In October 2001, U.S. defense intelligence planners were tasked with assessing whether a coalition of anti-Taliban rebel groups known as the “Northern Alliance” could topple the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
“Taliban strength in the Kabul Central Corps is approximately 130 tanks, 85 armored personnel carriers, 85 pieces of artillery and approximately 7,000 soldiers,” U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency officials wrote in a memo that has since been declassified. “Northern Alliance forces, under the command of General Fahim Khan, number about 10,000 troops, with approximately 40 tanks and a roughly equal number of APCs [armored personnel carriers] and a few artillery pieces.”
Just one month later, with U.S. backing, Taliban fighters fled the Afghan capital of Kabul and Northern Alliance forces entered the city, greeted by throngs of joyful residents celebrating the toppling of the brutal Taliban regime.
Now, two decades on, Kabul’s past has become its future. Thanks to the collective failure of 20 years of U.S. war and nation-building, culminating in a botched withdrawal, the Taliban appear to have significantly more political control, manpower, and military might than they had in 2001. They also have huge arsenals of U.S. military equipment abandoned by the Afghan army.
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“I think it’s a different game than 1996,” said Mick Mulroy, a former CIA and Defense Department official, referring to the year the Taliban took power in Afghanistan. “Militarily, they have billions of dollars of our own provided weapons and equipment. They have the momentum. From their perspective, they just pushed out the number one superpower in the world.”
And yet, despite the lightning Taliban offensive and collapse of the Afghan government, a resistance group is already starting to form in the Panjshir province of northeast Afghanistan, once a stronghold of the Northern Alliance. Panjshir is the one province in Afghanistan that did not fall to the Taliban in their sweeping offensive as U.S. and NATO coalition troops carried out their withdrawal this summer.
The newly dubbed National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, led by the son of assassinated Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, who took his father’s name, issued a rallying cry in the opinion pages of the Washington Post earlier this week to petition for U.S. aid.
“I write from the Panjshir Valley today, ready to follow in my father’s footsteps, with mujahideen fighters who are prepared to once again take on the Taliban,” he wrote. “We have stores of ammunition and arms that we have patiently collected since my father’s time, because we knew this day might come.”
Some experts also point out there is an entire generation of Afghans who have never lived under Taliban rule and grew up with the freedoms and economic prosperity their parents’ generation lacked. They may be more inclined to stand up to the extremist militant group’s new era of rule.
One overriding question that could determine the fate of an anti-Taliban military alliance is the formation of the new government. The Taliban have sought to portray themselves on the world stage as more moderate than their previous guise, though many experts and Western officials doubt their claims. If they organize a viable power-sharing deal to govern with other Afghan power brokers—including former Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, a coalition partner in the toppled Ghani government—it could reduce wider support for armed resistance against the Taliban. But if the Taliban tightens their grip on power and expand their violent reprisals against former Afghan government officials, some experts believe a successor to the Northern Alliance will gain support.
Any internecine violence could exacerbate an already dire humanitarian crisis and leave Afghanistan’s civilian population caught in the crossfire.
Even to the nascent group’s leaders, it is unclear whether they will have enough manpower and support to form a viable resistance to the Taliban, unless the United States steps in to provide more weapons and assistance. “We know that our military forces and logistics will not be sufficient,” Massoud wrote. “They will be rapidly depleted unless our friends in the West can find a way to supply us without delay.”
Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh declared himself the “legitimate caretaker president” after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country when the Taliban marched toward Kabul. Saleh’s whereabouts remain unknown, but his allies are hopeful Saleh can organize a viable resistance movement out of Panjshir to challenge the Taliban’s rule.
“I cannot say that the Taliban have won the war,” Afghanistan’s ambassador to Tajikistan, Zahir Aghbar, told Reuters. “No, it was just Dr. Ashraf Ghani who gave up power after treacherous talks with the Taliban. … And only Panjshir resists, led by Vice President Amrullah Saleh,” he said. “Panjshir stands strong against anyone who wants to enslave people.”
In his Washington Post op-ed, Massoud said since the fall of Kabul, the group’s ranks had swelled, with Afghan army veterans “disgusted by the surrender of their commanders” and former special forces joining the cause.
“There’s a lot of ex-soldiers and commandos and other people who literally have skin in the game right now,” said Bill Roggio, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who has been closely tracking battlefield updates in the Afghanistan conflict for years. “The key for them is to organize resistance now and immediately try to regroup before the Taliban fully cements its control.”
Roggio said Panjshir and the neighboring province of Badakhshan have historically served as the stronghold of anti-Taliban resistance. Badakhshan borders Tajikistan and the Pakistan-administered region of Gilgit-Baltistan. “If Saleh can consolidate, hold Panjshir, and retake all or parts of Badakhshan to get an outside lifeline for their forces, it’s possible they can last. The question is: Who’s going to support them?”
Some in Congress, like Florida Republican Rep. Mike Waltz, a retired Army Green Beret who served in Afghanistan, are already calling on the Biden administration to provide aid to Massoud. It’s not yet clear what the Pentagon plans to do with the $3.3 billion it had budgeted for the Afghan army, which collapsed in a matter of weeks in the face of the Taliban offensive.
Asked whether the United States has made contact with either Saleh or Massoud, the State Department did not respond.
But the military map still looks much more fraught for whatever resistance is able to emerge. Massoud’s late father was able to carve out between 5 to 10 percent of the country in the 1990s that was mostly untouched by the Taliban before helping to drive out the militant group alongside U.S. forces in 2001. This time around, Panjshir remains effectively surrounded by the militant group.
“The Northern Alliance had a lot of territory across multiple provinces,” said Asfandyar Mir, a South Asia analyst affiliated with Stanford University. “Right now, we’re talking about this one district, maybe two districts, in one province. So, no real resistance.”
In the wake of their lightning offensive into Kabul, the Taliban have amassed a war chest of U.S. military equipment, including more than 2,000 armored vehicles and 40 aircraft, according to an intelligence assessment conveyed to Reuters. By and large, the Taliban have built up more core strength in the northern provinces where Massoud was once powerful, giving them the ability to quickly stifle a potential uprising.
“The Taliban have a very strong presence in the north,” said Ibraheem Bahiss, an expert with the International Crisis Group. “They completely flooded the capital recently for security reasons. There just isn’t enough equipment to be replenishing a long-term resistance against a larger enemy like the Taliban.”
But even as the Taliban appear to have consolidated military gains and de facto political acceptance from foreign powers like China, Pakistan, and Russia, experts believe they could be at risk of overextending thin lines of credit and will be consumed by establishing a new government from scratch.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday that the Biden administration halted bulk shipments of cash to Afghanistan as the Taliban neared Kabul; most of the Afghan central bank’s $9 billion in reserves are held outside of the country. And the Taliban, still on sanctions lists in many Western countries, is likely to be vulnerable to asset freezes by foreign governments.
“[It] depends on their ability to generate revenue—much of which will come from products of the poppy cultivation, which they have long controlled,” David Petraeus, a retired U.S. Army general who commanded U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011, told Foreign Policy in an email. “And if they can attract outside investment, now … they might guarantee the security that they previously disrupted. They have trillions of dollars of minerals in the ground.”
Petraeus said the system of government the Taliban is likely to administer, based on strong central control, will require multibillion dollar budgets that might be difficult to maintain as foreign-funded aid organizations leave. Without that money, the fledgling government will struggle to provide services. “How will the Taliban make up that difference without U.S., Japanese, and other foreign funding?” Petraeus added. “And what about when militant members carry out abuses?”
And the newfound problems of incumbency for the Taliban aren’t likely to end there, experts and former officials said. The Taliban are accustomed to fighting as an insurgency, but maintaining a standing army will be much more expensive.
“Given that Afghanistan doesn’t have much of a tax base, how do you fundraise for something like that?” Mir asked.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer
Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch