Local Taliban forces in Panjshir and Baghlan provinces are likely struggling to unite their efforts to fight the National Resistance Front (NRF) due to ethnic divisions within their forces, as per a report by the Institute for the Study of War.
Taliban forces in Panjshir province come from a variety of different backgrounds and include local Tajik Taliban units from Panjshir and neighbouring Badakhshan province as well as many Pashtun Taliban fighters from southern and eastern Afghanistan.
As per the report, local Tajik Taliban forces appear to be increasingly unwilling to fight the NRF, which would likely force the Taliban to draw increasing numbers of Pashtun Taliban forces from southern Afghanistan.
According to the report, the Taliban government had been appointing several successive commanders who have struggled to defeat the NRF in Panjshir and Baghlan provinces. Senior Taliban military leaders have launched repeated operations against the NRF but have achieved only intermittent short-term success and failed to decisively quash NRF activity. Taliban Minister of Defense Mohammad Yaqoob; his Chief of Army Staff Qari Fasihuddin; and his Deputy Defense Minister and senior Taliban military leader Mullah Fazel Mazloom have all previously led operations against the NRF.
Citing examples, it added that a local Tajik Taliban commander defected from the Taliban and joined the NRF in May while Tajik Taliban units from Badakhshan reportedly refused to continue fighting the NRF in the Panjshir in July. “These events likely fed into pre-existing mistrust between Pashtun and Tajik Taliban units. Taliban fighters have previously committed war crimes, including torture and extrajudicial killings, against the local, predominantly Tajik, population in the Panjshir Valley. An influx of Pashtun Taliban fighters will likely exacerbate the pre-existing inter-ethnic tensions and worsen cooperation between Pashtun and Tajik Taliban fighters,” the report stated.
“If local Tajik Taliban fighters lose their willingness to fight the NRF, or defect outright to the NRF, then NRF capabilities will continue to grow at the expense of the Taliban’s ability to govern and control northeastern Afghanistan. In this scenario, the Taliban leadership may increasingly deploy southern Pashtun Taliban fighters to the Panjshir and Andarab, likely further exacerbating pre-existing ethnic tensions and possibly driving increased support for the NRF,” the report said.
Factional infighting within the Taliban is also likely affecting its campaign against the NRF and continued failure could empower Taliban commanders from the Haqqani Network, which maintains ties with terrorist organisations like al-Qaeda as was evident when the leader of the Haqqani Network, Sirajuddin Haqqani, hosted former Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri at a house in Kabul until Zawahiri’s death in a US drone strike.
Highlighting the rift between the two factions of the Taliban, the report said that the Taliban security chief for Panjshir declared his allegiance to Sirajuddin Haqqani in an online video and criticised Taliban forces under Yaqoob’s command. Soon after, the Yaqoob-aligned Taliban governor for Panjshir removed this security chief from command. Taliban forces later arrested troops affiliated with the former security chief, indicating continuing tensions between the rival commanders, the report added.
“If Taliban commanders affiliated with Yaqoob continue to fail to quash the NRF rebellion, the Taliban leadership could decide to shift responsibility to other factions within the Taliban, increasing their influence at the expense of Yaqoob,” the report emphasised.
NRF activity is expanding beyond the Andarab-Panjshir Valleys despite Taliban pressure. The defection of Tajik Taliban commanders will also likely increase mistrust between Tajik and Pashtun Taliban forces, further hindering the Taliban’s ability to carry out operations against the NRF, the report concluded.