How is the Taliban’s Counterterrorism and Counterinsurgency Evolving?

Keeping watch: a Taliban fighter stands guard at a ceremony to mark the one-year anniversary of the group's takeover of Afghanistan. Image: Abaca Press / Alamy

Over the past year, the Taliban government has made tentative progress in tackling threats including Islamic State and the insurgency in Panjshir.

Having already faced significant challenges in the first few months of their return to power, the Taliban’s emirate has been even busier this year, facing multiple enemies. The Islamic State has intensified its terrorist attacks in the cities and has even staged a few provocatory attacks on the northern border, firing rockets into Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. It has also been waging a low-intensity guerrilla war in the far east of the country (Kunar). The National Resistance Front (NRF) and various other groups with roots in the armed forces of the previous regime have been intensifying their low-intensity war since spring, with most of their activities concentrated in Panjshir and the surrounding region.

The Taliban’s strategy has been to largely ignore the Islamic State’s insurgency in the remote and mountainous far east, and to focus instead on crushing the terrorist campaign in the cities, as well as on trying to suffocate the insurgency in Panjshir. The focus on Panjshir might, in part, be motivated by the high media profile of Ahmad Massud and his loyalists, but it is also true that the Panjshir rebels appear to be better equipped than their fellow NRF fighters in surrounding areas such as the eastern districts of Baghlan and the south of Takhar (Farkhar), not to speak of other smaller insurgent groups, such as the Freedom Front and even smaller ones. This is because the NRF prioritises Panjshir for supplies and also because it is able to operate a helicopter, inherited from the old Afghan Air Force, from Tajikistan, carrying regularly supplies to the bases of the NRF.

The NRF claimed to have more than 3,000 men fighting in the summer, and that might not be too far from the truth; the other groups’ memberships all number in the hundreds, rather than in the thousands. The NRF’s primary strength, however, is the positive attitude it earned on many mainstream media channels in the West.

The NRF regularly exaggerates its claims – its forces were never able to capture more than a few posts in Panjshir and the main valley has not been affected, but the guerrilla activities of the NRF are imposing a steady toll of casualties on the Taliban’s garrison. The Taliban seem to consider that defeating the Panjshiris would inflict a death blow to the non-Islamic State resistance and decided to concentrate forces there. The mountainous ground does not allow, however, a superior force to maximise its impact and only the last of the Taliban offensives of the summer managed to inflict serious casualties on the defenders, at the price of perhaps even heavier Taliban casualties, as sources from the two sides confidentially agree. Here the Taliban’s strategy seems to be evolving towards one of attrition, imposing on the NRF a heavier burden in terms of casualties, and exploiting its limited recruitment pool and the lack of land supply routes.

The Taliban’s strategy has been to largely ignore the Islamic State’s insurgency in the east, and to focus instead on crushing the terrorist campaign in the cities, as well as on suffocating the insurgency in Panjshir

At one point, the NRF seemed to be having some success in Badakhshan, a largely Tajik province where many insurgent commanders had links to Massud’s father in the 1980s and 1990s. Here the NRF managed to attract a relatively important Taliban commander, Hamid Mujahid, who defected to their ranks in September. Even before Mujahid defected, another opposition commander, Sharif, who had staged an uprising in Keran-e Munjan, captured the mining area for some time. Hamid Mujahid’s defection, moreover, prompted a number of other ex-commanders of anti-Taliban groups, who had demobilised in 2021, to rise against the Taliban in several districts in the north of the province.

These remote districts were poorly garrisoned by the Taliban, usually with only a few tens of armed Taliban in each, so Taliban control and influence rapidly shrank to the district centres. However, the NRF was unable to capture any of the district centres, despite having a few hundred men active in these areas, reportedly reinforced by 300 Panjshiris deployed to support them, and the Taliban were able to gradually bring reinforcements in, despite the poor roads.

In the middle of summer, things looked quite worrying for the Taliban in Badakhshan as well as elsewhere. Taliban sources confirmed that many of their Tajik commanders and fighters refused to fight against their former comrades. Qari Fasihuddin, the top-ranking Tajik in the emirate, rushed to Badakhshan and so did Amanuddin, the second-highest ranking. The Taliban acted to pre-empt further defections of Tajik Taliban by appointing Amanuddin as governor of Badakhshan, with the task of motivating the local Taliban to fight. Indeed, no further significant defections took place after that and the Taliban were able to contain the revolt, eventually even managing to kill its inspirator, Hamid Mujahid, on 21 October, as confirmed by NRF and local sources.

The Taliban handled the crisis in Badakhshan rather effectively from their point of view. They managed to rush through new appointments and reinforcements. As they saw trouble coming, their intelligence even set up a trap, with Taliban commander Qari Weqas pretending in June to be defecting to the NRF and then turning against it, killing a number of its members. Even NRF sources acknowledge this now. What the Taliban did not do, however, was address the political root of the trouble, the feeling of disenfranchisement of most Tajiks.

The Taliban have not been able or willing to produce an effective approach to addressing the underlying political issues that keep driving recruits into the arms of the Islamic State

The same can be argued of their counterterrorism effort. The Taliban are criticised for their failure to protect the Hazara population from the attacks of the Islamic State, but, in reality, it would not be possible to protect the entire Hazara community. The Islamic State is targeting the community indiscriminately, so, for them, targets are eminently replaceable.

The Taliban opted instead to focus on infiltrating the Islamic State in and around the cities, and saturating areas used by the Islamic State for staging attacks in Jalalabad, which was the second-most affected city after Kabul. Given the limited resources available, this appears to be a sound approach. In Jalalabad, the Taliban’s efforts appear to have been particularly successful. In Kabul and some other cities, too, the Taliban seem to have made progress, busting some Islamic State cells. Even on social media, the Islamic State in Khorasan has been repeatedly warning its members about the Taliban infiltrating its ranks, implicitly acknowledging its difficulties. The Taliban’s muscular approach to counterterrorism has therefore something to show. This is, in a sense, acknowledged even by Joe Biden’s administration, which announced in the summer that it will not fund any opposition group. General Mark Milley hinted already in September 2021 that the administration might work with the Taliban against the Islamic State. A year later, Thomas West, special representative to Afghanistan, confirmed that the administration is ready to engage with the Taliban on counterterrorism. Sources among the Taliban and in the ministries say that, in recent weeks, the Taliban have been receiving cash support from the US, to be used for their intelligence efforts against the Islamic State, to the tune of $20 million so far. Neither the Biden administration nor the Taliban might ever want to acknowledge this, but, if true, it would represent the first example of direct financial support to any institution of the emirate by any donor.

Where the Taliban have not been able or willing to produce an effective approach is in addressing the underlying political issues that keep driving recruits into the arms of the Islamic State. Twice the Taliban negotiated deals with the Salafi ulema, trading off the permission to reopen Salafi mosques and madrasas with a pledge of loyalty to the emirate. Twice the deal has essentially collapsed, because of deep-seated hostility between the Hanafi Taliban and the Salafis, whose proselytising activities the Hanafi ulema have long resented. Recently the Taliban cracked down on Salafi mosques and madrasa in Kandahar, where Salafi presence is very small scale, but also where the Islamic State has recently established an underground network. The same is true of university students, another category keenly targeted by Islamic State recruiters: they still do not see what future the emirate has to offer to them.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Antonio Giustozzi

Senior Research Fellow

Terrorism and Conflict

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