It has been more than a year since the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan, in a display of dominance that shocked western powers and emboldened extremists around the world.
The insurgents’ victory enhanced their reputation beyond measure, attracting many to their flag alongside warnings of a new wave of terror attacks.
But their supremacy is not all that it seems, with a growing resistance movement establishing footholds that have turned into strongholds over the last year.
Foremost among them is the National Resistance Front, who from the depths of defeat in August 2021 are now growing into a force that could in time threaten the extremists controlling Kabul.
In an extensive interview with The National, the NRF’s head of foreign relations, Ali Maisam Nazary has disclosed the group's plan to reclaim their country and warned of threats of a global terror campaign.
War of survival
“After August 15 last year we were in survival mode, we were isolated in one province and unable to continue our conventional struggle,” he said.
Driven out of the near impregnable Panjshir Valley, the fighters changed strategy to “unconventional warfare “to continue our resistance” with the limited amount of weapons, equipment and food that they could gather.
It was a desperate period but surviving the bitterness of the Afghan winter, the NRF was able to regroup and readied itself to launch a new offensive this spring.
Their patient rebuilding has proved effective. This year the resistance, largely made up of former officers and men from the Afghan National Security Forces, has grown in strength retaking territory in the north-east, from its base in Panjshir, including parts of Badakhshan and Baghlan provinces.
“We have a limited amount of resources, so we're in phase one of our military's strategy, which is exhausting the enemy as much as possible, gathering resources to expand and start attracting local Taliban to defect,” said Mr Nazary, who is closely aligned to the NRF’s leader Ahmad Massoud, son of legendary mujahideen commander Ahmad Shah Massoud.
The resistance’s rebuilding its troop levels has led to the Taliban sending north the foreign fighters who have flocked to Afghanistan since their takeover.
Representing 21 different groups, the terrorists are drawn from communities in south and central Asia and the Middle East, said Mr Nazary, who has a master's degree in international relations from the London School of Economics.
“Because they're having a hard time recruiting, they're substituting their own recruits with foreign fighters to fight on their behalf,” said Mr Nazary. “We even have videos of Arab fighters, speaking in Arabic, saying ‘we're going to Panjshir to fight against infidels’.”
The Taliban have given the recruits some of the $7 billion worth of equipment the group seized, which had been delivered to the Afghan army by the US, including rifles, thermal scopes, night vision goggles and Humvee vehicles
“The Taliban have given them the north to control but this has exposed their weakness in the eyes of population, using foreign fighters to kill Afghans,” Mr Nazary said.
As well as Al Qaeda fighters, there are also ISIS extremists coming into Afghanistan from Syria and Iraq to centres based mainly in Nuristan province, bordering Pakistan.
Mr Nazary reaffirmed a recent UN Security Council report that the Taliban were giving the foreign fighters passports and identity cards to allow them to conduct terror attacks in the West.
“They're training right now in Nuristan and in many provinces that have set up their camps to facilitate attacks, using small arms and explosives and in Kunduz province we are monitoring a factory where they training their fighters how to make bombs from scratch.”
He alleged that the Taliban were also using the humanitarian crisis caused by starvation to allow terrorists to leave the country as refugees.
“It is then that they'll move to their targets,” he told The National at a location in London. “They are not here to build new lives in Afghanistan. That is why the Taliban are intentionally exacerbating the humanitarian crisis to create a wave of migration westwards to give them political leverage against the West and allow foreign fighters to infiltrate.”
Mr Nazary gave a warning that there was the possibility of terrorism “much worse” than the 911 attacks “because they are more emboldened ideologically today than ever”.
With some justification the Taliban can claim that they defeated Nato in a 20-year war and that "if you continue your fight by whatever means” the enemy will come to the negotiating table.
Terror groups such as Boko Haram and Al Shabab have declared the Taliban “leaders of the global jihadists” and after a year in power “they're not showing any sign of severing ties with international terrorism”.
Hibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban’s supreme leader, has in his speeches emphasised that the struggle does not end in Afghanistan but beyond its borders to help “all oppressed Muslims throughout the world”, Mr Nazary said.
“There's a false narrative that the Taliban are moderates, that they've cut off ties with terrorism, that they're going to accept international laws but the reality is that in the past year they've radicalised.” He added that recognising the Taliban as the government would “give legitimacy to terrorism”.
About $2 billion has been given for humanitarian aid and the Afghan economy is also sustained by income from the drugs trade.
Traditionally this has been from the opium crop converted into heroin and exported around the world. But t manufacturing the highly addictive and harmful “crystal meth” drug is also reported to be on the rise.
The NRF allege that there is a “major drug kingpin” from southern Kandahar who is now running the government-sponsored drug cartel.
“As a result, they’ve increased exports of both opium and meth,” Mr Nazary said. “Meth is basically reaching the same levels as opium inside Afghanistan because it's cheaper to produce with less labour required.”
If the NRF are to seize and hold districts they will need resources to sustain their gains, said Mr Nazary who was in London as part of an international trip to garner support in other European capitals and Washington.
Much as the Americans would not like to hear it, he argues that their over-the-horizon policy for taking on terror groups in Afghanistan “is failing, because they don't have anyone on ground tell them where to attack”.
Despite the scant resources, the NRF is gaining ground mainly due to Taliban failings and their own successful operations. That includes the killing in September of Zakir Qayyum a notorious former Guantanamo prisoner, freed in 2008, who successfully led the Taliban forces in Helmand and Kandahar against American and British forces.
The NRF also shot down a Russian-made helicopter in July along with a number of defections and have inflicted an estimated 1,000 Taliban casualties.
“People are rising against them and the resistance is growing,” Mr Nazary said. “Politically, the Taliban are not a disciplined group, they're fracturing from inside with many factions fighting against one another. We believe they are weakening every day and are going to start losing control throughout the country. In a year’s time, we're hopeful to move on to phase two, so we can start liberating our country.”
Women have also suffered and have recently been banned from public baths as well as parks, salons and stadiums and are not allowed to travel alone. “They're basically being erased from public life,” said Mr Nazary.
While the West is preoccupied with Ukraine, the NRF believe that they are the sole defenders against a new wave of global terror.
“We're fighting not only for our security, but for global security,” said Mr Nazary. “Yes, of course, we're fighting for to re-establish a pluralistic society, for freedom and equal rights to all citizens, including women but this has an international dimension as well, which is the continuation of the global war on terror. However, we're doing it all alone with limited resources while the Taliban have $7 billion of arms.”
The NRF are not seeking a return of American or Nato troops but for the western powers to “at least strengthen the last remaining anti-terrorist force”.
He then painted a grim picture. “Because we're the last option. Just imagine if we're unable to continue our struggle in the next year, and God forbid something like 9/11 happens and the international community is forced to intervene again.
“Who is the West going to use if the last anti-terrorist forces are not able to continue their struggle inside Afghanistan and when the time comes they realise it's too late?”