- Research Programs
- Regions & Topics
- All Publications
A nation must think before it acts.
On November 15, 2022, the Foreign Policy Research Institute conducted an in-person and Zoom event titled, “The Future of Resistance in Afghanistan,” with Ali M. Nazary, the head of foreign relations for the National Resistance Front (NRF). Nazary, an articulate spokesman for the NRF and the anti-Taliban cause in Afghanistan, presented one of the most comprehensive briefings to a general American audience to date of the NRF’s goals and strategy. This short essay will provide a brief description of those goals and strategy and assess what this may mean for U.S. foreign policy.
The event with Nazary was the third Afghan-centric event or publication produced by FPRI in the past three months as part of its efforts to showcase the wide range of challenges to American foreign policy beyond current headlines. All three concentrated on the two main issues for US foreign policy towards Afghanistan since the Taliban’s seizure of power: the presence in Afghanistan of multiple international and regional terrorist groups, the presence of a resistance movement to Taliban rule, and how to deal with both.
According to Nazary, the NRF is fighting for a democratic, decentralized Afghanistan with equal rights for all citizens, including gender equality. To achieve this goal, NRF guerrilla forces are conducting a classic Maoist insurgency that is in the first stage of gathering strength in the countryside while exhausting its enemy. The NRF hopes to move soon to the next stage of the insurgency by liberating select regions of the country, which would allow them to gain the resources for the final stage of fighting large-scale battles to overthrow Taliban rule.
Nazary characterized the Taliban as being riven by factionalism based on conflicts over resources and tribal differences. Most interesting were his comments on the relationship between the Taliban and the Islamic State. According to him, the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP) terrorist group in Afghanistan has itself splintered into several smaller groups, some of whom have established good relations with the Haqqani Network. Islamic State members who have fled Syria and Iraq for Afghanistan do not have the same animosity towards the Taliban as some ISKP groups. Reportedly, the Taliban used some Islamic State emigres to conduct targeted killings of rival Taliban members and suppress the Hazara rebellion in Sar-e Pul Province in August. (However, other reporting indicates that a bloody internecine war between the Taliban and ISKP continues, especially in eastern Afghanistan). Characterizing the NRF as still fighting the Global War on Terror by opposing the Taliban and their terrorist allies, Nazary presented the NRF as the only democratic force that can be relied on as a counterterrorism ally in Afghanistan. He alluded that the United States may wish to use the NRF to fight terrorist groups in Afghanistan as it used Kurdish forces to fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Nazary’s comments on the NRF’s vision for the political future of Afghanistan unambiguously emphasized the need for a decentralized governmental system that devolved power to the provinces and districts. According to him, Afghanistan’s cycle of violence for over five decades has been the result of the centralization of power in Kabul and in one man, be that man a monarch, communist general secretary, or president. When asked how exactly decentralization could be implemented, he suggested that this would be left up to the people via a referendum. Upon further questioning, Nazary denied that decentralization was a step towards partitioning Afghanistan between the ethnic minority groups in the north and the Pashtun tribes in the south, saying that Afghanistan had not reached that stage “yet” and should not pursue that option until other options such as federation (a union of partially self-governing states where the central government has ultimate authority), or confederation (a union of fully self-governing states where the central government has only the authority they allow it), are tried.
However, the NRF goal of a decentralized Afghan state will likely lead to either a confederation that maintains Afghanistan’s current territorial integrity or a partition that will end it. Decentralization is antithetical to a strong federal system where the provinces and districts can be subordinate to decisions from Kabul. Therefore, under the logic of decentralization, a confederation is the best option for maintaining a united Afghanistan with the ethnic minorities, who make up approximately 40 percent of Afghanistan’s population, controlling their areas and the majority Pashtuns controlling the rest of the country. The best scenario for the NRF would be a parallel Pashtun uprising that replaces the Taliban and joins them in confederation, possibly with regional capitals in Mazar-e Sharif and Qandahar, and with a weak central government in Kabul to conduct foreign relations while the two halves of the country establish their own political, social, and security systems.
However, a confederated Afghanistan is unlikely because the Taliban would never agree to it voluntarily and it would take a complete victory over the Taliban, as happened in November–December 2001, to impose such a system on the Taliban. Even in the fall of 2001, Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance units never advanced far into predominantly Pashtun areas. The defeat of the Taliban in these areas was achieved through a combination of anti-Taliban Pashtun tribal forces supported by American advisors on the ground and copious amounts of air support. The NRF likely realizes that such a combination is unlikely to reoccur and that they alone cannot defeat the Taliban throughout Afghanistan without a parallel anti-Taliban Pashtun insurgency. Therefore, the strong emphasis on decentralization by an official NRF spokesman seems to indicate that the NRF aims to only defeat the Taliban in majority-Tajik and other ethnic minority areas of northern Afghanistan. With the Taliban maintaining control in southern and eastern Afghanistan and little hope of political compromise between the two parties, this makes partition the most likely end result of a successful military campaign by the NRF and other anti-Taliban forces in northern Afghanistan.
What does this mean for US foreign policy?
The partition of Afghanistan goes against a general principle of opposing separatism. Since many of the world’s states are multiethnic, separatism writ large can create a slippery slope of undermining the territorial integrity of states and therefore the international order. However, the results of separatism have been accepted as de jure by the United States and the international community numerous times in the past several decades with the fall of the Soviet Union, the breakup of Yugoslavia, the velvet divorce of Czechoslovakia, and the separation of South Sudan from Sudan and East Timor from Indonesia. It is currently recognized de facto in Libya and Somalia, which are divided into two or even three separate independently functioning regions or ministates.
If the NRF or a broader resistance organization defeats the Taliban in the predominantly minority areas of northern Afghanistan and forms a functioning civil government accepted by the various ethnic groups there, would the United States be willing to recognize a partitioned Afghanistan? One argument is that this would be bad for the principle of the territorial integrity of states but good for US counterterrorism objectives. An Afghanistan partitioned along generally north-south lines would deny international and regional terrorist groups access to the borders of the Central Asian states, which those governments would welcome because it would severely decrease the threat of terrorism and internal unrest. It would provide the United States with greater opportunities to develop the intelligence and infrastructure to disrupt terrorist operations in the Taliban portion of Afghanistan. A pluralistic northern Afghanistan could also serve as an alternate example for those Taliban-controlled areas and a refuge for those fleeing Taliban misrule, further undermining the Taliban regime.
Any future decentralization of Afghanistan is one possible future scenario for the country, and it is highly dependent on the success or failure of armed resistance against the Taliban. Afghanistan’s political future will reflect the military correlation of forces between the two sides. However, should fortune favor the NRF and others opposing the Taliban, the possibility of a partitioned Afghanistan is one that US policy may have to deal with.
If partition is not a desired end state and neither is recognition of a Taliban regime, then the United States should engage with and support the various anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan to have any influence on the parties deciding a post-Taliban future for the country. This would include engagement and support for any Pashtun anti-Taliban forces that arise in eastern and southern Afghanistan as was done twenty years ago. At a minimum, the United States, beyond its counterterrorism objectives, should support attempts by all those inside Afghanistan to save the positive social changes of the past two decades regarding democracy and human rights in an area of the world often devoid of them. Positive changes in Afghanistan could reverberate in the region, especially when one considers the current protests in Iran.
The anti-Taliban resistance is still in a nascent state and its survival is not assured. However, if it survives and succeeds, the strategy as pursued by its largest and most organized force, the NRF, can have definite consequences for a host of US interests from counterterrorism to regional stability. After all, the first Taliban regime only survived for five years from 1996–2001. Therefore, the goals of those who intend to replace it should be closely analyzed and understood as the United States decides what its next moves will be regarding Afghanistan.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.