s: A few years later, the Taliban’s guest, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, launched the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.
“We had the experience in the ’90s of not paying attention to the situation. And it can be catastrophic again,” he said.
Massoud’s inability to forge a united opposition in the year since the Taliban’s takeover isn’t due to a lack of name recognition. Massoud regularly invokes the name of his late father, Ahmad Shah Massoud, who led the Northern Alliance in its fight to keep substantial swaths of territory out of Taliban hands the last time they ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. The elder Massoud was assassinated by al Qaeda two days before the huge attacks on the United States that sparked the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and the ousting of the Taliban.
After the fall of the Afghan republic, he said he tried and failed to negotiate his inclusion into Afghanistan’s government with Taliban leaders. He is now based, alongside other NRF figures, in neighboring Tajikistan, from where he travels widely to drum up support, arms, and money. But he has assumed a Ernesto “Che” Guevara air rather than becoming the fulcrum of an effective anti-Taliban opposition.
And there are blocks to build on. In many regions of the country, the NRF fights alongside the Afghanistan Freedom Front (AFF), which is led by Lt. Gen. Yasin Zia, a former Afghan deputy defense minister and chief of the general staff. Like Massoud, he travels widely, pleading the case for support to dislodge the Taliban. But he describes a Catch-22: Without victories, the resistance cannot attract arms and funding; without arms and funding, victory over the Taliban will be difficult.
Demonstrating the fundamental problem of the anti-Taliban resistance, Zia said he and Massoud have not met. Massoud and Zia stand out as patriotic democrats, but neither have grabbed the imagination of Afghanistan’s war-weary people or governments whose support they need to win a war both say is now the only option.
“We could win a big uprising, but only if we come together,” Zia said. “Brother Massoud” has the ability, charisma, and recognition inside and outside Afghanistan to build a team. “Anti-Taliban groups say they are working for the good of the people. We all say that we want democracy; there is no difference between us and our aims. But if we work individually and independently, it will take too long. Only by bringing our resources together will we be able to bring changes on the ground.” Along with others who claim to have the best interest of their country at heart, it seems they’re just too busy pursuing their own interests to pool resources—an enduring condition of Afghan leadership that arguably led to the fall of the republic.
Despite the Biden administration’s hands-off approach, both NRF and AFF leaders say they are getting some support. Both are attracting former members of the U.S.- and NATO-trained Afghan army, special forces, and police, as well as financial support from diaspora Afghans. And on Capitol Hill, there has been a smattering of support for the Afghan resistance among top lawmakers, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, who has advocated for both Massoud and his NRF colleague, former Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh.
But Massoud and Saleh recently met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in an effort to build a regional support base, according to a source who accompanied them, in a move that could lead to a backlash for the resistance in Europe and on Capitol Hill, as Russia’s war in Ukraine deepens economic hardship for hundreds of millions of people worldwide.
Still, the Taliban’s support for terror is wiping off any lingering smiles among countries that cheered the Taliban’s rise and America’s ignominious departure. Pakistan supported the Taliban’s insurgency, but it is now a target of their terrorist partner Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, which seeks the overthrow of the Pakistani state and enjoys safe haven in Afghanistan. China’s demand that the Taliban eliminate the anti-Beijing Turkistan Islamic Party (formerly the East Turkestan Islamic Movement) has gone unheeded. Central Asia fears a variety of Taliban allies, including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Jamaat Ansarullah, which targets Tajikistan. But none of this has stopped China, Russia, and Pakistan from pursuing economic opportunities with the Taliban, their lack of legitimacy notwithstanding. Russia just inked a provisional deal on oil, gas, and wheat supplies; China is keen on minerals, including gold, uranium, and lithium; and Pakistan is getting cheap coal.
Even as he struggles to win international support and unify the resistance, Massoud said the Taliban “leave us with no option” but war.
“I believe that even with the slightest support of the world, we will be able to liberate some portion of our country because the people are not happy. The people are not with the Taliban,” Massoud said. “By establishing a fair, just, democratic system that will be a role model for the rest of the country and attract internal migration so people do not have to leave Afghanistan, this will encourage more people to rise against the Taliban’s tyranny and authoritarianism. Then resistance will continue and will grow stronger.”
Lynne O’Donnell is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.