Islamic State Attacks in Eastern Afghanistan Challenge Taliban Rule

Islamic State Attacks in Eastern Afghanistan Challenge Taliban Rule

17:53 - The strikes killed at least five people in Nangarhar province on Wednesday, and followed deadly weekend strikes on Taliban patrols

A spate of attacks killed at least five people in eastern Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province on Wednesday, the latest outbreak of violence in an area where Islamic State’s regional affiliate is mounting a challenge to the Taliban’s control of the country.

Militants carried out at least two bombings and a gun attack Wednesday in Jalalabad, Nangarhar’s provincial capital. In the shooting attack, at least two Taliban fighters and a civilian were killed, according to local residents. Islamic State-Khorasan Province, or ISKP, claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Wednesday’s bloodshed in Jalalabad followed improvised-explosive-device attacks over the weekend on Taliban patrols that killed several fighters in the city. ISKP also claimed those strikes on what it described as “the apostate Taliban militia.”

While both the Taliban and ISKP want to impose strict Islamic rule over Afghanistan, the two groups have profound political and religious differences, and have repeatedly fought each other since Islamic State’s regional franchise was established in 2015.

The Taliban say they want to have friendly relations with all nations, including the U.S., and have just designated an ambassador to the United Nations. Islamic State doesn’t recognize the idea of a modern nation-state and seeks global conquest.

The Taliban also follow a less rigid Hanafi school of Sunni Islam, with many of them practicing Sufi rites. Islamic State, by contrast, professes puritan Salafi beliefs that have taken root in some areas of eastern Afghanistan, such as Nangarhar, as a result of proselytizing by Arab jihadists in the 1980s and 1990s.

Other Afghan provinces with a strong ISKP presence are Kunar, with its large Salafi population, and Jowzjan. The group, also known as ISIS-K and Daesh, has staged attacks in neighboring Pakistan, too. ISKP is composed mostly of Afghan and Pakistani militants who have broken away from the Taliban and other jihadist groups for not being extreme enough.

While the Taliban have offered an amnesty to members of the deposed Afghan republic’s security forces, they show no mercy to ISKP. Hours after seizing Kabul on Aug. 15, the Taliban killed one of ISKP’s leaders, Abu Omar Khorasani.

Two prominent clerics believed to be close to ISKP, Abu Obaidullah Mutawakkil and Muhammad Nabi Muhammadi, were found dead in Kabul earlier this month. The Taliban denied accusations of being behind these killings.

ISKP is deeply rooted in Nangarhar and has had thousands of fighters and supporters from the province, said Abdul Sayed, an expert on radical groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan. “If the Taliban does not accommodate the local Salafists in Nangarhar in its ranks and does not allow them religious freedom, it can further strengthen the Islamic State-Khorasan threat in Afghanistan beyond Nangarhar,” he said.

In recent years, ISKP has focused on hitting Afghanistan’s Shiite Hazara minority, carrying out a series of attacks against Hazara schools and mosques in Kabul. The militant group also took responsibility for last month’s suicide bombing that killed 13 American troops and some 200 Afghans seeking to flee the country at the gates of Kabul’s airport. A subsequent U.S. drone strike, aiming to prevent another ISKP attack on the airport, mistakenly killed 10 civilians, including seven children, the Pentagon said this month.

The Taliban authorities in Kabul have consistently played down the threat from ISKP. “The U.S. presence in Afghanistan provided a strong excuse for the different armed groups to be active in Afghanistan. Now that America has left and Afghanistan is independent and has an Islamic system, there is no excuse for anyone to fight,” said Enamullah Samangani, a spokesman for the Taliban and the group’s former military chief in the northern Samangan province. The U.S. and the former Afghan government helped ISKP as a way of weakening the Taliban, he alleged, repeating a common view within the movement. The ousted government of President Ashraf Ghani had denied the charge.

“There is no danger from Daesh,” Sherullah Badri, a Taliban commander now in charge of the police station in Kabul’s 12th district, to the east of the city, said Wednesday. “People inform us about their activities. They do not have roots in the population, so they cannot survive.”

The new Taliban government in recent days removed the just-appointed governors of Nangarhar and Kunar, signaling discontent with the deteriorating security situation there. Supporters of the former Kunar governor, Usman Turabi, took to the streets of the provincial capital on Wednesday, demanding his reinstatement.

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