For years, Afghanistan has been haunted by a single question: What if Ahmad Shah Massoud had not been killed when he was, just two months before the Taliban fell in 2001? Massoud, the Lion of Panjshir was the most popular and powerful of all former Mujahideen commanders fighting the Taliban for years, and had many gains in the fighting more recently. Massoud’s killing, by two Al Qaeda terrorists pretending to be television journalists who detonated a camera bomb at close quarters, was seen as a gift from Osama Bin Laden to the Taliban leadership, for providing Al Qaeda safe haven during those years, but also in advance, for support expected for what Al Qaeda would do next- the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. Had Massoud not been killed by such brutal deceit, he could well have been the guiding force of Afghanistan post-Taliban then, and perhaps the Taliban would not have been able to regroup, many say.
Today, it is Massoud’s son, 33-year old Ahmad Massoud, who is making a bid to form the “Second Resistance” with the “National Resistance Force” he set up last year along with former Vice President Amrullah Saleh, to fight the Taliban that is once again in power in Kabul. Just a child when his father was killed, the young Massoud has grown up in relative comfort, mostly abroad, studying first in Iran and then in the U.K. As Afghanistan’s traditional and political non-Taliban leaders scattered around the world begin to organise themselves, the young Massoud pitches to a younger, more urban demographic, who saw the 20 non-Taliban years of small green-shoots of progress and democracy, rather than the traditional Afghanistan of warlords and religious conservatism. At the Herat Security Dialogue (HSD) conference in Dushanbe last week, he was greeted with cheers as he walked into the room, especially from the younger men and women.
However, unlike his father, who received support from India, the U.K., France, and other countries, Massoud Jr. receives practically no international assistance today. In a conflict-weary world, there is little financial support for armed groups anywhere, and given the NATO and the U.S.’s recent humiliating pullout from Afghanistan, less appetite for a plan that involves any military support. As head of foreign relations at NRF, Ali Maisam Nazary is fighting the battle against apathy and indifference in a number of international capitals, including the U.S., Iran, Gulf countries, and parts of Central Asia. In recent months, the NRF has been instrumental in bringing together various parts of the Afghan diaspora at conferences and gatherings in Turkey and Vienna.
“We don’t seek permission for our struggle nor is foreign support necessary for us to continue our resistance – in the past year we have shown we are able to survive without support and to even expand areas of resistance,” he tells The Hindu, with some bravado. “The perception that we are fighting a civil war is incorrect. NRF is continuing the Global War on Terror [that the international community gave up]- not just against Taliban, but about 21 international terror groups in Afghanistan today,” he adds, calling the NRF’s fight one for “global and regional security”, not just for “peace and justice” in Afghanistan.
According to the NRF, its strength has grown in terms of numbers, and also areas of operation. From about 600 men in August last year that remained after the Taliban onslaught, they claim to have about 5,000 in forces, and hold sway in districts across Afghanistan. However, like the Taliban pre-2021, and much like older Massoud himself did in 1996, they have decided not to try and hold territories until they have more resources. Instead, they carry out small targeted raids on Taliban posts, with a few, but just a few successes thus far.
“At present, there is little hope for the NRF, because they lack support from outside and don’t have power inside the country,” says former diplomat B.R. Muthukumar, who, as India’s Ambassador to Tajikistan, had been responsible for channeling support to the Northern Alliance. When Mr. Muthukumar first met Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Panjshir fighter famously flung his Pakol (flat Afghan hat) onto the table in front of them, saying he only needed the space of the Pakol’s circumference in order to start and build a successful resistance. Impressed, the diplomat helped the Northern Alliance ask New Delhi for what it needed, and India, thinking strategically at the time, built a hospital in Farkor and helped Tajikistan in running the Ayni airbase. However, today Mr. Muthukumar believes neither will New Delhi step up, nor does the NRF have the military capability that the NA did. “They are living on the legend of Ahmad Shah Massoud but they are not the Northern Alliance of Massoud Sr. Many NRF commanders have lost credibility over corruption. And there are reports that the two top leaders Massoud Jr. and (former Afghan Vice president) Amrullah Saleh aren’t on the best of terms,” he`explains.
In their effort to fight the Taliban, the NRF faces other unfavourable comparisons to the Northern Alliance, whose fighters had won the battle against a superpower, driving Soviet forces out of Afghanistan. The NRF is made up of those who are either too old to fight a well-equipped Taliban, or too young to have been trained in guerilla warfare, or to understand Afghan traditions fully. Afghanistan is a land uniquely made up of many minorities – 42% Pashtuns, 27% Tajiks, 10% Hazaras, 9% Uzbeks etc.
In order to control the whole, the NRF, whose fighters are mostly of Tajik ethnicity, will need to reach out to more than its support base and convince the new generation of Afghans to join their cause. The NRF also faces a tougher opponent. In 1996, only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE recognised the Taliban regime. While no country recognises the Taliban regime today, more than a dozen, including India, maintain diplomatic missions in Kabul, send officials to Kabul to hold talks with the Taliban’s ministers, and treat them like a government for all practical purposes.
The NRF hopes to fight this Taliban through a vision of establishing a federal, “decentralised, democratic republic”, in the hope that Afghans who had participated in elections since 2005 and had seen the inclusion of girls in school and women in the workforce, would not submit endlessly to the Taliban’s depredations and authoritarian rule. In addition, Ali Nazary claims that the group is receiving a surge of support inside Afghanistan even from those who were earlier willing to give the Taliban a chance, due to the regime’s increasingly harsh decrees, including a recent rash of public floggings and executions. “They may have geography and power today, but we have legitimacy that comes from popular support,” he adds — an assertion that has yet to be proven and will be tested in the months to come.