Commanders from Afghanistan’s Mujahideen who fought Soviet occupation in the 1980s are taking up arms again to battle the Taliban, veteran leaders have told The National.
In the past year there have been Taliban victories across the country, accelerating sharply with the sudden departure of US forces, leaving the Afghan army crumbling and the militant group in control of 80 per cent of the country.
But the reformed bands of militias now joining the fight have raised concerns that a new civil war could be under way.
“When a fossilised group pursuing foreign interests attacks our land, when our values are jeopardised, when our people’s freedom is at risk, when the Afghan women are deprived of getting an education and their rights are breached, we are left with no other option but to fight,” Atta Noor, leader of the Jamiat-e-Islami party, told The National.
Mr Noor is a former Mujahideen commander from a coalition of groups once known as the Northern Alliance, who joined with international forces against the Taliban in 2001.
He also fought the Soviet Army in the 1980s and the Taliban in the 1990s during the civil war that followed the 1989 Soviet departure, later serving as the governor of Balkh province in northern Afghanistan, where he continues to exert influence.
The Afghan Mujahideen enjoyed widespread international support, including from the US, Europe, Middle Eastern governments and Pakistan.
The Taliban’s recent attacks on districts in the north have threatened the political stability and territorial integrity of areas that remain under Mr Noor’s control.
In response, Mr Noor and his sons joined Afghan security forces in June to repel the Taliban in Kaldar district, in Balkh.
Through local and social media channels, he rallied volunteers and former Mujahideen fighters to support Afghan forces in their efforts against the Taliban.
The rallying cry received an overwhelming response from his followers, and hundreds stepped up to join the “People’s Uprising” movement, a situation reminiscent of earlier days fighting the Soviets and the Taliban.
It was a call he had hoped he wouldn’t have to make again.
“We had bid farewell to fighting and we thought that we would be moving towards welfare and development,” he said, pointing out how far Balkh province had come, becoming an “oasis of security and prosperity” since the fall of the Taliban.
“But now, as the fighting is once again imposed on us, we had to take up arms to defend our values, our land and our integrity,” he said.
Mr Noor is not alone, and many former Mujahideen leaders are rejoining a battlefield they left behind, as the Taliban expands its military surge.
Among the prominent Mujahideen veterans returning to the front lines are ex-vice president marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum, who is influential in Faryab and Jowzjan, and Ismail Khan, who has significant control over the western province of Herat.
“These leaders and power brokers want to be part of war and peace. The Taliban have captured their strongholds in the districts which they will not hesitate to use as leverage in the peace talks,” said Ali Adili, a researcher with Afghan Analyst Network.
America's rush for the exit
For many, recent developments are an unsurprising outcome of the Trump administration's policy to make a deal with the Taliban last year, and the Biden administration’s subsequent policy of rapidly pulling out US troops.
“The US's agreement with the Taliban has emboldened them, and they act as the victors of this conflict, seizing territories,” Yunus Tughra, an adviser to Marshall Dostum, told The National.
“But even if they manage to capture more districts or even entire provinces, they need to realise that the locals and tribal elders are not with them, and will fight them,” Mr Tughra said.
Although currently recovering from health issues in Turkey, Mr Dostum spent several days in June on the front line in Aqcha district in Jowzjan, an ethnically Uzbek majority province.
Mr Tughra said the Afghan government’s “discriminatory policies” have driven people from other ethnic groups to support former Mujahideen leaders.
“We expect the government to lead all groups, and fight sincerely against the Taliban. Otherwise, people will support someone who can lead them, even if it is the old Mujahideen leaders,” he said. “Because they don’t want the Taliban.”
Warlords or politicians?
A number of former Mujahideen commanders were assimilated into the Afghan political system in the years after the US invasion in 2001.
Veterans of the war against Soviet forces, many later fought each other, or took sides against the Taliban, as the country fragmented.
While many sought roles within government, others retreated to local areas of influence where they gained control.
“A politically-motivated term, 'warlord' came into usage [to refer to former Mujahideen leaders]. Now, those who were labelled as warlords are once again defending their land and their democratic values,” Mr Noor said.
Mr Adili added that “there have been pent-up grievances in certain communities” against Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
“Some of the leaders and power brokers have been speaking of the need for a transitional [government] in the last couple years which goes against President Ghani’s gain. However, the Taliban’s dismissive treatment of those leaders seems to be a factor for them to still work with Ghani,” he said, as “it is still an unfolding political and security landscape” as foreign forces withdraw.
The return of the former Mujahideen, many of whom were accused of human rights abuses in the civil war in the 1990s, has caused disquiet among many watching Afghanistan.
Some, Mr Adili said, believe that a civil war has already started.
“The Taliban’s recent and swift capture of districts, especially in the north, has already triggered an early escalation of the conflict into a multilevel war.”
“It is no longer a war between the government and the Taliban as an insurgent movement. People from certain communities feel the Taliban have encroached into their areas and territory and therefore have started arming themselves to fight back against the Taliban,” he said.
However, Mr Noor dismisses these concerns.
“The national mobilisation is a temporary set-up to stop the Taliban’s aggression. We respect the decision by the international community to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, but you cannot expect us to sit back and watch our country at war, people being killed, schools and universities being bombed,” he said.
“Once there is a settlement or the fighting is over, the pen will be preferred over the gun, but till then, we will defend this land.”