India-based Ustad Sayyaf being seen as leader of anti-Taliban forces
Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, an India-based former mujahideen commander and member of parliament, is being seen as a possible leader who can rally anti-Taliban forces from Afghanistan that are currently scattered across several countries.
Sayyaf, believed to be in his mid-70s, has been mooted as someone who can bring together the diverse groups because of his standing as both a scholar and a senior Pashtun leader, people familiar with developments said on condition of anonymity.
He has been based in New Delhi following the fall of the Ashraf Ghani government and the takeover of Kabul by the Taliban in mid-August. Sayyaf’s name was pushed forward as Ahmad Massoud, the son of legendary commander Ahmad Shah Massoud and founder of the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, has had little success in uniting different groups, the people said.
Massoud and Amruallah Saleh, the former Afghan spy chief and vice president, were seen as potential heads of the resistance forces but their stock has taken a beating since the fall of the Panjshir Valley to the Taliban in September. Massoud is currently believed to be operating from Paris and Dushanbe, while Saleh was reportedly based in the Tajikistan capital as recently as October.
“Ahmad Massoud does not have the same amount of experience as a commander as his father. Saleh, on the other hand, is a good tactician but does not have a popular base,” said one of the people cited above.
“If they had worked closely together, they might have been able to put together an effective resistance,” the person added.
Though Saleh has claimed the powers of the Afghan president and declared himself the head of a government in exile, the people said he does not have a mass following.
Ustad Sayyaf, as the former mujahideen commander is popularly known, is respected by Islamic scholars and within Pashtun circles, the people noted. It was not immediately clear whether Sayyaf had himself agreed to take on a larger role to bring together the different groups opposed to the Taliban.
A large number of Afghan politicians have taken refuge in Turkey, while a sizeable number is based in the Iranian capital of Tehran. Some of the anti-Taliban groups are also scattered across Central Asia, especially Tajikistan.
Sayyaf was once linked to al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and the militants who took control of Kabul after the collapse of the communist government in the early 1990s. As a former leader of the Northern Alliance, he has been in contact with Indian diplomats and security officials over the years.
Sayyaf last played a prominent role in Afghan politics in 2019, when Ghani chose him to chair a four-day loya jirga or grand council for peace efforts with the Taliban. Sayyaf has also been very critical of the Taliban.
These developments come at a time when there are also divisions within Taliban ranks, especially between the hardliners from the Haqqani Network and members of the political office based in Doha. Some of the leaders from the Doha office, including deputy prime minister Abdul Ghani Baradar and deputy foreign minister Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, have favoured a more moderate approach.
“The Taliban are grappling with several problems, including lack of internal cohesion, poor governance, an impending economic collapse and a spike in attacks by the Islamic State,” said a second person.