The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Anti-Taliban fighters claim victories as first stirrings of armed resistance emerge

A Taliban flag is seen on a plinth with people gathered around the main city square on Aug. 11 after the Taliban captured Pol-e-Khomri, the capital of Baghlan province about 100 miles north of Kabul. (AFP/Getty Images)
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KABUL — Groups of armed Afghans attacked the Taliban on Friday, driving Afghanistan's new rulers out of three northern districts, the first assault against the Islamist militants since they swept into Kabul last week and seized control of the government.

Local anti-Taliban commanders claimed in interviews they had killed as many as 30 of the group’s fighters and captured 20 in the takeover of the districts in Baghlan province, just over 100 miles north of the capital. Former Afghan service members were joined in the fight, they said, by local civilians. Images shared online showed celebrations as the red, green and black Afghan national flag — rather than the white flag of the Taliban — was raised over government buildings.

“We have ignited something that is historic in Afghanistan,” said Sediqullah Shuja, 28, a former Afghan soldier who took part in Friday’s uprising. “Taliban fighters had armored vehicles, but people threw stones at Taliban fighters and drove them out.”

“As long as we are alive,” he said, “we do not accept the Taliban’s rule.”

Friday’s attack is the latest sign of defiance toward the Taliban, ranging from Afghans refusing to fly the white Taliban flag to women protesting to preserve their rights. Together, they illuminate some of the obstacles the Taliban faces as it seeks to form a government deemed acceptable by a broad spectrum of Afghans and by the international community, especially donors.

But whether Friday’s attack is a sign of an emerging new military front against the Taliban remains to be seen.

The Taliban is militarily far superior than its earlier incarnation, which ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001 and was toppled following the U.S.-led invasion.

Multiple people were killed and more than a dozen were injured in anti-Taliban protests in the Afghan city of Jalalabad on Aug. 18. (Video: Reuters)

In just 10 days, the Taliban took control of every provincial capital across the nation, despite the Afghan government wielding a massive U.S.-funded and equipped military, an air force and special commando units. The Taliban seized the arsenals of Afghan army and police units, including American-made weaponry and armored vehicles. Having been humiliated by the Taliban’s triumph, there is no appetite in the West to fund an insurgency against their rule.

Taliban officials were not immediately available for comment Friday about events in Baghlan. But a tweet from a pro-Taliban account claimed the clashes killed 15 Taliban and wounded 15, and that the Taliban was betrayed after offering amnesty to locals.

“All those who committed this crime must be killed. The doors of conversation are closed,” the tweet read.

Friday’s assault to retake the three districts of Puli Hisar, Dih Salah and Bano — which was confirmed by a former defense minister — came after Taliban fighters conducted house-to-house searches in the Andarab valley of the province, local commanders said.

As in most parts of Afghanistan, the Taliban had taken over the districts with little resistance in recent weeks. Shuja said that the local residents had told the Taliban fighters they can govern as long as they don’t enter their villages and homes.

So when the Taliban came to conduct searches, former Afghan military servicemen, along with civilians, decided to rise up. They drove out the Taliban in less than a day.

“Taliban fighters did not listen to us,” said Shuja, who had left his post in Helmand province when he heard that military units were surrendering en masse to the Taliban. “They came to our houses and harassed people. In our villages, people are very traditional and Muslim. There is no reason for Taliban to come and teach us about Islam.”

Abdul Rahman, 53, a former commander at Baghlan prison, said he mobilized hundreds of local forces and pushed the Taliban out. He said that the uprising left 30 Taliban fighters dead and 20 in custody — claims that could not be independently verified.

“All people of the valley have risen up against the Taliban,” said Rahman. “We are not afraid of Taliban fighters. We can [fight] as many as they come.”

Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, a former defense minister who has called for the arrest of the former president, Ashraf Ghani, confirmed in a tweet that the local forces retook three districts in Baghlan province.

“Resistance is still alive,” said Mohammadi, who was an anti-Taliban commander during the group’s first stint in power.

On Twitter, Afghans posted photos and videos from the captured districts, including images of rifle-toting fighters congratulating one another on their victory and chanting “Allahu akbar,” or “God is great.”

Friday’s uprising appears unconnected to another anti-Taliban force that emerged this week in the north: The National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, led by Ahmad Massoud, the son of the late Afghan mujahideen leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud.

The elder Massoud fought the Taliban in the late 1990s from his base in the Panjshir Valley, roughly 90 miles northeast of Kabul. Two days before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, he was assassinated by al-Qaeda operatives.

The National Resistance Front appears to be backing former vice president Amrullah Saleh, who is widely believed to be in the Panjshir Valley, the only area in the country not under Taliban control.

Saleh claims he is the legitimate caretaker of Afghanistan after former president Ghani fled to the United Arab Emirates hours before the Taliban entered Kabul last weekend.

On Wednesday, Ahmad Massoud published an op-ed in The Washington Post seeking U.S. and Western support, arms, ammunition and supplies. He wrote that he is “ready to follow in my father’s footsteps, with mujahideen fighters who are prepared to once again take on the Taliban.”

Massoud said his forces include former Afghan regular army soldiers and Afghan Special Forces, as well as ordinary Afghans who have responded to his call to join the resistance. “We have stores of ammunition and arms that we have patiently collected since my father’s time, because we knew this day might come,” wrote Massoud.

His cause, however, has not been joined by other Afghan leaders who resisted Taliban rule the last time around.

Many have chosen instead to work with the Taliban in the hopes of creating an inclusive transitional government. Former reconciliation council leader Abdullah Abdullah, former president Hamid Karzai and a powerful warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, have formed a council that seeks a political settlement with the Taliban, rather than join the budding insurgency.

“Talks and meetings are all about how we can pass on the current situation toward forming a government,” said Fraidoon Khwazoon, a spokesperson for Abdullah. “The Taliban says that all leaders must be invited back to Kabul for negotiations.”

Abdullah has been asking the Taliban to guarantee security for leaders who are not part of the group, while stopping house-to-house searches and the seizure of government-issued vehicles, said Khwazoon.

“A senior Taliban leader is in Kabul for talks, but first Afghan leaders need assurance of safety from the Taliban,” said the spokesperson.

On Friday, such assurances of safety were in doubt, especially for Afghanistan’s minority Hazara community, who are Shiite Muslims. An Amnesty International report detailed the torture and massacre of nine Hazara men last month by the Taliban, who are Sunni, after they captured territory in Ghazni province.

The Taliban insists it has changed. Afghanistan’s future hinges on whether that’s true.

The allegations came just after the Taliban offered security for rituals and processions during Ashura, a significant Shiite commemoration that is considered blasphemous by hardline Sunnis. The decision raised hopes that perhaps the Taliban has changed its approach toward the Hazara — who were persecuted during the last Taliban government. But deep skepticism remains.

“I cannot believe that the Taliban has changed,” said Habibullah, a 33-year-old Hazara who, like many Afghans, uses one name. “Taliban fighters are the same as they have been trained. And for them, Hazaras are infidels.”

Raghavan reported from Dubai.

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