The Lessons Not Learned: Afghanistan After the Fall of Panjshir

Afghan anti-Taliban fighters in Anaba District, Panjshir province, Afghanistan, on 1 September 2021. Courtesy of Arman/Alamy Live News

A truly successful rebellion will have to reckon with a much more astute Taliban than that which ruled Afghanistan during the 1990s.

After about a week of fighting, the resistance movement in Panjshir was crushed. The outcome was never very much in doubt; the resistance leaders seem to have calculated that they could resist long enough to encourage other communities to rise up in northeast and central Afghanistan. They seem to have been encouraged by the support offered by some Andarabi commanders in the western reaches of Baghlan province, who were in fact the first to challenge Taliban rule in the days before the Panjshir operation started. The Andarabis rose up in response to house searches in the villages; the Taliban were apparently looking for former members of the security forces, especially of the commandos and special forces, who had not registered for the Taliban’s amnesty.

Although the Panjshiris claimed to have 9,000 men in arms, most of these were dubiously motivated village militias. Once the fight reached their villages, and faced with their destruction, some of them began to give up and surrender to the Taliban or make deals with them. The number of more professional fighters was not higher than 3,000. Still a sizeable force for such a small province, they faced nonetheless a Taliban force probably three times as big.

The Panjshiris’ strategy seems to have been to keep the Taliban out of the valley, assuming that they would try to follow the road that enters the valley from Gulbahar. That road is the only way to bring substantial logistics into the valley. This is what the Soviets did in their 1980s offensives; but the Taliban of today are not the Soviets, nor even the Taliban of the 1990s. They have instead evolved into a much more professional force, and their elite units have acquired hybrid warfare skills. They are able and willing to take risks, blitzkrieg-style: advancing quickly and thinking about flanks and logistics later, in the mostly correct assumption that the enemy will be thrown into disarray once the attacking force is past its defences and spreading.

Although the Taliban had already applied their new operational tactics several times between May and August, neither then nor now have their enemies taken stock of them. The Panjshiris did man posts on the mountains surrounding the valley, but they appear to have underestimated the Taliban’s ability and will to sustain attacks involving hundreds of men advancing through the mountains. The Taliban attacked from Kapisa, from Baghlan and from Badakhshan, eventually managing to cross the mountains and break into the valley. A Taliban breakthrough soon started to appear increasingly inevitable. Either under pressure from Taliban attacks from the Gulbahar side – supported by batteries of BM-21 multiple rocket launchers – or in an attempt to lure the Taliban into a bloody trap that would force them to withdraw, the resistance let a Taliban column of 250 vehicles into the valley. Resistance sources point to the second hypothesis (the trap), but if that was the case, it was a massive blunder.

Based on memories of the war against Soviet armoured columns, the resistance leaders seem to have thought that they could block the Taliban’s columns by blowing up the mountainsides ahead of and behind them, and then pin down the Taliban on the road, inflicting disastrous casualties on them. But the Taliban did not stay by their vehicles, and quickly dispersed into the surrounding areas, forcing the Panjshiris onto the defensive. In the meantime, the north of the valley was rapidly falling to the Taliban, who had managed to get through the mountains.

Once the Taliban had broken into the valley, it was only a matter of days before the resistance collapsed. The Taliban were at this point able to bring their numerical superiority to bear.

The model adopted by the Panjshiri resistance has inherent flaws when applied against today’s Taliban and in the current circumstances. By being reliant on a particular community, the resistance was bound to be very vulnerable to any pressure that was brought to bear on the villages. The leadership of the resistance was a mix of old regime officers and Tajik nationalist intellectuals, plus some old resistance fighters from the 1990s. Their main political aim was autonomy for Panjshir and for the northeast, but for many villagers and village elders that aim may well not have been worth the destruction of their homes.

Future Resistance?

The leader of the resistance, Ahmad Massud, says he will continue a guerrilla war in and around Panjshir. His chances of being able to mount a sustainable insurgency will depend on a number of factors, but primarily on his ability to expand beyond Panjshir and successfully attract allies. His movement has the support of many educated Tajiks – especially young ones – but for that support to translate into a viable insurgency, many of them will have to actually join the fight and help organise a grassroots structure that goes beyond the village elders. They would need to move from the cities to the villages, as opposed to fleeing abroad. The focus on tweeting propaganda aimed at Western countries and India betrays a persistent expectation that somebody will come from outside to rescue the opposition to the Taliban. By now, they should have learned better.

The resistance will need a more dependable underground structure, because the village elders have a vested interest in accommodation with whoever is in power. In the villages, Taliban rule does not bring much change per se. Without a more developed organisation, the resistance is unlikely to take off unless the Taliban start harassing villagers systematically and on a large scale, which – as far as it is possible to say – they have yet to do.

The same applies beyond Panjshir. Jami’at-i Islami, Massud’s party, has a real and strong influence among Afghan Tajiks, but over the years it has increasingly relied for local influence and power on a network of local strongmen, many of whom have dedicated themselves to illegal mining and smuggling and, in the cities, gangsterism. In recent years, quite a few of them – especially in Badakhshan – have started cooperating with the Taliban in their shadow economy operations. Many of these commanders now seem to prefer their joint businesses with Taliban counterparts to the prospect of a long, bloody and uncertain struggle for the autonomy of the Tajik heartlands of northeast Afghanistan. Like the village elders, they have a vested interest in the local status quo, as long as the Taliban do not challenge it. The resistance could therefore either wait for the Taliban to start challenging those interests – which might take a long time – or bypass the strongmen and the elders and (re)build a genuine grassroots structure, as an integral part of the resistance movement.

Even starting a large-scale insurgency in the northeast is unlikely to be enough to force the Taliban to a standstill. Massud and his colleagues are aware of this and have tried to reach out to strongmen and leaders of the Hazara and Uzbek minorities. The latter have sought to negotiate some form of agreement with Massud, but have so far been discouraged by their patrons abroad (Iran and Turkey), according to sources close to them. Their patrons would rather make another attempt to convince the Taliban to form a coalition with the minority leaders, not least because they do not want to compromise their decent – if somewhat worn – relations with the Taliban. Even if the likes of Uzbek general Abdul Rashid Dostum and Hazara leaders Mohammad Mohaqqeq and Karim Khalili were to actively join the resistance, they would face the same conundrum as Massud and other Tajik leaders. Uzbek and Hazara elders will prioritise the safety of their villages.

It is certainly far from impossible that the Taliban might intensify their repression in the future, for whatever reason. The resistance leaders might then be better advised not to waste the lives of their trained cadres in battles that cannot be won, and to wait for the right moment to come. Otherwise, they will need to engage in a long-term effort to build better-organised underground structures and aim for the long haul. In a successful insurgency, the submerged part of the ‘iceberg’ is by far the largest.

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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