Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. Bergen is the author of “The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
In August 2021, all US soldiers left Afghanistan, enabling the Taliban to take over the country. Since then, the Taliban have installed a theocracy that bans women from most jobs and bars girls over the age of 12 from attending school, while maintaining close relationships with terrorist groups, such as al Qaeda.
The Taliban today control more of Afghanistan than they did the last time they were in power before the 9/11 attacks. And they are better armed since they now possess American armored vehicles and M16 rifles left behind as the US military headed for the exits.
For the past year, a group known as the National Resistance Front has waged a guerrilla war against the Taliban. It is led by Ahmad Massoud, the son of legendary anti-Taliban mujahedeen commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, whom al Qaeda suicide bombers assassinated two days before the 9/11 attacks.
I spoke to the head of foreign relations for the National Resistance Front, Ali Maisam Nazary, to ask him if the resistance to the Taliban was really viable. Nazary said that this resistance has grown in the past year and that it is fighting in six of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, largely in the north of the country with a force of 4,000 well-trained fighters. However, Nazary said no country is supporting the resistance movement with weapons or money.
Tajikistan, a country north of Afghanistan, is providing political support to the resistance movement. Nazary was in that former Soviet republic when he spoke to me by phone.
Our conversation has been edited for clarity.
Peter Bergen: What do you say to those who say your resistance movement doesn’t have much of a chance against the well-armed Taliban and without financial and military support from other countries?
Ali Maisam Nazary: Resistance throughout Afghanistan’s history has started and expanded without outside support. The late Cmdr. Massoud was able to build his resistance against the Soviets with a limited number of resources and successfully defeat the mighty Red Army. So international aid and support are not a requirement for us to be able to fight for our values and rights.
Our resistance in the past year has shown its potential to grow and successfully fight the Taliban. What is apparent to us is that a political solution to end the conflict in Afghanistan is not viable because of the Taliban’s position vis-à-vis women’s rights, human rights, democracy and terrorism. We can either liberate the country from the Taliban or force them to change and accept a peace process.
Bergen: The US withdrew from Afghanistan on August 30, 2021, and the National Resistance Front put up some resistance to the Taliban which then seemed to collapse. Now there seems to be resistance rising again. Walk us through the history of what happened over the last year.
Nazary: So, what happened is that from August 15, 2021, when the Taliban captured Kabul, until mid-September 2021, resistance started with thousands of former Afghan security forces in the Panjshir Valley in the Panjshir province of northern Afghanistan and Andarab Valley in the Baghlan province, adjacent to Panjshir. We fought a conventional war, with weapons and tanks, against the Taliban.
But we realized that without international support, it was difficult to continue the conventional war. Also, Panjshir and Andarab do not share any borders with a neighboring country, so that made it very difficult to bring in supplies.
So right before the second week of September, Ahmad Massoud convened all his commanders, and they discussed what to do because waging a conventional war was impossible. The Taliban had billions of dollars in weapons and equipment, and there was no regional or international support for the resistance. We pleaded everywhere, asked every single country to help us. Yet except for political and moral support from countries like Tajikistan, basically everyone else wanted to stay away. There was a fatigue when it came to Afghanistan.
We realized that for us to be able to survive, we had to change our strategy from a conventional war to an unconventional war, which was our approach back in the 1980s, when we were fighting the Soviets after they invaded Afghanistan in 1979.
And from September 5-15, 2021, our forces started withdrawing to remote valleys in Panjshir, which were also used as bases back in the 1980s.
During this past winter, we established a military presence in six provinces in northern Afghanistan: Panjshir, Kapisa, Baghlan, Badakhshan, Takhar and Parwan.
We also started seeing defections from the Taliban, such as Mawlawi Mahdi, the only Shia who played a prominent role in the Taliban. He defected and declared resistance in the Balkhab district of Sar-e Pol province in northern Afghanistan. (Mahdi was killed earlier this month.)
We were confident enough to start preparing for the spring offensive, and the first week of May was when the spring offensive started.
We want the Taliban to understand that they will face strategic defeat in the north. They cannot keep control of the north the way that they are doing right now, occupying it with an invading force that is not native to the north, a force that is oppressing the people. We have been able to keep our casualties very low because we have the high ground. We attack them, and then we go back to our positions. And the Taliban fighters who are coming from Kandahar and Helmand in southern Afghanistan are not trained to fight in mountains.
Bergen: What are the Taliban’s strengths?
Nazary: The Taliban strength right now is that they have unlimited weapons and munitions, resources that were left behind by the Americans.
They also have jihadist allies. They have partnered with regional and international terrorist groups. You have groups like Jamaat Ansarullah, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. They’ve allowed Afghanistan to become a sanctuary for terrorism.
For example, right now, they’ve armed and equipped the Jamaat Ansarullah terrorist group, which is made up of Tajik nationals from Tajikistan, and they’ve given this group US-made gear, weapons and munitions, and have allowed them to take control of the Tajik border.
Bergen: Can you give us a sense of the strengths of the National Resistance Front?
Nazary: First, we enjoy legitimacy and popular support. We see people accepting resistance as the only option right now for them to acquire their freedom again.
The second strength is having capable forces. The military wing of the National Resistance Front isn’t made up of ordinary citizens. It’s made up of the former Afghan military who were trained, advised and funded by the US and NATO for the past 20 years. They’re professional soldiers and officers who have fought against the Taliban for two decades. They know the mindset and mentality of the Taliban. Our numbers are around 4,000 right now.
And the other strength that we have is strong leadership. The Taliban have fractured into a few factions, and they’re competing against one another. Yet for us, all our forces are loyal to one individual. They pledge their allegiance to one individual.
Bergen: You’re speaking about Ahmad Massoud.
Bergen: What do you make of former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s leadership?
Nazary: Ghani was a weak leader. Ghani, from the time he became President, started the process of disintegration in Afghanistan. When he became President, he didn’t trust anyone. So he built a small circle of advisers around him and the presidential palace. He weakened the ministries. He brought all powers and authority into the presidential palace, started making military and political decisions all by himself, and he marginalized everyone from decision-making and policymaking. He micromanaged everything from 2014 onward.
Ghani also didn’t trust his own armed forces and started purging the army of capable officers. He brought in a few loyalists. It was those loyalists who surrendered to the Taliban.
Bergen: What was the effect of the Trump administration’s 2020 Doha peace agreement with the Taliban and then President Joe Biden announcing in April 2021 that he was going to go through with the total US withdrawal?
Nazary: When it comes to the Doha agreement, we believe it was a disaster. And this is something that we warned US officials about more than a year before the agreement was signed. We said that by signing the agreement with the Taliban and excluding the elected Afghan government from being part of the agreement, it would take legitimacy away from the Afghan government and would legitimize the Taliban. The Taliban would not negotiate with us after they signed an agreement with the United States.
Bergen: Right now, are you getting any outside help of any kind?
Nazary: Unfortunately, not. No country is willing to support the resistance. Our message has been that we are not fighting a civil war. The mentality that helping the National Resistance Front will fuel a civil war is false because what we’re fighting is the continuation of the global war on terror. We have regional and other international terrorist groups helping the Taliban, so how can we characterize this as a civil war? This has to be a regional and international effort to contain and eradicate terrorism. Ignoring Afghanistan and allowing terrorism to take root and find sanctuary in this country doesn’t only threaten our interests. It threatens regional countries and global security.
And the latest developments in Afghanistan, especially with the US drone strike last month in Kabul against al Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, shows the level of terror inside the country. Right now, the National Resistance Front is the last remaining anti-terrorist force in the country.
Bergen: And what is your vision of the future? The Taliban control more of the country than they did before 9/11. They’re better armed. They’ve been fighting for 20 years. So what’s the end goal here for you?
Nazary: One thing that is certain for us is that we are going to liberate the country. Afghanistan has seen oppressive regimes throughout its history, but these oppressive regimes have never lasted long. They were never permanent.
The vision that we have for Afghanistan’s future is a democratic, decentralized republic where every single citizen, regardless of their race, religion and gender, will enjoy equal rights. An Afghanistan where you have political and cultural pluralism. An Afghanistan where men and women are given the same opportunities. And an Afghanistan where power is distributed equally throughout the country.
One of the mistakes of the past 20 years was a political system where one individual, the President, enjoyed decision-making, while everyone else was left out. We saw how fragile the political system became on August 15, 2021. As soon as President Ghani fled the country, the whole political system collapsed like a house of cards. The reason it collapsed so quickly was because of the highly centralized political system.
As time passes, more political parties and forces realize that reconciliation with the Taliban is becoming impossible and that the Taliban had a year to absorb these political parties and other figures and form an inclusive government, which they failed to do. And so they believe that resistance is the only option right now.
Our criteria is we welcome anyone who accepts our vision, who shares our vision for Afghanistan’s future. If you are in favor of a democratic, decentralized republic where every single citizen will enjoy full rights and will enjoy their freedom, then you’re welcome to join us.