Afghanistan’s warlords floundering in exile

Stalwarts of the past 30 years are struggling to find a host for their resistance

General Abdul Rashid Dostum sits on a horse during his final campaign rally at Kabul stadium in Kabul, Afghanistan, October 6, 2004. Getty Images
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Warlords who carved Afghanistan up among themselves and built huge power bases off the back of the US intervention in their country are floundering.

Six weeks since Kabul fell to the Taliban, they have lost fiefdoms and palaces, though they cling to titles. They are governors without provinces, generals without armies.

From afar, they plot their next move, though there are few indications they have learnt from the country’s rapid collapse this summer. Already, fractures are deep; at least two pools of opposition have coalesced.

“We need to work out how to form a united front, led by someone who has been in the country for decades,” says Khalid Noor, the son of former Balkh province governor Atta Noor.

His father has worked closely with General Abdul Rashid Dostum and the two fled Afghanistan on the same day.

Atta Noor is in Dubai. Gen Dostum has returned to Turkey, where he has long-standing ties.

“People should not expect a miracle to happen. We cannot take Afghanistan back in three months,” Noor says.

The other grouping to appear is between Salahuddin Rabbani, a former foreign minister, and Ahmed Massoud. The two are close friends.

Those around Noor and Dostum are convinced that the stalwarts of the past 30 years are the only people with the experience to push back against the Taliban. They think the fresh faces – the likes of Ahmad Massoud, whose father, Ahmad Shah Massoud, led the Northern Alliance of the 1990s, are too young and inexperienced to lead any sort of resistance.

Remnants of forces loyal to Ahmed Massoud remain in the mountains of the Panjshir Valley and in neighbouring areas such as Andarab. They are all that is left of an armed, in-country opposition.

Perhaps the only thing they can agree on is that former president Ashraf Ghani, under tight guard in the UAE and his coterie of advisers, will be persona non grata.

“I don’t think anyone will welcome him. A traitor is always a traitor,” says Khalid Noor, from the lobby of a Dubai hotel.

Kamal Alam, a close friend of Ahmad Massoud and an advisor to Massoud Foundation, shares his sense of betrayal by Mr Ghani, but agrees on little else.

He believes Massoud is free of much of the baggage carried by others.

“The major factor is that he is untarnished by corruption; he has held no office before. He did not leave and run away, although he had the option to. He stood his ground,” Alam says.

“These others have been associated with tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars of corruption – that’s the fundamental difference. Those other guys will not get any traction in the West. They were already vilified for human rights abuse.”

Efforts are under way to bring all the big names together. A conference that may allow the disparate parties to agree on leadership or a strategy is on the cards. Yet so far, they are struggling to find a host. The potential backlash of hosting a politically active resistance has left many on the sidelines, at least for now.

A meeting in Turkey last month was cancelled amid fears it would anger the Taliban; Ankara is trying to talk to Kabul’s new rulers. Another conference, in Tajikistan, was also put on ice, although Dushanbe is positioning itself as the leading anti-Taliban regional power, even if that doesn’t yet extend to hosting the resistance.

“Whoever does this openly, you can imagine the Taliban’s fury”, says one senior Afghan figure also involved in planning a meeting.

“If they [the Taliban] are not recognised, there will be a massive economic crisis and health crisis. People are getting fed up, the Taliban won’t be able to provide service. Then people can use that as a friction against them,” the official said.

Whether a government in exile is announced in the coming weeks and the likes of Massoud, Dostani and Noor can overcome their differences may be irrelevant.

Amid the rise of ISIS Khorasan, the terrorist group’s Afghan affiliate, countries still wishing to engage with Kabul are increasingly reconciled to doing so through the Taliban rather than throwing their weight behind a resistance or government in exile, one western security official told The National.

“There are very few strategic threats emanating from Afghanistan other than counter-terrorism threat – that’s manifested in ISIS-K. When you look at how you prosecute or meet, that threat there is only one way – it is by working with a local partner – that’s the Taliban.”

“As long as the Taliban are in power, they are a sworn enemy of ISIS-K. It’s not as if a deal has been done; it’s just an acknowledgement that they are in power. That is the partner you need.”

“There are not many options. If you had to choose your best team, it wouldn’t be them [The Taliban] – but they are the only team on the field.”

Updated: October 05, 2021, 7:27 AM