The dust has barely settled on the close of the US war in Afghanistan, and already another one is brewing. In a Washington Post op-ed last week, Ahmad Massoud, son of the late Afghan warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud, writes, “The mujahideen resistance to the Taliban begins now. But we need help,” a pitch to Western powers to facilitate a new anti-Taliban insurgency in the country, one in the spirit of the “National United Front” — better known as the Northern Alliance that fought and eventually helped overthrow the Taliban in 2001 by partnering with the invading United States.
Casting the northern Panjshir province that he and other potential resistance leaders are holed up in as “the last bastion of Afghan freedom,” Massoud is asking for “more weapons, more ammunition, and more supplies” from the international coalition that had waged war in the country for twenty years.
How seriously Massoud’s entreaties will be taken in Washington is an open question at this point. But there’s no doubt it will be tempting for the war hawks whose wounded pride demands some kind of retribution against the Taliban. The US government has a long history of avoiding all-out war commitments by simply funding and supplying groups on the relative cheap to do the fighting for them. As alarm over Afghan human rights under the Taliban reaches fever pitch, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario like this happening to, nominally, protect those rights.
But anyone actually interested in Afghan human rights should be deeply wary of this proposal. Far from some noble, freedom-fighting force, the original Northern Alliance was a collection of abusive, corrupt warlords who had ruled the country after the end of the Soviet-Afghan war and became so hated, they created the space for the Taliban to flourish in the first place.
Judging by the figures Massoud and this new “National Resistance Front” have already surrounded themselves with, others who have pledged to fight, and by the fact that they’re using the Northern Alliance flag, this anti-Taliban resistance will be little better than what they’re resisting should they ever actually take power.
The Worst of the Worst
The current leader of this resistance front is Amrullah Saleh, the vice president of the just-ousted government, who declared himself the country’s “legitimate caretaker President” and teamed up with Massoud to build this new resistance. The former spy chief of the now-deposed government from 2004 to 2010, under Saleh’s watch, the National Directorate of Security (NDS) — the country’s CIA-tied intelligence agency — became notorious for abuses like arbitrary arrest, indefinite detention, and torture. This includes arresting, detaining, and torturing children under eighteen years old, abuses that one confidential memo proved Saleh was fully aware of. Given the frequent cases of mistaken identity involved in arrests, it’s a certainty that at least some of those tortured were completely innocent people.
Saleh, owing to his sister’s torture and killing at the hands of the Taliban, was a CIA-trained hawk who backed coalition troops’ use of drones, air strikes, and night raids to take on the group, policies which killed and maimed thousands of Afghan civilians and, ironically, made them more sympathetic to the Taliban.
It was during his tenure that the NDS supplied and hired armed militias who became part of its operational structure and had a habit of brutalizing and robbing civilians, as documented copiously by the UN. Saleh also showed an authoritarian streak, responding to reports of civilian casualties caused by pro-government forces with arrests and other police excesses, charges of fake news, and insults.
The country’s former defense minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi has also joined Saleh and Massoud, saying he is ready to die for Afghanistan’s freedom. A former Northern Alliance commander under Massoud’s father, Mohammadi served as chief of staff for the Afghan National Army for the eight years leading up to 2010, which he began packing with loyalists, particularly members of the fundamentalist Jam’iat-e Islami party of which he was an influential member.
When the then-president, fearing a coup, removed him and appointed him interior minister instead, he was soon accused of pursuing the same factionalist agenda. During his tenure at the ministry from 2010–12, Mohammadi also presided over ongoing rampant abuse by the police. Despite the fact that the ANP continued to commit a variety of abuses, including fatal shootings of civilians, Mohammadi gave them more leeway to open fire on suspects. In 2011, the UN found widespread torture and mistreatment of detainees by the ANP, including that of teenagers, which they would often use to extract forced confessions.
He was also accused of appointing militia members to the ministry, and of corruption himself. A 2016 Global Witness investigation found numerous allegations that Mohammadi had links to a militia commander who seized a massive lapis mine — which then, ironically, paid millions of dollars of its profits out to the local Taliban — while being involved in the lapis mineral trade himself. Mohammadi was ultimately removed from the position by the Afghan parliament partly over involvement in corruption, exactly the kind of government misconduct that so angered ordinary Afghans and allowed the Taliban to flourish in the first place.
As defense minister, Mohammadi kept favoring impunity for pro-government force abuses, attacking UN allegations of torture in Afghan prisons as “unfounded excuses for not transferring the prisoners and prisons to the Afghans,” and at one point offered Australian troops immunity from prosecution if they stayed in the country.
In a grim preview of what might await the people of Afghanistan if Mohammadi-led forces do battle against the Taliban, he was directly implicated in the panoply of atrocities that was the 1993 attack on Afshar in West Kabul when he was a commander in the Northern Alliance: indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, arbitrary arrests, and beatings, executions, rape, torture, mutilation, and looting.
Reportedly set to join up with this new Northern Alliance is Abdul Rashid Dostum, another CIA-backed warlord who became infamous for switching sides, having fought the US-backed mujahideen in the 1980s as a communist before later aligning with Washington to fight the Taliban in 2001. Dostum, whose militia was recently routed by the rampaging Taliban, is notorious for his extreme brutality, perhaps best known for killing as many as thousands of Taliban prisoners of war by locking them in hot metal shipping containers with no food or water, where they suffocated to death.
But it goes well beyond this, with Dostum having been repeatedly accused of personally assaulting, killing, and raping with impunity. According to his former driver, when he declined to marry Dostum’s fifteen-year-old girlfriend so the warlord could keep seeing her despite the disapproval of his wives, Dostum abducted, tortured, and repeatedly raped him over the course of days, before chaining him inside a truck container by his lip. Dostum, the driver says, had his first wife killed, and was known to rape underage children, as well as many of his political opponents, a charge repeated by others.
According to a state department cable leaked by WikiLeaks, Dostum assaulted and raped one fellow party member in 2006, ousted a governor by sending armed protesters to his home the next year, and viciously beat another party member over a disagreement the year after that. He attacked, kidnapped, and allegedly had his bodyguards repeatedly rape one political rival, and abducted and beat another, which the diplomatic cable characterized as “the latest of Dostum’s drunken fits.” Dostum was considered such a problem that US officials tried to block his return to the country after one of his periodic exiles because his presence would “endanger much of the progress made in Afghanistan.” He instead became the country’s vice president for the six years leading up to 2020.
Possibly waiting in the wings is Atta Mohammad Noor, a rival of Dostum who was forced to flee with him over the Uzbek border by the advancing Taliban. Noor is another ex–Northern Alliance warlord who served as governor of the Balkh province from 2004 to 2018. The popular and ambitious Noor built a national reputation on securing the relative stability and prosperity of his northern fiefdom, a key doorway to trade with China and Central Asia, and near the United States and NATO’s northern supply routes.
He was also accused of secretly controlling several militias responsible for criminality and abuses like land seizures, incorporating them into the local police, harassing and physically attacking his political rivals, enriching himself via ties to drug traffickers, and taking mafia-like cuts from business deals in the province. According to an unpublished internal government report obtained by Human Rights Watch, Noor protected a notorious kidnapper known for snatching and killing even children, preventing his prosecution in Kabul and ensuring a relatively comfortable prison stay for him once convicted, from which he continued overseeing his gang’s crimes.
None of these figures inspire confidence that a government led by this budding anti-Taliban resistance front would be more preferable to most ordinary Afghans than the Taliban who just took over.
No Good Option
Women’s rights have rightly been the major concern of Western observers’ thoughts on the Taliban takeover. This was central to Massoud’s pitch for Western support in the Post, claiming that “we have fought for so long to have an open society, one where girls could become doctors, our press could report freely, our young people could dance and listen to music or attend soccer matches.” Of course, this was exactly the same case made nearly twenty years ago to justify starting the twenty-year war to begin with.
A new Northern Alliance, dominated then, as it is now, by the fundamentalist Jamiat-e Islami party, isn’t likely to be much better for women than the Taliban is. In the early 1990s, its various warlords — including Dostum and Massoud’s father — created a “human rights catastrophe” for women in the country, in the words of a 1995 Amnesty International report, restricting a variety of fundamental rights for women — including mandating full-body veils — on the basis that they were un-Islamic.
They did much the same when they took back power in the 2000s, setting up conditions that by some accounts were worse than under the Taliban. One aid worker told Amnesty about life in Northern Alliance–controlled territories: “During the Taliban era, if a woman went to market and showed an inch of flesh she would have been flogged; now she’s raped.” Though Western press has tended to give the impression the Taliban are singularly and uniquely hostile to women’s rights in the country, they are sadly one outgrowth of Afghanistan’s wider sociopolitical context, which kept those rights severely restricted all the years of the US occupation.
The Afghan people are unfortunately caught between several roughly equally repugnant forces. It’s hard to argue the anti-Taliban resistance, made up as it is of corrupt, militia-linked human rights abusers and authoritarians linked to a fundamentalist party, will be much better for them than the Taliban. Nor will months, possibly years, of protracted warfare.
US officials should urgently take in as many refugees as possible, and use carrots and the slow, grinding work of diplomacy to draw out what progress they can from the Taliban on human rights. Then they should accept the United States’ defeat in this war, and hope for some stability for the Afghan people, however flawed it may be.