Taliban fighters stand on an armored vehicle before parading along a road to celebrate after the US pulled all its troops out of Afghanistan, in Kandahar on September 1, 2021, after the Taliban's military takeover of the country. Photo: AFP / Javed Tanveer

When the Taliban, loaded with guns and firepower and riding on the promise of “peace, stability and unity,” took over Kabul in August last year, few at the time believed the militant group’s seizure of power marked a transition from war to peacetime stability. 

Fast forward eight months, the Taliban’s fractious regime is far from stable, either politically, economically or geostrategically. The poor economic situation, with the country careening towards widespread famine, is only one side of the Taliban’s problem. 

Emerging power centers within Afghanistan pose a direct challenge to the Taliban’s claims to be the only representative party or power wielder. And those competing political forces are making their point in an explosive fashion.

On April 29, a blast in Kabul in a mosque belonging to a Sunni minority group – the Zikris – killed at least 50 people. On Thursday, a bomb blast in a van carrying Shiite Muslims in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif killed at least nine people.  

The attack on the Shiite van came after Taliban leaders claimed to have captured an ISIS-K mastermind of the previous attack in Mazar-e-Sharif on a Shiite mosque that killed at least 31. 

These attacks challenge the Taliban leadership’s claims to have eliminated opposed terror groups like ISIS-K, offered full protection to minorities and claimed groups like ISIS-K do not pose a serious threat.

While their claims have by now clearly been proven wrong, there is little denying that the continuing success of ISIS-K is directly tied to the Taliban regime for several reasons. 

First, some hardliner groups within the Taliban – including the Haqqanis, who control the Ministry of Interior responsible for tackling such threats and whose ties with the ISIS-K go back to their joint attacks on the US-NATO-Afghan forces – are reluctant to take effective tough action against the terror group. 

It was the same internal division with ISIS-K that led the Taliban, despite their apparent ideological rivalry with the group, to release several hundred ISIS-K fighters after their August takeover, allowing the organization to increase its numbers to 4,000, according to a February 2022 estimate by the UN, from 2,000 previously. 

Security personnel carry a body on a stretcher at the site of a bomb blast at a security post in Injil district of Herat province on April 1, 2021. Photo: AFP / Hoshang Hashimi

This has allowed the ISIS-K to operate freely inside Afghanistan, giving it the leeway to establish cells in almost all of Afghanistan’s provinces. 

Secondly, apart from the Taliban’s own inability and unwillingness to counter ISIS-K, the group’s growing strength is also tied to existing political opposition to the Taliban. 

As some recent reports have indicated, many members of groups and militias previously trained by the US, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and NATO have since joined ISIS-K, not only because they are being hounded by the Taliban but also because these fighters think ISIS-K is the most effective opposition to Taliban rule. 

Following the “enemy of my enemy” rule, these former militia members are effectively following the mission they were originally trained to accomplish: to hunt and kill the Taliban. 

While some of those who have joined ISIS-K can be categorized as sympathetic to the organization’s core ideology, many others who are joining are from a more secular brand of resistance, including the National Resistance Front (NRF), based in northern Afghanistan and led by Ahmad Massoud and Amrullah Saleh, Afghanistan’s former vice-president.

While the NRF is the only known group to have carried out several attacks on the Taliban in the recent past, some new groups – the Afghanistan Freedom Front and the Afghanistan Islamic National and Liberation Movement – have also emerged in the last few months, vowing to resist the Taliban regime on their own or in an alliance with the NRF.

A recent study by the Institute for the Study of War shows that these groups refer to the Taliban as a “terrorist group” and “occupiers” and aim to “liberate” Afghanistan. 

These groups have most recently been joined by Lieutenant General Sami Sadat of the Afghan security forces, who led them in the province of Helmand before being appointed as head of the Afghan special forces in the last few days of the toppled Ashraf Ghani regime. 

Sadat claims to be in touch with the NRF and other groups and believes there is enough popular support available to them to cultivate and build an organic resistance movement against the Taliban. 

In an apparent reversal of roles, these groups are deploying the same tactics – in particular, guerrilla warfare – the Taliban used against US-NATO-Afghan security forces.

In view of these developments, the Taliban has started deploying additional armed groups in northern Afghanistan to hunt down the resistance groups. Most analysts in Afghanistan, therefore, believe a new fighting season is approaching the war-torn country, which is already beset by a massive economic crisis.

Afghan Taliban militants and villagers celebrate the peace deal and their victory in the Afghan conflict over the US in Alingar district of Laghman Province on March 2, 2020. Photo: AFP / Noorullah Shirzada

For these resistance groups, however, the prevailing economic crisis is more of an opportunity than a threat. The fact that the Taliban has failed to address the economic calamity and threat of famine is only helping these groups to recruit new fighters.

At the same time, the fact that the Taliban regime has not been able to gain foreign recognition means these groups are unlikely to draw any international condemnation for their actions against a regime that is yet to gain legitimacy via elections.

Besides the challenge coming from these groups, another key problem for the Taliban is its growing distance from Pakistan, which many observers believe played a clandestine role in the militant group’s lightning seizure of power amid the US troop withdrawal last August. 

In a recent operation motivated, according to Pakistani officials, by the Taliban’s inability and/or unwillingness to tackle the anti-Pakistan Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) based in eastern Afghanistan, Pakistan military airstrikes killed at least 47 in Afghanistan’s two provinces of Khost and Kunar in eastern Afghanistan. TTP is also known as the “Pakistan Taliban” and has well-established links to the Taliban in Kabul.

While these strikes clearly point to emerging tensions between Islamabad and Kabul, the NRF leveraged the attacks as an opportunity to project the growing weakness of the Taliban’s rule and the splintered group’s inability to protect Afghanistan’s sovereignty.

While condemning Pakistan’s attack, the NRF statement said that the “Taliban occupying regime (is) the main cause of foreign aggression in Afghanistan. We emphasize the dismantling of the occupiers and proxy groups in Afghanistan.”

As some recent reports have also indicated, there have been a few meetings between US officials and NRF leaders in Tajikistan to discuss the prospects and possibilities of this resistance movement. 

Ousted Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. His national forces are now regrouping against the Taliban. Photo: AFP

While it is not yet clear whether Washington would offer any assistance, the meetings come against the backdrop of growing Russian and Chinese willingness to strengthen the Taliban against these groups.

But Pakistan’s airstrikes in Afghanistan would seem to indicate that Islamabad is not willing to help the Taliban against the resistance groups, regardless of Moscow and Beijing’s position. 

The head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Nadeem Anjum, has recently met these groups, including Ahmad Massoud, according to the Institute for the Study of War report.

The report claimed Anjum expressed a willingness to work with the resistance groups in exchange for their recognition of the Durand Line – Pakistan’s contested border with Afghanistan that Islamabad has recently rushed to fence off for security reasons, thus cutting off a source of lucrative cross-border legal and illegal trade for the Taliban.

With direct and indirect challenges to the Taliban slowly but surely emerging from within and outside Afghanistan, the militant group’s ability to keep its grip on Afghanistan faces a severe test – one that may prove fatal in the long-term if the right kind of support becomes available to the NRF and other groups.