Afghanistan is a deeply rooted, multi-ethnic country. They are historically and culturally divided. This may be the key to the country’s salvation. The Taliban compose, monolithically, only one tribal group, the Pashtuns. In Afghanistan’s 20th and 21st century civil wars, ethnicity has played a fundamental role. When the United States launched the War on Terror, the non-Pashtun tribal coalition, known as the Northern Alliance, facilitated the earliest American victories. There is a good reason for this. The Northern Alliance despises Taliban rule—but can a new Northern Alliance stop the Taliban?
There are close to eighteen ethnic nationalities that compose Afghanistan. Each has its own language and ancestral tribal customs and heritage. The five main groups make up the majority. The Pashtuns constitute approximately 40% of the Afghan population. Tajiks, the second most populous ethnic group, has an estimated 30-35%. Hazaras are 10%, Uzbeks 9% and Turkmens 3%. Except for the Hazaras, which are Shia Muslims, most Afghans are Sunni.
The Taliban are 100% Pashtun and foreign-made. They were wholly constructed in Pakistan, by the Pakistani army in the early 1990s, to maintain an influential role in Afghanistan’s affairs. This historic rivalry between the Pakistani proxy which is the Taliban and the other non-Marxist Muslim tribes is playing itself out right now, although one would not notice it given the scant media coverage the news is getting.
78 miles north of Kabul is the Panjshir Valley, a bastion of Taliban opposition. Two Tajik leaders have made bold stands against the return of Taliban fundamentalism to power. Amrullah Saleh, First Vice President of Afghanistan since February 2020, has exercised his lawful authority under Articles 60 and 67 of the 2004 Afghan Constitution and proclaimed himself acting caretaker President on August 17th, following the fleeing of President Ashraf Ghani. Saleh tweeted on that day, “As per d constitution of Afg, in absence, escape, resignation or death of the President the FVP becomes the caretaker President. I am currently inside my country & am the legitimate care taker President. Am reaching out to all leaders to secure their support & consensus.”
The forty-eight-year-old Saleh has an extensive history in Afghan politics and its civil wars. In addition to serving as the country’s intelligence chief for six years (2004-2010), he was one of the Northern Alliance’s youngest leaders, serving under the legendary commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, known as the Lion of Panjshir, for his heroic defense of the region during the Soviet-Afghan War of the 1980s and later led the Northern Alliance against the Taliban in the 1990s until he was assassinated by Al-Qaeda in September 2001. Since the fall of Kabul, Saleh has transferred to Panjshir Valley, in the hopes of gathering support in the resistance to Taliban tyranny.
Ahmad Massoud, the other main anti-Taliban leader, heads the National Resistance Front (NRF) and is the son of the Lion of Panjshir (Ahmad Shah Massoud). The thirty-two-year-old who was educated abroad, mostly in the United Kingdom, entered politics in 2019 and is in Panjshir Valley with the intention of incorporating the NRF with the Northern Alliance and garnishing resistance to the Taliban totalitarian rule. Can they repeat the success against Soviet communism and Islamic fundamentalism?
Saleh seems to understand Biden better than Biden himself and others in his administration. On August 17th he wisely tweeted out, “It is futile to argue with @POTUS on Afg now. Let him digest it. We d Afgs must prove tht Afgh isn’t Vietnam & the Talibs aren’t even remotely like Vietcong. Unlike US/NATO we hvn’t lost spirit & see enormous oprtnities ahead. Useless caveats are finished. JOIN THE RESISTANCE.” Saleh does not appear to be optimistic about help from the United States or NATO. With the gross American abandonment of Afghanistan, there is not a speck of light that the world’s arsenal of freedom (America) will support them. If Afghan history is any indication, though, there is room for hope.
Socialism and political Islam have plagued modern Afghanistan. The Taliban are a Pakistani-made, ethnic minority, which seeks monopolistic power consolidation in a tribal multi-ethnic country. Despite the billions in American weaponry that Biden donated to them in Bagram Air Base and other abandoned military posts, a newly revised Northern Alliance could be a force of contention. Twenty years of an imperfect, nascent republican rule, can have left an imprint in Afghan society that not even a callous betrayal can erase.