Fighting the Taliban: Can Exiled Leaders Unite Behind a Shared Agenda?

By Elyas Nawandish | Translated by Maisam Iltaf

In April 2019, President Ashraf Ghani announced a list of 250 members to head to Doha, Qatar, to kick off the so-called intra-Afghan dialogue with the Taliban. It didn’t take long for the Taliban to ridicule the long list. It is a conference, not a wedding party, the group retorted.

Direct talks between the US and the Taliban were already advanced, and a group of Afghan leaders and the Taliban had held their first round of talks in Moscow. The intra-Afghan talks in Doha was seen as an opportunity for leaders in Kabul to show a united front against the Taliban, with a delegation representing diverse interests, including the civil society.

But the Kabul side was anything but united. From personal and factional rivalries to squabbles over seating arrangements, the Taliban was facing a deeply divided group of people, most of who saw the negotiations as an opportunity to oust Ashraf Ghani and keep their futures secure. The Taliban on the other hand, fronted a united team.

Kabul was more divided than ever before. The Ghani administration was inconsistent and undermined its own redlines. The politicians were divided and polarized, and they were more interested in self-promotion than in working together. These divisions made it easier for the Taliban to take control of the country.

پس از امضای توافق‌نامه‌ی صلح میان ایالات متحده امریکا و طالبان، رهبران سیاسی افغانستان در داخل کشور برای تعیین هیأتی برای مذاکره با طالبان ماه‌ها چانه‌زنی کرده و در تلاش گماشتن نزدیکان خود به‌حیث عضو هیأت بودند.
Taliban flag flying over Arg presidential palace.

For months, Afghan politicians and government officials participated in conferences and meetings held by regional countries to discuss the peace settlement agenda for Afghanistan. They also held multiple rounds of meetings in Kabul to negotiate and form a unified peace negotiation team, but these efforts were unsuccessful due to ideological and political differences. Meanwhile, the Taliban were engaged in strategic planning to position their fighters around provincial centers and advance on the capital.

As the Taliban fighters approached Kabul, two anti-Taliban political leaders, Ata Mohammad Noor and Abdul Rashid Dostum, fled to Uzbekistan. A day earlier, Ismail Khan, a top member of the Jamiat Islami Party, was arrested by the Taliban in Herat. Several other political leaders had already flown to Pakistan for a peace meeting. The Afghan National Defense Security Forces (ANDSF) had disintegrated, allowing the Taliban to make major territorial gains. On August 15, 2023, Ashraf Ghani fled Afghanistan, leaving a devastating vacuum that the Taliban quickly filled.

Armed Resistance

After the republican government collapsed and the Taliban took over on August 15, 2023, Ahmad Massoud and several former ANDSF commanders fled to Panjshir and formed the National Resistance Front (NRF). The NRF has fought the Taliban in Panjshir and in pockets of Baghlan, Takhar, Badakhshan, and Kapisa provinces. In 2022, 121 NRF members were killed fighting the Taliban. The NRF faces a number of challenges, including the Taliban, internal rifts, and a lack of international support.

The National Resistance Front (NRF) and the Afghanistan Freedom Front (AFF) are among the resistance groups fighting against the Taliban. The AFF’s goal is to liberate the country from Taliban control and end the oppression of its people. Recently, the AFF gained attention when its senior commanders, including Abdul Basir Andarabi and Akmal Ameer, were killed in a clash with the Taliban in southern Salang, Parwan province. However, the Taliban considers both the NRF and the AFF as “yaghi” or “baghawatgar,” meaning rebels who defy an Islamic state.

Despite calls for unity from supporters, the NRF and the AFF have not yet joined forces. Following the execution of AFF commanders, NRF leader Ahmad Massoud emphasized the need for political groups opposing the Taliban to unite and coordinate their efforts for a collective offensive and ultimate victory. The AFF also recognizes the importance of unity among anti-Taliban groups. However, overcoming ideological and political differences presents a challenge to their unification.

Long-distance Coalitions

Political leaders and former strongmen who fled the country and sought asylum and Turkey and Persian Gulf states. Some of them soon regrouped and formed the National Resistance Council, with a commitment to fight the Taliban.

The council issued a 71-point charter in May 2022. The charter calls for a meaningful decentralized republican state based on a parliamentary system and fair elections. The charter also calls for subnational governance, peace talks, an inclusive transitional government, support for the resistance movements, combating terrorism and extremism, and women’s inclusive participation at all levels.

A group of National Resistance Council leaders, including Atta Mohammad Noor, Marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum and Mohammad Mohaqiq.

However, the charter does not have a unified consensus among its members about the nature of Afghanistan’s future political system. The Dawat-e Islami Party, led by Abdul Rab Rasool Sayyaf, deems the discussion and decision-making about the structure of the country’s political system a topic to be discussed in the future. Hezb-e Islami, Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal branch, did not agree to mention the term decentralization next to the word parliamentary. The National Congress Party, led by Latif Pedram, emphasized that the desired future political system of the coalition would be a federal system.

The United States and other Western powers have said that they are not interested in supporting any armed confrontation against the Taliban. This is a major setback for the anti-Taliban political parties, who are divided and lack unity. The Taliban, on the other hand, are relatively united. This gives them a significant advantage in the ongoing power struggle.

The anti-Taliban political parties are aware of their disunity and its implications. They are concerned that the world is taking “baby steps” towards recognizing the Taliban. Some have warned that if the anti-Taliban parties do not unite, the world will soon recognize the Taliban.

In a recent instance, Ragin Dadfar Spanta, a former minister of foreign affairs and national security advisor, said that the “world has other priorities today.” He argued that the global competition over Afghanistan is not aimed at helping the anti-Taliban parties. Instead, he said, the world is interested in using the Taliban and ISIS to strengthen or modify global dominance.

Ragin Dadfar Spanta (Photo: PICTURE ALLIANCE / DPA)

Spanta also criticized the anti-Taliban parties for their lack of unity. He said that unity is constantly disrupted under the disguise of cries for unity. He argued that even when there is unity, it is the unity of passive spectators. This type of unity, he said, does not promote the anti-Taliban parties to real actors on the political scene.

Differing Narratives and Challenges to Unity

While the rifts and disputes among various anti-Taliban political parties with little to no consensus on the solutions and the history of mistrust and opportunism are among the challenges to political unity and convergence, these parties have constantly emphasized the need for unification and convergence, such as in their press statements. For example, the participants in their closing statement of the second round of Vienna talks said, “Current critical situation in the country requires practical and serious steps towards unification, coordination, and cohesion of all political, social, civil, cultural groups to find lasting solutions for peace and stability in Afghanistan.”

Nevertheless, Dr. Fazl Ahmad Burgeet, a member of the National Movement for Peace and Justice, says that plurality among various anti-Taliban political groups may seem scattered, but it is also an opportunity for people across different walks of life and with diverse voices to get attracted to these opposition groups and further strengthen the anti-Taliban movements. In an interview with KabulNow, Burgeet noted, “While efforts are ongoing to find common ground among different opposition groups, ideas and solutions to these problems are different. Therefore, I believe it is the ideas that are different not necessarily a complete conflict of interest or national interest among several factions.”

Dr. Hussain Yasa, a leading member and spokesperson of the National Resistance Council for the Salvation of Afghanistan, said that the Council has invited all political parties for unity and convergence. According to Yasa, “Current coalitions require a federation nature that includes parties with different tendencies.” Speaking to KabulNow, Yasa asserted, “Dialogues are ongoing among various political parties and the council has invited all parties to participate in the dialogues. We are ready to engage with them. There seems to be no issue.”

However, Mohammad Aref Rahmani, a political activist and former member of the lower house of the parliament, believes that the former political figures and parties were not united around the principles of a republican government in the previous government either. Literally, they claimed to be Republicans, but in practice did not trust one another and were not united.

Speaking to KabulNow, Rahmani said that mistrust, divide and differences still exist among the anti-Taliban factions and is the main reason that these factions have failed to form a united front and operate under one umbrella against the Taliban. Another reason, according to Rahmani, is the absence of an inclusive plan and a clear narrative for countering the Taliban. During their first rule (1996-2001), the totalitarian Taliban regime seriously damaged public trust as they abused the international presence in the country and internal inevitabilities as well as the incompetence and dispersion of various ethnic leaders contributed to that. The ethnic Tajik, Hazara, and Uzbek leaders, who were involved in a collective struggle against the Taliban, did not trust one another and they often fought for power more than fighting against the group. The mistrust was also a result of incompetency, inexperience, lack of long-term vision, and opportunism of these ethnic leaders. As a result, these ethnic leaders could not establish a united front then during the first Taliban regime as well as today.

Mohammad Arif Rahmani

The council based in Turkey, National Resistance Front, and Afghanistan Freedom Front primarily believe that armed resistance can result in the defeat of the Taliban or force them into a political settlement. On the other hand, groups like the Movement for Peace and Justice say that the military is not the solution, and the Afghanistan National Freedom Party, led by Rahmatullah Nabil, thinks the military option is the last resort to defeat the Taliban. The recently established party of Sarwar Danish, former vice president, emphasizes ideological and political efforts and sees a federal system as the solution to the crises in Afghanistan.

Rafi Fazil, the deputy national security advisor in the Ashraf Ghani administration, believes that the anti-Taliban factions do not have a concrete and common understanding of the grounds of reality in Afghanistan and therefore they have failed to form a united front against the Taliban. According to him, the anti-Taliban groups, mainly led by non-Pashtuns, see the Taliban as an existential and political threat and are hence using any possible tool to change the status quo. In contrast, Pashtun political leaders, who oppose the Taliban, are not supportive of armed resistance against the Taliban.

Fazil further added, “Although the recent developments under the Taliban rule have been reasons for Pashtun elites to think that Taliban only understand the language of force, they are still not supportive of a military option. They believe that, if they support armed resistance, it can detriment the relative peace in Pashtun areas and this will provide the Taliban an opportunity to use it against them. In so doing, they think that they would lose favor and support in the Pashtun society. This is a disputed issue that we have not yet been able to unite around and establish a unified front during a year and months.”

According to Fazil, these dispersions and lack of a shared agenda for solving the crises in Afghanistan have also confused Afghanistan’s regional and international partners. He said, “When I meet foreign partners, they say that every Taliban-opposed group has a different agenda and solution for Afghanistan, each completely different from another. These political leaders expect that the international community should, like what they did in the late 1990s, bring all anti-Taliban groups together, while they do not realize that Afghanistan is no longer the center of the world’s focus and no country is willing to pay a huge price for that. The Afghan politicians should themselves take serious steps toward changing the current situation in the country. It is well understood that these political factions have confused the world, but what they do not realize is that one main reason for the world’s lack of interest is the disunity and lack of a consensus among these groups in the first place.”

The disunity among the anti-Taliban factions is not the only issue. The countries that host these politicians have each their own political interests in Afghanistan, and this can affect the chances for unification among these groups. Fazil notes, “Given the restrictions posed by host countries, unity, and convergence are difficult. Every country that has provided political asylum to these political leaders has taken into account their policies vis-à-vis Afghanistan because these countries pursue different policies in the country. Given these circumstances, the best option at hand is that an umbrella entity should be formed for coordination of long-term future plans for engagement.”

The Agenda Ahead

On May 2, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres hosted a closed-door international meeting on Afghanistan in Doha, Qatar, with a focus on the extreme restrictions faced by girls and women in the country. At the end of the two-day meeting, the secretary-general emphasized that the talks aimed to explore practical and flexible ways to address the dire situation in Afghanistan, rather than discussing the recognition of the Taliban. The UN deputy secretary-general Amina Mohammad had earlier mentioned the possibility of finding “baby steps” toward recognizing the Taliban during the Doha talks. The UN will also host upcoming rounds of talks on Afghanistan.

In response to the international meeting, the National Council for the Salvation of Afghanistan issued a statement calling for the revocation of the US-Taliban Doha agreement and expressing concerns about the international community’s engagement with the Taliban. The statement stressed that any engagement enforcing the Taliban’s power would worsen the ongoing human rights crisis, poverty, ethnic tensions, and empower terrorist organizations regionally and globally.

With the ongoing Doha talks, the anti-Taliban political groups now have an opportunity to unite around a common agenda that can bring about change and shape future engagements in Afghanistan. Mohammad Ashraf Haidari, former Afghan ambassador to Sri Lanka and a professor at Georgetown University, believes that unity among anti-Taliban factions and a clear political agenda can pave the way for meeting the demands of these factions and lead to an inclusive government through the resumption of intra-Afghan dialogue based on the UNSC’s Resolution 2512 from March 10, 2020.

In an interview with KabulNow, Haidari emphasized the importance of political leaders learning from the lessons of the past four decades of war and conflict and uniting to support the resistance movements against the Taliban for the country’s future. He stated that the anti-Taliban groups have an opportunity to strengthen inter-group ties, coordinate their efforts, formulate a shared vision, and advocate for assistance for the resistance groups within the international framework.

Haidari stated, “Taliban have neither domestic legitimacy nor international one. This existing gap should be seized by the anti-Taliban groups so that they can advocate and unite to eventually reach a consensus. Once an inclusive coalition is established, they can work in a coordinated and systematic way to undermine the Taliban’s position, which lacks recognition among the people and the international community. The region and international community have concerns about the Taliban’s governance, their support for transnational terrorist groups, and their involvement in poppy cultivation and export. These are opportunities that the anti-Taliban factions can capitalize on by uniting and creating an alternative plan that establishes a legitimate and inclusive government, including the Taliban.”

Despite challenges, the main questions remain: Can political leaders and other anti-Taliban groups in exile come together under a single umbrella and formulate an alternative plan to address the crises in Afghanistan? Or will they repeat past mistakes and fail to seize opportunities due to their divisions, lack of unity, and long-term shared vision, thereby signaling to the world that there is no viable alternative to the Taliban? These are the crucial questions that anti-Taliban political groups may answer through their pragmatic actions in the future.