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.