KABUL: Just a few months after the Taliban took charge in Kabul and promised to restore peace in Afghanistan, many Afghans still fear an invisible enemy: the Islamic State.
The local chapter of the jihadist group is replicating the very tactics that the Taliban used to successfully destabilise the now-ousted US-backed government, including bombings against symbolic targets.
“The Taliban called us infidels. Now, they are getting killed by people who call them infidels,” a shopkeeper said near the scene of the latest carnage — a gun and suicide bomb attack on a military hospital on Tuesday.
“And they have no chance of winning this war,” he said.
The day after the attack, a cleaner passed by with a hose to rinse blood from the pavement and a Taliban fighter pointed with his Kalashnikov to where human remains dangled from the perimeter’s razor wire.
Nineteen people were killed in the attack claimed by Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), the local chapter of the group.
The operation gave the Taliban a chance to launch its feared Badri special forces and deploy a team from a helicopter in a show of force as they confronted the militant attack squad.
But the commander of the force, Kabul’s security chief Hamdullah Mokhlis, and at least three Taliban comrades were killed as they battled the militants.
A member of the hospital’s medical staff said they warned the Taliban to manage the traffic outside the building, which had been targeted in the past.
“They didn’t listen to us,” he told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“They don’t know how to handle the situation. Four cars burst into flames after the second explosion. They didn’t even think of calling the firemen. We had to do it ourselves. They don’t have the number.”
The hospital was last attacked in 2017, in another operation claimed by IS-K. A six-hour gun battle erupted and militants went room to room, slaughtering patients.
One doctor said the Islamic State are the Taliban, but worse.
“I can’t tell the difference between them. They have the same facial hair, the same clothing. For me they are the two ears of the donkey.”
For some, IS-K is more deadly than the Taliban were when they were fighting for control. They see a more sophisticated strategy, with multiple bombings and more complex tactics.
On Tuesday, a motorcycle suicide bomber hit the main gate of the hospital and gunmen stormed their way in behind him.
As Taliban special forces were arriving on the scene 20 minutes later, a car bomb — which witnesses say looked like a taxi — exploded.
“I have seen all this before, the same exact tactics,” another doctor said.
“I know these tactics so well that, after the first explosion, even when I saw people lying injured, I knew I couldn’t go to treat them, because the second explosion would happen soon, and it happened.”
A day after the blasts, security was tighter. Heavily armed Taliban patrols in pick-up trucks captured from the former US-backed security forces thronged the area.
Cars were stopped and searched, papers checked.
Farmer Hazrat Noor from Jowzjan province, who came to the capital for treatment, was pleased with the Taliban victory and swore “he’d never felt safer in 40 years”.
Taliban guard Mohamad Torbi, the leader on a cordon near the hospital, said his men can recognise IS-K fighters “because they are different, they are strangers, with different accents and behaviour”.
“This time they arrived in military clothes,” he added.
Rivalry between Taliban and ISIS-K
The Islamic State group came to prominence when it proclaimed a “caliphate” in Syria in 2014.
It inspired a number of offshoots elsewhere including in “Khorasan”, a historical region taking in parts of modern day Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Turkmenistan.
Jean-Luc Marret, of French think tank the Foundation for Strategic Research, describes IS-K as “a conglomeration of former jihadist organisations, including Uyghurs and Uzbeks, and Taliban defectors”.
According to UN estimates, IS-K has between 500 and a few thousand fighters in northern and eastern Afghanistan, including cells under the nose of the Taliban in the capital Kabul.
Since 2020, the group has been reputedly led by one Shahab al-Muhajir, whose nom de guerre suggests he arrived in the region from the Arab world but his origins remain murky.
He is variously rumoured to have been an al-Qaida commander or a former member of the Haqqani network, one of the most powerful and feared factions in the Taliban.
IS-K has been responsible for some of the deadliest attacks in the region in recent years, massacring civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan, at mosques, shrines, public squares and even hospitals.
The group has especially targeted Muslims from sects it considers heretical, including Shias — much like the original IS group.
It was hit hard by both the Taliban and US-led forces and was losing influence but its attacks have ramped up since their rival Islamists took power in August.
According to researcher Abdul Sayed of online extremism tracker ExTrac, Shahad placed “a renewed emphasis on urban warfare and symbolic violence”.
Many IS-K fighters fought for the Taliban or allied groups, or came from insurgent movements inspired by al-Qaida.
While both the Taliban and IS-K are hardline Sunni Islamist militants, they differ on strategy and interpretation of religion, while claiming to be the true flag-bearers of jihad.
Despite a history of targeting Shias, the Taliban have now pledged to protect them. IS-K, however, remains bent on eradicating groups it considers “apostates”.
The Taliban of 2021 aim to rule Afghanistan under their interpretation of Islamic law, whereas IS-K is still wedded to the goal of a global “caliphate”.
While differences run deep, the border between the groups is porous, and fighters can shift sides as their commanders’ views and opportunities evolve.
“IS-K has been previously successful in recruiting members disaffected with the Taliban and those who perceive the Taliban as too moderate,” said Barbara Kelemen, of Dragonfly Security Intelligence.
“With the Taliban now seemingly implementing some moderate reforms… there is a high probability (IS-K) will try to capitalise.”
Afghanistan’s ousted US-backed government received hundreds of billions of dollars in support and security assistance but could defeat neither the Taliban nor IS-K.
Now the Taliban face IS-K with very little outside assistance, and none of the sophisticated intelligence gathering and surveillance deployed by foreign militaries.
They know their enemy and the terrain though, and last month announced the destruction of an IS-K cell in Kabul after a suicide attack.
And they have the potential support of two groups that know IS-K’s tactics very well.
As a report from the US-based Soufan Centre explained: “To combat IS-K, the Taliban is going to rely on the Haqqani network, al-Qaida, and other violent non-state actors for manpower, combat expertise, and logistical support.”


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