American experts on the activation of the Afghan anti-Taliban opposition
As experts from the Hudson Institute (USA) indicate, in recent times, because of the events in Afghanistan, much attention has been paid to the increase in the number of transnational terrorist groups operating there and the difficulties faced by the Taliban in trying to rule the country and ensure its security.
However, there was another important event that could have a direct impact on the development of the situation in Afghanistan. Last week, more than 30 activists, journalists, religious scholars and former Afghan government officials met in Vienna to discuss the only common issue: confronting the Taliban.
This event, called the Second Vienna Conference, was, as the name suggests, the second such meeting of opposition representatives in Vienna since last September. The first meeting was notable as it recognized Ahmad Massoud, commander of the Afghan National Resistance Front (NRF), as the de facto leader of this anti-Taliban opposition movement. It was also notable because it was the first time such a gathering had taken place on the international platform since the Taliban takeover in August 2021.
The second meeting in Vienna included an even more diverse group of participants, in particular activists from a wide range of backgrounds, ethnic groups and religious affiliations. Although Massoud and the NRF were the focus of the meeting, the National Resistance Council for the Salvation of Afghanistan was also represented. It is an anti-Taliban movement founded in Turkey last year by prominent Afghan power brokers living in exile. In addition, leaders and representatives of the Hazara and Uzbek minorities were present at the conference. Almost half the participants were women. And for the first time, even an Afghan Sikh, Anarkali Hunaryar, participated. In 2010, she was the first non-Muslim woman elected to the Afghan parliament.
As in September, the participants of the event issued a joint statement expressing their conviction that the current status quo is unacceptable for Afghanistan. Particular attention was paid to the protection of fundamental human rights, especially equal rights for women and minorities, and the fact that these rights are non-negotiable. However, this time the participants also agreed to “support all forms of resistance to the Taliban, including armed resistance.” This is a step forward from what was agreed in September at the First Vienna Conference.
Yet, while smaller armed groups are emerging in Afghanistan, the NRF remains the only credible, capable and non-extremist armed opposition to the Taliban.
Based in Panjshir province, with a smaller presence in several other provinces in the north, the NRF keeps fighting the Taliban against all odds and without a pronounced international support. The NRF recently experienced a second harsh winter in the Panjshir mountains.
Judging by last year, it will soon begin to conduct offensives against the Taliban, mainly in northern Afghanistan. From a military perspective, the goal of the NRF is to establish a zone of control in the north of the country, similar to what its predecessor, the Northern Alliance, did in the 1990s.
The Second Vienna Conference did not go unnoticed in Washington. Presently, when the White House wishes to ignore Afghanistan and forget about the catastrophe that unfolded there in 2021, the US Congress is making efforts to hold the White House accountable.
Releasing a statement on Twitter, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Mike McCaul, wrote: “I commend the efforts of anti-Taliban forces to unite in opposition to Taliban oppression, especially oppression perpetrated against Afghan women and girls and Afghan allies of the United States.”
The latest conference should be considered the beginning of a new “Vienna process” that can serve as a platform for international engagement with Afghan opposition groups that have been marginalized and persecuted by the Taliban regime.
In the same way the Taliban was allowed to use Doha to engage diplomatically on the international stage, leaders of the various opposition groups in Afghanistan should use Vienna.
Such engagement could help policymakers to learn more about the groups opposing the Taliban, their goals and their needs.
After all, if members of the international community are comfortable engaging with the Taliban, there is no reason they cannot do the same with the National Resistance Front or other opposition groups.
The international community should allocate a percentage of the frozen assets of Afghanistan’s central bank to help support and fund the Vienna process. For example, the US currently holds about $7 billion of these frozen funds. American policymakers should explore legal ways to divert some of them to the group’s political office in Vienna. Washington’s partners should follow suit. Only a tiny percentage of these funds would be needed to help establish an enduring Vienna process but the result could be significant.
In parallel, there should be a global refusal to recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. The Taliban would benefit from such legitimacy and the international community should do everything it can to prevent this. At least 13 members of the Taliban’s so-called government are under some form of UN sanctions. There is no meaningful non-Pashtun representation in the Taliban government. Under these circumstances alone, it is inconceivable that the Taliban can be viewed as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan.
It is too early to tell what long-term impact the second meeting in Vienna will have on the future of Afghanistan. But one thing is for certain: More than 20 months after the Taliban took over the country, the various groups opposed to Taliban rule have never been more mobilized. All the participants in Vienna pledged to continue cooperating with one another, so it is only a matter of time before the next gathering takes place.
Several conclusions can be drawn from all that has been said above.
1. The American administration is clearly not in the position for serious injections into structures opposed to the Taliban, which, coupled with the cautious position of Dushanbe, which is establishing unofficial but rather stable trade relations with Kabul, is unlikely to allow the NRF to demonstrate any serious military activity in medium term.
2. The capture of cities by the forces of the NRF is only possible in case of a serious weakening of the military potential of the Taliban in the north, for which there are no serious prerequisites yet.