Afghan Resistance Mulls Formation of Government in Exile

Fighters, politicians, and generals will try to ape the Taliban’s playbook while the extremists sleepwalk into civil war.

September 24, 2021. (Foreign Policy)—The leaders of Afghanistan’s armed resistance against the Taliban have left the country and are regrouping with former senior figures of the toppled Ghani administration with the aim of forming a government in exile. 

Politicians including ministers and parliamentary deputies of the deposed government, as well as senior military figures, are in neighboring Tajikistan, seeking financial and military support to bolster a formal opposition to the extremists who took control of Afghanistan on Aug. 15, former officials living abroad said. Ahmad Massoud, son of a famed resistance leader, and former Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh, who both led a short-lived resistance in the Panjshir Valley northeast of Kabul, fled across the border in recent weeks after their efforts to hold out against the Taliban were crushed. 

A former senior Afghan security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the resistance comprises three broad categories: supporters of Saleh and Massoud’s National Resistance Front; former officers, including generals of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, as well as senior officials of the former defense and interior ministries; and former ministers and deputy ministers. Discussions are in the early stages, and the groups are yet to unite ideologically. 

They represent Afghanistan’s various ethnic and religious identities—Sunni, Shiite, Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara—sources close to the movement said. Some major players, including warlords and ethnic power brokers, are cooperating from outside Tajikistan, with some expected to relocate there soon. Former President Ashraf Ghani, whose sudden departure on Aug. 15 cleared the way for the Taliban to enter Kabul and declare victory, is not apparently part of the government-in-exile discussions. He is in the United Arab Emirates with a coterie of supporters, including former National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib.

The prospect of a government in exile raises concerns that Afghanistan could again be consumed by civil war. The lack of a state or wealthy individual sponsor for armed insurrection, however, makes it unlikely that the opposition, if it does coalesce, could back its aspirations with military might, at least for the foreseeable future. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rep. Michael Waltz appear to be the only cheerleaders so far for the Massoud-Saleh team, and there is no indication the resistance has found a financial sponsor like former Rep. Charlie Wilson, who famously backed the mujahideen after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. 

The prospect of a government in exile raises concerns that Afghanistan could again be consumed by civil war.

But if a government in exile really does take shape, there’s still the prospect of a regional proxy battle akin to what happened in Libya, said the former security official. Qatar was the Taliban’s base during its negotiations with former U.S. President Donald Trump, when they secured an open path to take over the whole country. Qatar’s rival, the United Arab Emirates, now shelters Ghani. The two countries are at loggerheads in Libya, among other places.

If the resistance is now trying to regroup in Tajikistan, that’s probably because efforts to mount a last stand in the Panjshir were premature and built on unsteady foundations.

“It [the resistance in Panjshir] was a bad idea. They sacrificed the lives of Panjshiris,” said a source who worked closely with Saleh in government. “The first rule of war is choose a battle you can win.” The province—which held out against the Soviets and the Taliban under the leadership of Massoud’s father a generation ago—fell to the Taliban in early September, after phone and internet communications were cut and the valley surrounded. Since then, the Taliban have been ruthless in crushing opposition, detaining and in some cases killing people associated with the Panjshir, not just the resistance. Saleh’s brother Rohullah Azizi was tortured and executed on Sept. 9. 

Advisors to the nascent movement have suggested Saleh and Massoud follow the playbook of the Taliban after their regime was overthrown by U.S. invasion in late 2001: regroup, rearm, seek support, and expand. The Taliban had a sanctuary in Pakistan, where they were sheltered, funded, and armed by the state intelligence service there, before igniting their insurgency three years later. 

“This resistance was formed very fast, it didn’t seem to have a solid agenda, there were many fragmentations within the movement, and they seemed to speak the language of the old mujahideen,” which doesn’t resonate with younger followers, said Weeda Mehran, a conflict specialist at the University of Exeter.

“Going away gives them time to regroup, to think, to sort out how to challenge the Taliban, consider what other figures to bring on board, and develop into a broader anti-Taliban movement,” she said.

The Taliban are deeply unpopular among Afghans, especially in the cities. They appear to be ignoring unfolding humanitarian and economic catastrophes in favor of issuing edicts about such pressing issues as men’s haircuts when they’re not joyriding on airport luggage conveyor belts. 

The Taliban are struggling to win recognition of their government of mullahs and internationally sanctioned terrorists, none of whom have qualifications for government administration. Meanwhile, their militiamen appear intent on vengeance, according to some Kabul residents who say they have been detained, beaten, looted, evicted, and lost relatives in revenge killings. Even as food and fuel prices are soaring, the Taliban have closed border crossings with Pakistan, further constraining supply. Lack of dollars in Afghanistan has made any exchange rate irrelevant and is causing a dollar shortage in Pakistan, a Pakistani official said. The Taliban’s supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, has yet to be seen in public and is widely believed to have died last year, possibly of COVID-19.

Tamim Asey, the head of the Institute of War and Peace Studies, said the Taliban “are sleepwalking into a civil war and mass civil unrest” with moratoriums on education and employment for women and girls, on music and journalism, with public floggings, and by maintaining ties with al Qaeda. After 40 years of war, he said, “there is no appetite among the people for a fight, and the region is also not keen on another war in Afghanistan.” But it is “a sign of trouble” that no neighboring country has yet recognized the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, Asey added.

The Taliban are deeply unpopular among Afghans, especially in the cities.

Still, Massoud, Saleh, and any government in exile would need military backing to have any chance of success, he said. 

“The Taliban translated militancy into political power, and Donald Trump recognized that for his own domestic political expediency” with a bilateral agreement to withdraw U.S. troops that legitimized the insurgency and handed Afghanistan to the extremists.

Meanwhile, there is another sort of resistance taking shape. Afghanistan’s embassies around the world continue to be staffed by diplomats appointed by the Ghani government and its predecessors, not the Taliban. The self-declared Constitutional Republic of Afghanistan, according to its founder—who asked not to be identified while he garners international support—seeks to support the embassies as “advocates for a democratic, independent Afghanistan, outside Afghanistan, for an Afghanistan that has a constitution.”

There are some early adherents. Afghanistan’s embassy to Australia, in a statement marking the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, referred to the Taliban’s “recent illegal capture of power and territories” and called on the international community to “uphold the will of the nation, including the right to self-determination.” 

“Upholding human rights, especially the rights of women, children and minorities, political inclusivity and counter-terrorism are the key national and international expectations on which the Taliban should be held accountable,” the statement said. 

“[The] Taliban’s failure to meet these foundational principles will undoubtedly risk prolongation of the conflict and pose serious threats to regional and international security and stability.”