In Praise of Lesser Evils
Can Realism Repair Foreign Policy?
The world should not consign Afghans to this bleak future. At least one force remains in the country that seeks to beat back the Taliban, fight terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State (also known as ISIS), and restore democracy. The National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRF) is the most capable organized and armed opposition in the country. It is led by Ahmad Massoud, the son of the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, the veteran leader from the struggle against the Soviets and fierce opponent of the Taliban who was assassinated by al Qaeda in 2001, two days before the 9/11 attacks. As his father resisted the Taliban and foreign terrorists decades ago, so, too, has Massoud in the past year. When Ashraf Ghani, the president of the fallen Afghan republic, and many other officials fled Afghanistan last August, Massoud decided to stay and fight. In his home province of Panjshir, he was able to rally thousands of soldiers from the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) who opted to join the NRF. Key officials from the republican government also came to Panjshir to band together with Massoud in the resistance to the Taliban.
The NRF fought pitched battles against the Taliban until mid-September last year when Massoud commanded his forces to withdraw into the side valleys of Panjshir and Andarab and to adopt a strategy of guerrilla warfare. Since then, the military wing of the organization has been operating in northern Afghanistan while the political wing is based outside Afghanistan.
NRF forces remain active across the north of the country. In recent weeks, the NRF has attacked Taliban positions, liberated villages from Taliban control, and launched strikes on international terrorist groups in northern Afghanistan that the Taliban have once again allowed into the country. The NRF’s resistance offers a sliver of hope, but so far the international community has not extended the group any support. To rescue Afghanistan from the brutal, oppressive grip of the Taliban and its terrorist allies, outside powers must help give the NRF a fighting chance.
The republic that the Taliban toppled in 2021 was not without its blemishes. The governments that ruled Afghanistan during the past 20 years were highly centralized and built around the figure of a king-like president, a configuration that created the conditions for pervasive corruption, the empowering of cronies and political allies, and the marginalization of the interests of the majority of Afghans. Disaffection with the distant and haughty government in Kabul led many people from all over the country to join the Taliban.
The NRF believes that Afghanistan should be governed as a decentralized democratic republic, a political system that would better represent all ethnic groups and ensure equal rights for all citizens regardless of their race, religion, and gender. In a country such as Afghanistan, where no single ethnic group makes up a majority of the population, only a decentralized political system can equitably distribute power, ensure political stability, and guarantee justice and unity. Power and authority must be devolved from the capital to the provinces and districts, and local and provincial officials must be elected by the people instead of being appointed by the central government. A decentralized Afghanistan will allow people to be closer to the decisions that shape their lives and hold to account their representatives and officials. Before any such process can be established, however, democracy and the institution of elections must be revived to pave the way for a more just and credible government. The NRF is adamant that free and fair elections are the only source for political legitimacy in the country, and without them, no group can lay claim to represent the people of Afghanistan.
To achieve that goal, the NRF has taken up armed struggle against the Taliban and its partners. The military wing of the NRF is made up of the remnants of Afghanistan’s former armed forces, who were trained, advised, and funded by the United States and NATO over the past two decades. The collapse of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan was not their fault. The U.S. withdrawal pulled away necessary resources, contractors, and advisers, limiting the ability of ANSF forces to effectively resist the advance of the Taliban. More important, the Afghan army was let down by weak political leadership. Ghani and his advisers lacked military training and experience, but they made major military decisions and appointments from the presidential palace and ignored the advice of security officials.
Fortunately, more effective leaders remain in Afghanistan. Thousands of Afghan soldiers came to Panjshir in August 2021 to rally to Massoud and continue the struggle against the Taliban and its terrorist allies. Even though it lacks sufficient resources, the NRF has the will to fight, embraces a legitimate cause, and benefits from strong leadership. NRF soldiers believe that Massoud, an honest, young, and educated leader, is capable of liberating the country from the Taliban and setting up a new political and social order that will benefit all Afghans.
In the past year, the NRF has continued its fight even as every single outside power abandoned Afghanistan. The stakes of the ongoing conflict are great, exceeding those of a mere civil war. The Taliban have allowed regional and international terrorist groups to set up base in Afghanistan. Thousands of foreign fighters from the Middle East, South Asia, and Central Asia, speaking languages unknown to Afghans, are living throughout the country under Taliban protection. These militants are armed with the weapons and equipment left behind by NATO, worth more than $7 billion, in the chaos of the U.S. withdrawal.
They threaten not just the stability of Afghanistan but that of the broader region. The Taliban have handed over the security of the Afghan-Tajik border to the militant groups Jamaat Ansarullah and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Recently, with the assistance of the Taliban, terrorists from Tajikistan formed a group called the Taliban Movement of Tajikistan that aims to establish its own Islamic emirate in Central Asia. The recent U.S. drone attack that killed Zawahiri in the heart of Kabul shows the deep and intertwined relationship between the Taliban and terrorist groups such as al Qaeda. Despite all these distressing developments, the NRF stands alone. Not a single country provides material support to the NRF, even though it is part of a broader fight for global security and universal values.
The anti-Taliban resistance has fought on even as every single outside power abandoned Afghanistan.
The NRF has nevertheless persevered and grown. It had to rely on its own resources to sustain thousands of troops in the north during the harsh winter in the Hindu Kush mountains, a laborious feat that required establishing logistical supply lines to provide NRF soldiers with shelter, clothing, communications, weapons, and munitions. Fortunately, the NRF not only successfully sustained its forces but in March expanded its operations from two provinces to 12 provinces. Today, the NRF is actively fighting in six provinces against the Taliban. It has been able to build permanent bases in districts throughout northern Afghanistan, and it has even successfully launched attacks against Taliban positions in Nangarhar Province in eastern Afghanistan.
A testament to the strength of the NRF was the successful launch of a spring offensive this year. Starting in early May, the offensive exceeded all expectations. The NRF is using the tactics of guerrilla warfare to strike at the Taliban, as opposed to the tactics of more conventional warfare that would be required to liberate entire provinces. Nevertheless, the NRF has been able to exhaust the enemy forces, win resources such as caches of weapons and munitions, open new fronts, and demonstrate the competence of its military personnel—all without a drop of help from any country.
Many Western observers have suggested that their governments should back the Taliban to contain the threat of ISIS in the country. Better to choose the lesser of two evils, they reason, than to hand Afghanistan to ISIS. But ISIS is not the force that most threatens the Taliban today; the Taliban’s most formidable adversaries are the pro-democracy forces of the NRF. In recent weeks, the Taliban have scrambled to launch a counteroffensive against NRF positions, but they have suffered heavy casualties. Several senior officials who led the attack, including Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, returned to Kabul and Kandahar after their assaults failed. In Panjshir this week, NRF troops killed dozens of Taliban fighters and took dozens more captive. The Taliban are clearly frustrated and unable to defeat the NRF in northern Afghanistan.
These developments are no doubt promising, but they represent only fragile success. For the NRF to translate its achievements into more meaningful victories—to turn from waging an unconventional war to prosecuting a conventional war that will liberate whole provinces—it will need the backing of the international community. The Taliban have benefited from the windfall of securing billions of dollars’ worth of arms left by withdrawing U.S. and NATO troops; the NRF needs help to contend with such a well-equipped foe. But foreign powers should not just back the NRF in its fight against the Taliban. The NRF remains a crucial part of any serious campaign seeking to limit the terrorist threats that can spread out from Afghanistan. The international community ignored the country through much of the 1990s as the Taliban rode roughshod over Afghanistan and played host to international terrorists such as Osama bin Laden. The world cannot make that same costly mistake again.
Unfortunately, the international community has adopted a policy of appeasement toward the Taliban. International media outlets have provided the Taliban numerous platforms to promote their false narratives and to make empty promises about guaranteeing women’s rights, severing ties with terrorist groups, and forming an inclusive and representative government—pledges they will never fulfill. Contrary to its messaging for an international audience, the group has not softened and still remains bent on confining Afghan women, committing atrocities against Afghan people, and abetting terrorist groups.
The NRF knows full well that Afghanistan has seen much bloodshed in recent decades. It has always sought a peaceful political solution to end the conflict in the country. The Taliban, however, have no desire for such a peace process. Thanks to the Taliban’s implacable extremism, the NRF believes that armed resistance is the only reasonable approach and strategy to liberate Afghanistan and to counter international terrorism.
Afghanistan is at a critical juncture, and the situation will deteriorate if ignored by the international community, with damaging security and political consequences for all. Afghanistan’s people, under the banner of the NRF, have a chance to fight for and form a democratic and just government that truly represents their will and interests. Through its inaction, the international community only rewards and provides legitimacy to the Taliban—a terrible choice when a real alternative is taking shape.