An NRF fighter seen aiming his rifle on a hilltop in Panjshir. Photo: Arman/Xinhua News Agency

Deadly and disorganised, a year and half of anti-Taliban resistance in Andarab

Less than a month after the Taliban’s capture of Kabul in August 2021, the group announced it had taken control of Panjshir province after facing resistance from the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRF), which was founded by Ahmad Massoud, the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, days after the fall of the government. The NRF was hastily formed to prevent the Taliban from entering Panjshir. 

Having been routed, its leaders and commanders, including Ahmad Massoud, fled to Tajikistan. Those remaining made the Panjshir valley and Andarab mountains in the adjacent Baghlan province their bases and resorted to guerrilla fighting against Afghanistan’s new rulers. And the following spring, in March 2022, another group, Freedom Front, announced its formation, operating from the same areas. 

Both groups declared that they would continue fighting the Taliban in defence of the human rights of Afghans, especially women and ethnic minorities persecuted by the Taliban, as well as an inclusive government which respects Afghanistan’s ethnic and political diversity.

Ahmad Massoud seen with a group of his fighters in Panjshir in September 2021, has been leading the NRF from Tajikistan. Photo: WSJ

In Andarab, forces affiliated to the NRF managed to temporarily push the Taliban out of some villages, but facing a superior force, retreated to the mountains, claiming to have inflicted losses on the Taliban. 

A year and a half after the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, the NRF remains the most well-known and strongest organised, armed anti-Taliban group in Afghanistan. It has mounted operations against Taliban forces in Panjshir and Andarab, often inflicting heavy losses on the Taliban. In June 2022, the Taliban defence minister and the son of the founder of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, Mullah Yaqoob, personally oversaw an operation against the NRF in Andarab, returning to Kabul a few days later without success. 

The Taliban launched another attack on NRF positions in Qasan village, Andarab, on 30 June 2022, only to pull back after suffering significant losses, including the death of Mukhtar Gujar, a senior Taliban commander. Several NRF commanders have told KabulNow that since then, they have repelled many attacks on their positions by the Taliban’s special forces, the Badri, Mansoori, and Red units. 

As fighting intensified, the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada, appointed former Guantanamo detainee, Abdul Qayyum Zakir, to lead the fight against the NRF. Under Zakir’s command, the Taliban launched multiple attacks and reportedly suffered heavy losses, with at least 100 fighters killed according to sources.

Suffering losses

The NRF also suffered loses. And on 26 December 2022, a senior NRF commander, Khair Mohammad Khairkhah, and 20 of his men were killed after a 30-hour battle with the Taliban. The death of Khairkhah was seen as a significant blow to the NRF, with many raising concerns about the group’s fighting strategy and lack of coordination and equipment. The NRF leader, Ahmad Massoud, in a voice message, promised to avenge his death.

Atta Mohammad Noor, the former governor of Balkh, criticised the NRF leadership and war-management after Khaikhah’s death. 

Khairkhah was a former police intelligence officer in Balkh province. After the fall of the government, he returned to his home in Andarab and joined the NRF. Several NRF commanders had been killed before him in both Andarab and Panjshir.

Khairullah Khairkhah, above, is one the most senior NRF commanders to be killed in battle. Photo: Social media

According to sources, tens of NRF soldiers have either been killed or captured during battles. In October 2022, the Taliban mounted a largescale assault on NRF bases, killing and capturing many NRF fighters. The captured included three senior commanders. 

In August of last year, a widely circulated picture on social media showed Haji Rahman, a local commander in Andarab, next to his son’s dead body. In an audio message, Haji Rahman said that his wounded son had died because of lack of medical aid. He left the NRF, citing illness, while bemoaning lack of leadership and planning in the NRF. He rejoined after the Taliban attempted to arrest him.

Haji Rahman, an NRF commander, watching over the body of his son. Photo: Social media

Several NRF soldiers have identified a lack of leadership, organisation, and coordination among the group’s leaders as primary causes of failures and heavy casualties on the battlefield. They have also reported that inadequate supplies and equipment, particularly during harsh weather conditions, have led to fatalities among their ranks.

Sediqullah Shoja, an NRF commander, has alleged that some senior commanders in the Andarab front have “misappropriated” equipments meant for the front’s forces. The Andarab front is being led by several former military and jihadist commanders. Another NRF commander has confirmed that local differences and a lack of leadership cohesion have increased casualties, stating that “the troops are divided into many groups, with no single command to cooperate and unite these groups. A part of the NRF failure is the difference between those at the top.” Another source close to the NRF has also confirmed local differences among the commanders in Andarab, emphasizing that the front needs a more robust and organized united and coordinated command. The source also noted that with Ahmad Massoud and many NRF senior leaders out of Afghanistan, it is difficult to direct the war from outside, making proper control and supervision over the commanders challenging.

According to Nasim Modbar, a member of the NRF in Andarab, there are some differences among the forces, but they are not significant enough to compromise their performance or morals.

Taliban targeting Andarab civilians

On 15 August 2022, Amu TV reported that at least 66 local civilians were killed by the Taliban in nearly a year of their control over the Andarab valley. Among the victims, 29 were residents of the Deh Salah district, and the rest were from the Banu and Pul Hesar districts.

In August 2021, following the Taliban’s attack to retrieve the three districts of Andarab, Masoud Andarabi accused the group of carrying out unwarranted searches, capturing people without justification, and killing innocent citizens. In a video uploaded on Twitter, displaced women claimed that the Taliban beheaded two women in Andarab and assaulted many others.

On 29 September 2021, Zahiruddin Andarabi, a local doctor, was killed along with six other family members, including his wife and children, in the Pul-Hesar district of Andarab. The Taliban denied the allegation of killing him for collaborating with NRF and promised to serve justice against the culprits. However, local sources reported another doctor’s death in the Qasan village of Andarab on February 16, 2022. His family accused the Taliban of killing him, but the Taliban claimed it was due to personal enmity. Earlier, two doctors were arrested by the Taliban in Andarab and charged with collaborating with NRF.

On May 9, 2022, Taliban forces shot dead five civilians in Qasan village in retaliation for the ambush of a Taliban military vehicle by NRF forces in the town of “Qala-e-Olang,” which resulted in the death of several Taliban troops.

On July 20, 2022, the Taliban shot dead a 17-year-old boy named Shamsullah in the Kasetarash area of Qasan village. According to local sources, after the sound of gunfire was heard in the Kasetarash area, the Taliban started a house-to-house search, took Shamsullah out of his house, and shot him in front of his family’s eyes. The son of a deceased commander also told KabulNow that the Taliban arrested his 14-year-old brother and tortured him for three days.