Taliban search operation pushes many Afghans into the arms of the resistance

Trucks armed with heavy machine guns pulled up on street corners, unloading men in camouflage gear carrying radios and assault rifles. Going door to door, they broke into homes, opened drawers and searched through mobile phones – looking for any connection to an armed insurgency.

Those soldiers conducting a cordon and search operation in the Afghan capital were not US troops, which for nearly 20 years carried out similar operations that drove many Afghans into the arms of the Taliban. It was the Taliban.

The sweep, which began last Friday, spans several provinces and is ongoing, is the largest such operation since the Taliban took power in August and the first carried out in broad daylight. The raids alarmed many Afghans, some of whom reported mistreatment and property damage by Taliban forces, and provided the latest evidence that the new Taliban, like the old ones, relied on police-state tactics to assert their authority and eradicate dissent. .

In recent months, the Taliban have imposed restrictions on local media and suppressed peaceful protests. They were also accused of detaining female activists and arresting people associated with the former government when they declared a general amnesty.

At a press conference on Sunday, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid insisted that the recent raids were aimed at rooting out “kidnappers, thieves, evil elements and other criminals”. He also dismissed accusations of misconduct, calling the operation “professional” and “well planned”.

The operation began in areas considered resistant to the Taliban regime and comes ahead of spring, long known as Afghanistan’s “fighting season”, when the Taliban would launch offensives against the previous government.

Today, the insurgents turned leaders face a reinvigorated threat from the Islamic State affiliate in the east and nascent armed resistance in the north.

But door-to-door searches risk alienating Afghans already reeling from an economic crash and unnerved by the new government’s hardline Islamic regime.

“What the Taliban are doing is counterproductive to what they want to achieve,” said Ibraheem Bahiss, a consultant with the International Crisis Group. “When it comes to military and police tactics, the Taliban have watched and learned from their former enemy over the past 20 years. Now they are mimicking many of these tactics to consolidate control. »

Same tactic

The Taliban, he said, “capitalized” on those same tactics, when the Americans did, to gain recruits and funding. “Now they rely on them to monitor urban areas.”

The search operation began early Friday at dozens of checkpoints spread across Kabul, initially focused on the city’s northern neighborhoods. For the past 20 years, these areas, mostly inhabited by the Tajik minority, have often flown the tricolor of the Northern Alliance, a coalition of insurgents that fought the Taliban government in the 1990s.

Ghulam Farooq Alim, a Kabul resident and university professor, was ready for the Taliban’s arrival on Saturday, having been alerted to their approach by his neighbors. He sent his family to a nearby neighborhood before a group of talibés arrived, fighting their way into his house.

They searched for weapons and other military equipment and examined his car registration papers, threatening to confiscate one because he did not have the proper papers. Next door, at his friend’s house, they tore up freshly installed roofing material, but found nothing.

Some residents said Taliban forces only carried out cursory searches and reported no property damage. But in other homes, mostly in ethnic minority neighborhoods, Taliban soldiers broke locks on front doors, damaged TVs and storage boxes and destroyed yards while digging for contraband, according to interviews with nearly a dozen Kabul residents.

In a country where privacy is sacred, many viewed home intrusions as an unforgivable offense reminiscent of two decades of foreign occupation.

“People in my neighborhood are talking about joining the resistance in the spring,” Alim said. “They are angry with the behavior of the Taliban. They do not respect human dignity by coming to our homes. If we don’t have privacy in our homes, we have no other choice.

The Taliban rarely acknowledge the existence of resistance forces, often calling them “criminals”. Still, the new government has committed at least 1,000 more troops to the north, where the resistance is based, and the search operation suggests it is concerned about the possibility of renewed fighting.

The resistance, for now, consists of a handful of armed fighters spread across some of the most inhospitable mountains in northern Afghanistan, according to interviews with more than a dozen resistance fighters and leaders.

The best-known group is the National Resistance Front, or NRF, which was formed in the twilight of the Western-backed Afghan government before it collapsed last summer. The force numbers around several hundred fighters, many of whom were junior officers of the former government’s security forces.

Limited resources

Most are Tajiks, an Afghan minority from the northern provinces that once housed the Northern Alliance, and the group’s leader, Ahmad Massoud, is the son of deceased Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud. Massoud left the country after the Taliban seized power and led the NRF from abroad.

The group has limited resources, no significant public support from foreign governments and no clear chain of command, according to NRF fighters and leaders in Afghanistan.

“So far, we haven’t received any equipment or supplies,” said a commander, Major Sediqulla Shuja (29). “The promise was made by the NRF leadership, but it hasn’t happened yet. We always spend out of our own pocket.

Yet even with infrequent deliveries of supplies, the group carried out more than 100 blitzkriegs, mostly against Taliban checkpoints and outposts in the north of the country, according to data compiled by ACLED, a data collection , analysis and crisis mapping. project.

But misinformation is rampant, and claims about the group’s success and setbacks are hard to gauge.

The Taliban search operation is led by Mullah Fazel Mazloom, the acting deputy defense minister and well-known Taliban commander who had been imprisoned by the United States at Guantánamo. Fazel has been accused of leading the Taliban’s scorched earth campaign in the 1990s, when orchards, homes and fields were destroyed as he pursued the very militias the group is again trying to eradicate .

Reaction to the search operation in Kabul was broadly divided along ethnic lines. Some residents – mostly Pashtuns – are grateful the Taliban is taking a tough stance on crime, a policy the Taliban have long been known for. But members of ethnic minorities have accused the Taliban of targeting them because of their ethnicity, adding to their resentment of an interim government which, like the Taliban themselves, is made up mainly of Pashtuns from the south.

Taliban officials have denied the allegations.

“Our operations are not against a specific ethnic group,” Taliban spokesman Mujahid said on Sunday. “Our operations are a reason for people to support us, not a reason to oppose us.”

Taliban officials have also played down complaints about the invasion of privacy, citing their cooperation with neighborhood elders as a sign of respect, and the use of female officers to search women. But that approach has been uneven in Kabul, with some residents interviewed by The New York Times noting that no local women or elders were present when the Taliban arrived and forced their way inside.

Hamid, 31, woke up Friday morning in northern Kabul to his mother shouting that the Taliban were at the door. A dozen Taliban entered his house soon after, handcuffed him before releasing him a few hours later. That night, during dinner, Hamid’s younger brother announced that he would join the resistance.

“In my neighborhood I think there are two types of people,” said Hamid, who asked to be identified only by his first name for fear of reprisals.

“Some will want to join because they don’t want to live like that. The others are educated, like me, and they don’t want war anymore. Even if the resistance comes to Kabul, there will be nothing. There will be war and we will lose everything. – This article originally appeared in The New York Times

Martin E. Berry