Main Image Credit Members of a pro-government tribal militia pictured in the Pachir Wa Agam district of Nangarhar province, eastern Afghanistan, in December 2017. Courtesy of Xinhua/Alamy Stock Photo
The growing engagement of militias in the current fighting will not save the government in Kabul.
Since the start of May, the Taliban have taken 211 district centres in Afghanistan, or about half the country in total, according to Taliban claims confirmed by local sources. Only a handful have been recaptured by anti-Taliban forces. The highways linking Kabul to the south, west and north are under Taliban control, while the provincial capitals of Herat, Farah, Maimana, Shiberghan, Saripul, Lashkargah, Kandahar, Qalat, Tarin Kot, Ghazni, Kunduz, Puli Khumri, Teluqan and Faizabad are surrounded. The Afghan National Army has shown a distinct lack of will to fight, and its commandos and special forces have been unable to cope with the Taliban advancing on multiple fronts.
The crisis has prompted calls for the mobilisation of local militias to fight the Taliban. Such calls have come not only from regional leaders and strongmen, but also from the public and from key actors in Afghanistan’s government, including Defence Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi. Multiple demonstrations have been taking place around Afghanistan, with volunteers for such militias gathering in the streets and vowing to fight the Taliban.
Militias to the Fore
When it comes to actually fighting the Taliban, however, the picture has been much more mixed. Of the few district centres lost by the Taliban after taking them, most have indeed been recaptured – and held – by militias, rather than by the regular armed forces. Still, in the bigger picture of the conflict this amounts to little.
In some locations – including Faryab and Shiberghan provinces, Nijrab (Kapisa), Aliabad (Kunduz), Chimtal (Balkh), Malistan (Ghazni) and some parts of Baghlan province – militias have been fighting relatively hard against the Taliban. In other locations, such as the areas around Mazar-i-Sharif, Faizabad and Herat, the Baghlan–Parwan border area and Shinwari (Parwan), the fighting appears to have been perfunctory or at most has consisted of skirmishing.
This modest engagement in the conflict is surprising, given the size of Afghanistan’s militia forces. The Afghan security services estimated the size of active private militias – linked to parties or strongmen – at 70,000 men before the current crisis started in May. To these can be added some 12,000 members of the Territorial Army – militias in all but name – and 12,000 members of the so-called ‘uprising’ militias, funded by the National Directorate of Security. Despite claims of ‘mobilisation’ of new militias from May onwards, only a relatively small portion of these forces have been engaged in fighting with the Taliban.
Overall, intelligence sources estimate the size of the forces mobilised and receiving some form of support from the government to be 18–19,000 men, including some small tribal militias that have popped up in the south and southeast. This figure is probably somewhat inflated, as local sources close to the various militia leaders often provide figures that are 50% lower or more. Kabul has so far refused to support the militias of General Abdul Rashid Dostum in the northwest, the remnants of which are still battling the Taliban around Shiberghan, Maimana and Saripul and might include at least an additional 2–3,000 men.
The number of militias that have instead reached agreements with the Taliban or have melted away is certainly higher, and could reach as high as 70,000 men, assuming the pre-crisis estimates quoted above were right.
The Less-than-Strong Men
Taken as a whole, the strongmen of the various regions of Afghanistan have shown as little will to fight as the Afghan army and police. Those who have taken up arms have done so largely to defend their own local interests.
For example, in Herat, local strongman Ismail Khan only decided to mobilise a militia after the Taliban reached the customs post of Islam Qala, from which a substantial portion of government revenue was rumoured to be regularly diverted to him. At that point, he struggled to assemble a capable force. Even his entourage describe the new militia as hardly a match for the battled-seasoned Taliban.
Another example comes from the north, where Mazar-i-Sharif’s strongman Atta Mohammad Noor was initially reluctant to confront the Taliban, but as they advanced towards the customs post of Hayratan, from which he is reportedly able to siphon off large amounts of cash, he joined the fray and mobilised his militiamen. The actual impact of this force on the battlefield has been modest.
Cash flows aside, another driver of mobilisation against the Taliban has been an unwillingness to accept deals with the Taliban similar to those signed throughout much of the northeast by Jamiati commanders. There, the Taliban have taken the district centres, while agreeing not to take the cities, and the Jamiati militias have not been disarmed. The understanding appears to be that the Jamiat faction will then be rewarded when it comes to power-sharing later on. These deals were mediated by Iran and Russia, according to sources within the Taliban. However, several leaders and powerbrokers such as Haji Mohaqqeq, the Panjshiris and their old allies (the Andarabis, Nijrabis and other militias of Kapisa, as well as some Parwani commanders), Rasul Sayyaf, Atta Mohammad Noor, Ismail Khan and Pashai strongman Hazrat Ali in Nangarhar have decided to resist. Most of them lack a constituency large enough to do much more than fight for their local turf, and they can only handle the Taliban by offsetting their poor military skills with local knowledge.
A typical example of this group of actors is Mohaqqeq, one of the top Hazara leaders. Unhappy about the deal that the Taliban were offering him, Mohaqqeq mobilised his men throughout Hazarajat, emerging as one of the key actors in the ‘second resistance’, even if his forces are not rated very highly in terms of their capabilities. He is believed to have as many as 3–4,000 men in the north and centre of the country. Even among his men, financial drivers could be key. Those of them who have fought hardest, such as an alliance of militias in Chimtal (Balkh), are believed by intelligence sources to be fighting to defend the local drug-processing labs.
Divided Opinions in Kabul
Efforts to mobilise militias against the Taliban have also been hampered by differences between key actors in Kabul. First Vice President Amrullah Saleh has been the foremost proponent of using militias to battle the Taliban, even before the current crisis started developing in May. Of similar views are Second Vice President Sarwar Danesh, Director General of the Administrative Office of the President Fazal Fazli, and Defence Minister Mohammadi, who is himself linked to some of these militias. By contrast, President Ashraf Ghani and Chairman of the National Security Council Hamdullah Moheb are sceptical – if not hostile – to the idea of using the militias.
The part of the Afghan government that is keen to mobilise militias against the Taliban seems determined to continue pursuing this path. They might be able to score some tactical successes, especially if the Taliban encroach deeper into areas where militia organisations have strong roots, such as Parwan. Their chances of success will to a large extent depend on how the Taliban manage their own developing relations with local leaders and strongmen, all of whom once orbited around the Islamic Republic, or have been among its stakeholders. As discussed above, the Taliban have enjoyed resounding successes, but have also met with failures.
The key to the crisis and to its resolution appears more and more to be the fraying of the old political elite and its inability to work out a consensus vis-à-vis the Taliban. Indeed, it seems clear that the crisis that has been unfolding since the beginning of May has not been the result of a Taliban resurgence, as the Taliban were hardly stronger in May than they had been in 2020, but of the internal disintegration of the Afghan political elite. Even those strongmen and local leaders who are still fighting the Taliban are doing so largely to protect local interests, not to defend the Afghan government or the constitution. Rebuilding a political settlement will be the greatest challenge.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Dr Antonio Giustozzi
Senior Research Fellow
Terrorism and Conflict