Afghan woman; flag; protest
An Afghan woman holds up the flag of Afghanistan during a protest in Athens. Photo: ANGELOS TZORTZINIS / AFP

A Resistance Movement Is Building in Afghanistan. But It Will Take More to Defy the Taliban.

There’s been a flurry of bold protests and calls to action against the militant group. Now comes the hard part.
Heather Chen
Bangkok, TH
August 20, 2021, 9:12am

Ahmad Massoud has vowed to fight back.

The son of a famed anti-Taliban resistance fighter assassinated two days before September 11, 2001, Massoud is holed up in Afghanistan’s Panjshir valley, where he penned an op-ed for the Washington Post appealing for help against the hardline group that seized power on Sunday.

“We have stores of ammunition and arms that we have patiently collected since my father’s time, because we knew this day might come,” he wrote this week, adding that former soldiers and members of the Afghan Special Forces have responded to his calls. Officials in the fallen government, including defiant vice-president Amrulleh Saleh, have also taken refuge in Panjshir, north of Kabul and the only territory not in Taliban hands. 

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The mountainous stronghold of the Northern Alliance, Panjshir avoided capture by the Taliban more than two decades ago, when they first held power from 1996 to 2001, and by the Soviets, whose 10-year occupation ended in 1989. Clips on social media show armed leaders gathering there and a convoy of vehicles waving a Northern Alliance flag. Naming himself Acting President after leader Ashraf Ghani fled the country, Saleh has also been sending inspiring messages to his 800,000 followers on Twitter.

“JOIN THE RESISTANCE,” he said in one tweet on Tuesday, writing that he and allies see “enormous” opportunities ahead. 

Days after its lightning-fast takeover of Afghanistan, the Taliban faces questions of legitimacy and the day-to-day challenges of running a country. But as the saber-rattling from Panjshir suggests, it is also seeing the first signs of opposition since seizing power and renaming the country the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. This week, the Taliban called on Afghan imams to urge unity during weekly Friday prayers as protests against the takeover spread to more cities. 

Apart from Panjshir, angry crowds took to the streets of Kabul on Thursday, Afghanistan’s Independence Day. Shouting “our flag, our identity!”, women and men marched, some with the nation state’s green, red and black flag tied around their necks. Taliban fighters reportedly shouted at them but did not intervene.

The brave protests came days after four Afghan women in the capital drew praise for courage after waving handwritten signs and demanding their rights — all while being surrounded by heavily armed men. There have also been demonstrations in the provinces of Nangarhar and Khost. Footage that circulated on social media showed dozens of people marching, blocking roads and removing Taliban flags. 

But amid signs of pushback, experts are skeptical. They cite the battle-hardened nature of Taliban fighters, and their willingness to use violence against critics despite vows to be “peaceful.” Early responses have been ominous. The Taliban stormed recent protests outside of Kabul and at least three civilians were killed by gunfire and dozens of others attacked, according to media reports. The Taliban is also going door to door looking for people affiliated with NATO forces or the previous government, according to a United Nations document.  

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“We are seeing small-scale sporadic pushbacks and nothing big,” Omar Samad, a former Afghan ambassador to France and Canada, told VICE World News. “The Taliban will likely tolerate peaceful protests but not anything beyond that. This is a group that’s been fighting for 25 years and has great experience dealing with resistance and escalating violence.”

He added: “It will be extremely difficult to maintain any kind of armed insurrection against them.”  

Samad is not alone in thinking this. In an interview with VICE World News, Ibraheem Bahiss, a consultant on Afghanistan for the International Crisis Group, echoed broader doubts over the prospects of challenging Taliban control, especially given geopolitical concerns about further instability. “Regional countries seem to have accepted that the Taliban will be the dominant force and are more interested in having a peaceful transition than supporting any kind of resistance,” Bahiss said.

“It will be extremely difficult to maintain any kind of armed insurrection against them.”

There are also concerns about potential infighting over the loose-knit militias and fighters gathering in Panjshir, as political wheeling and dealing and power struggles could undercut any formal armed response. In an earlier interview before Kabul fell to the Taliban, Massoud said he was open to negotiating with them.

“I am willing and ready to forgive the blood of my father for the sake of peace in Afghanistan and security and stability in Afghanistan,” he told the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center. But he added that a government marked by “extremism and fundamentalism” is unacceptable.

The Taliban has yet to acknowledge protests taking place on the ground, but the group has publicly claimed to be more tolerant now, even willing to work with women — a far cry from the harsh reputation they cultivated when in power, when they banned popular entertainment, carried out public executions and floggings, and prevented women from getting an education or pursuing a career. Representatives have encouraged people to return to work. They have also held talks with previous senior civilian leaders, including former President Hamid Karzai, Reuters reported.

“Animosities have come to an end,” Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said this week, holding a press conference with local and international media for the first time. “We don’t want any external or internal enemies... We want to live peacefully.”

Many in the country, as well as global observers, doubt whether the Taliban will keep their word. An Afghan woman working for an international aid organisation told VICE World News that despite the Taliban’s pronouncements, they are “not sure” if women or girls will be allowed to go to school or work in practice. “They say [it will be] based on Sharia law but no one knows what’s their definition for Sharia law,” she said. She also worried that the less extremist front will only last as long as foreign troops remain on the ground. 

“If the international community and the foreign troops leave, they will disconnect the internet and they will change the rules specifically for women and life will become too difficult,” she said. “I don’t know what will happen. I can call it a human[itarian] crisis but women and children will be most vulnerable.”

Heather Barr, former Afghanistan researcher and co-director of the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, said that the protests, no matter how small, are vital.

“There isn’t a single Afghan woman I’ve met who thinks that the Taliban have changed and even if it’s just five Afghans in the street, it’s them reminding us that they will not and cannot [return] to living in old ways,” Barr told VICE World News. “Will they topple the Taliban next week? No. But that won’t be the only way in which they succeed.”

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She cited the Arab Spring, protests in Hong Kong, and the widespread resistance to the coup in Myanmar as examples of crucial, inspiring movements where people have come out in the streets to fight for freedom.

“These women are expressing fundamental human rights that the Taliban doesn’t accept, the right to be in public spaces,” Barr said. “If they keep standing up and raising their voices, it helps to keep the world’s attention on Afghanistan and forces the Taliban to moderate policies, [as well as] undermine their efforts to appear legitimate.”

“There isn’t a single Afghan woman I’ve met who thinks that the Taliban have changed.”

Bahiss from the International Crisis Group said global pressure could play a role but added that the reality on the ground posed major obstacles. “It’s possible that there could be some international countries that might support a resistance movement in Afghanistan but even with international support, how successful that would be, with very few opposition fighters being completely surrounded and overwhelmed by the strength of the Taliban, we don’t know how viable that will be.”

Refugees from Afghanistan at the border of Turkey and Iran. Photo: Bradley Secker / Getty Images

Refugees from Afghanistan at the border of Turkey and Iran. Photo: Bradley Secker / Getty Images

As it stands, the Taliban is firmly in control of most of the country, which they swept through with breakneck speed, using threats and bribes and even leveraging social media. Along the way, they snapped up American hardware, weapons and vehicles to add to their war chest. U.S. President Joe Biden has defended the withdrawal of troops but said an attack on evacuating forces would be met with “devastating force if necessary.” 

Despite his open dissent, even Massoud admitted that resistance would be difficult without any outside help.

“If Taliban warlords launch an assault, they will of course face staunch resistance from us,” he wrote in his op-ed. “Yet we know that our military forces and logistics will not be sufficient. They will be rapidly depleted unless our friends in the West can find a way to supply us without delay.”

With additional reporting by Natashya Gutierrez

Follow Heather Chen on Twitter.