As Afghanistan's Insurgency Evolves to War, How Do Taliban and Resistance Forces Compare?
Afghanistan’s Resistance Forces’ Tactical Transition
The past ten days witnessed a tectonic shift in tactics in Afghanistan. Shortly after the ripple of horrific bomb attacks attributed to ISIS-K and the desecration of Ahmad Shah Masoud’s grave, the resistance forces, comprised of the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRF) and several smaller resistance groups, launched their long-awaited offensive.
After months of launching isolated attacks to harass Taliban checkpoints and hit-and-run operations attacking isolated outposts, they are now attempting to recapture and hold towns and provinces. In military terms, their previous tactics represented a “Force Oriented” strategy—a strategy targeting enemy personnel, equipment, or infrastructure. They have now adopted a “Terrain Oriented" strategy—a strategy intended to take and hold ground.
This marks an evolution from a loose insurgency to a full-scale war.
For obvious reasons, the Taliban’s propaganda arm is desperately trying to hide the extent of the fighting, especially casualties and lost ground. Virtually no mention of the fighting has been released in the state-run press. However, over the past forty-eight hours they have given a few announcements likely intended as damage control for the regime:
-“Thousands of our forces are present in Panjshir, Takhar, and other areas. The enemy will not be given the opportunity to make negative moves.”
-“The allegations made by some insurgents in the media are untrue.”
“We deny this allegation. This is a plot by some biased individuals. This is not true.”
Spokesman, Panjshir Governor
Abdul Hamid Khorasani
Former Taliban Security Chief, Panjshir
Despite an internet blackout in many areas of northern Afghanistan where most of the fighting is currently occurring (which may or may not be coincidental), evidence depicting major combat operations is regularly leaking out on social media and other forums.
Unlike the propaganda campaigns employed by Afghan resistance groups before the recent major offensive, these are not stock photos and videos purloined from operations launched years ago. Verified, fresh video footage is surfacing of casualties, burning vehicles, and long lines of captured Taliban prisoners being marched to holding areas. The few remaining airworthy helicopters have been filmed flying wounded and dead Taliban fighters from the battlefront in Panjshir to hospitals in the safety of the south. Personnel from the Ministry of Interior have threatened local hospital staff not to talk about the wounded with anyone.
The Red Guards have been rushed to the combat area to search houses and have reportedly arrested entire neighborhoods who they suspect of being sympathetic to the resistance. Videos and photos of citizens raising the green, white, and black flag of the National Resistance Front are popping up all over, and checkpoints previously manned by Taliban forces are now manned by forces from the resistance.
In sum, the cat is out of the bag.
There were many potential catalyzing events for the escalation:
The Taliban’s largely impotent response to the ISIS-K bombings of Shiites and minorities.
The return of several notable military/political leaders, especially former Vice President Amrullah Saleh.
The increasingly restrictive and unpopular edicts issuing out of Kandahar.
Taliban “tourists” performing an insulting dance at the grave of the revered martyr Ahmad Shah Massoud.
Regardless of the impetus for the shift, it has changed things dramatically for both parties in this new phase of the war. For instance, there is now a “front line” that stretches across the North and towns/districts are beginning to change hands.
The order of battle for both groups is unclear, and each has been prone to exaggerating the number of troops it controls so it will take some time to accurately estimate combat capable force ratios. Likewise, the tactical proficiency of the opposing forces is also difficult to judge.
We felt an overview of each combatant would be helpful at this early stage. While exact information is scant, there is enough to form an early analysis of their general capabilities.
The Taliban (IEA)
End Strength: Estimated at 70-110,000 total troops (likely includes law enforcement and Ministry of Interior).
The Taliban has steadily matriculated new recruits into their armed forces. Observers have claimed the bulk of the recent recruits are “shake-n-bake” soldiers who received more religious and political indoctrination than tactical training. The backbone of the Taliban is the hardened veterans whose primary experience has been planning and executing insurgency operations against the former Afghan Army and NATO, not fighting against an insurgency themselves.
While some proficiency in providing local and area security has been demonstrated over the last nine months, the Taliban clearly have difficulty in positioning their troops and do not understand how to provide mutual support. They have relied on a largely ineffective “reaction force” strategy which has been overly centralized, concentrated in/near urban areas, and taken too long to respond to the hit and run threats posed by the resistance over the past 8 months.
Their primary means of maneuver are light/heavy trucks. They have limited air assets with a depleted stock of repair parts and even fewer technicians for maintenance. Artillery and mechanized units have not yet been effectively used against resistance troops and remain on the frontiers. Communications have been problematic. Resistance forces are known to have commandeered some of the equipment, which has forced the Taliban to rely on cell phones and messaging applications to coordinate and provide command and control.
There is a well-known split between the Kandahari and Haqqani factions. In addition, ethnic minority Taliban units have been ostracized and operate under suspicion of collaboration with various resistance groups. Consequently, they are seldom included in the few planning exercises the Taliban have held, and several are rumored to have already gone over to the resistance (or soon will). Ultimately, it is a fractured force both politically and ethnically. Earlier reports suggested Taliban forces were paid only sporadically and that significant rivalries exist between the different units.
To date, the commanders have drawn on their experience as insurgents and have shown little proclivity to conduct operations beyond small unit engagements. To our knowledge, the only reservoirs of combined arms operational experience exist among the few former Afghan Army leaders who have returned to service, and most of whom are regarded with suspicion and considered unreliable.
*Note: While the NRF is the dominant resistance group, there are many others who have not announced allegiance to the NRF and are reputedly currently cooperating under short-term agreements. Thus, we are reviewing the broader resistance forces, instead of focusing exclusively on the NRF.
End Strength: Estimated at 40-110,000 total troops.
The resistance has been a political force virtually since the Taliban takeover. After the fall of Panjshir, many of the leaders fled or went into hiding. It is thought that since then many groups have coalesced to form the corps of the resistance and look to the NRF as titular head of the anti-Taliban consortium. It is believed that the bulk of the forces are former members of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). These former soldiers are believed to be the backbone of the resistance, and most of the commanders who have been identified in reports served under the former government. They have absorbed several defectors from the Taliban and are also working in concert with many of the ethnic/religious minority militias that have been stood up in the wake of the NATO departure. These troops have experience with reclaiming territory, counter-insurgency operations, and providing local/area security. Most also have experience operating in large-scale and combined arms operations. They have proven to be moderately successful in executing their own insurgency over the past several months.
Less is known about the equipment and armaments available to the resistance. While several of the clashes carried out during the insurgency period involved some heavy weapons, most were reportedly light infantry affairs that used rifles, machine guns, and explosives. Some reports have been received that a sizable fleet of vehicles and weapons has been procured in neighboring countries, but they have yet to see service on the battlefield. We feel the resistance intends to capture as much Taliban equipment as possible to improve mobility and increase lethality.
Morale has been boosted by the return of several high-profile leaders who have been in hiding or exile. Furthermore, the NRF’s political arm outside of the country has been granted credibility by Turkey, Iran, and Russia. Morale is reputed to be high, and they enjoy significant local support in the North. It is not clear if the resistance is paying the troops and, if so, if they can maintain that on a regular basis.
As previously mentioned, the resistance seems to have several capable leaders now at the head of their combined forces, chief among them former Vice President Amrullah Saleh. Conspicuously, most of the resistance leaders who are most successful are members of the National Resistance Front. It is not yet clear how much unity exists among the other units who make up the consortium. A chief concern reported among groups is the overall objective of the resistance. While infighting has not been reported, most observers expect potential defections or alternate goals to result in some factionalism among the resistance.
While too little is currently known about both combatant groups to make confident inferences about possible outcomes, we feel it is worthwhile to establish a baseline at this early stage in the shift. What is very clear is that the shift in the resistance’s strategy has been effective so far and the Taliban are at the most insecure point in their regime to date.
The wild card in this situation would be an intervention by a regional or global power. While we don’t anticipate a full-scale intervention, some neighboring states may use the chaos as cover to take care of priorities on their agenda. Such an act could widen the conflict. The threat of domestic, regional, and global terrorism is also a constant specter and should not be ignored.
As the situation develops, we will continue to monitor and report.
Whispers is an intelligence and analysis column focused on post-democratic Afghanistan