After taking over Afghanistan last month, the Taliban claimed that security “has been assured” and that the county was taken out of the “quagmire of war”. But a series of attacks carried out by an affiliate of the ISIL (ISIS) group in recent weeks has shattered the claims of security.
In the six weeks since the Taliban came to power, there have been reports of Islamic State in Khorasan Province, ISKP (ISIS-K), attacks and activity in the cities of Kabul, Jalalabad and Mazar-i-Sharif.
On the evening of August 26, just 11 days after the Taliban takeover of the country, ISKP claimed responsibility for a bombing at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport. That attack led to the deaths of more than 180 people and injuries to hundreds of others.
In the last several weeks, several attacks have been reported in the city of Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province, and one of ISKP’s most common targets. The recent attacks, including IED explosions, killed civilians and purported Taliban fighters.
In a Telegram message, ISKP claimed to have killed up to 35 Taliban fighters in Jalalabad, a figure the Taliban denies.
Each of these instances has been met with harsh words from the Taliban, who continue to pledge to eradicate any forces loyal to the ISIL group.
Deputy Minister of Information and Culture Zabihullah Mujahid told Al Jazeera that the group is actively “hunting down those who are sowing chaos” in the country.
The Taliban has launched a crackdown on ISKP members, with reported detention of at least 80 purported fighters in Nangarhar – an ISKP stronghold.
The Taliban also claimed to have killed Mawlawi Ziya ul-Haq, also known as Abu Omar Khorasani, the former leader of ISKP, in Kabul’s notorious Pul-e-Charkhi prison.
The Afghan group has also been credited with the death of Farooq Bengalzai, an ISIL leader from Pakistan who was reportedly killed while travelling in southwestern Afghanistan.
On August 28, the Taliban was accused of arresting Shaikh Abu Obaidullah Mutawakil, a well-known Salafist scholar, in the capital Kabul. A week later, Mutawakil was found dead.
The Taliban denied any part in Mutawakil’s death, but that has done little to ease the suspicions. Furthering those doubts is the fact that within weeks of Mutawakil’s killing, the Taliban had also closed more than three dozen Salafist mosques across 16 different provinces.
There is the fear that the Taliban could be borrowing from the playbook of former Afghan governments, which had been accused of unlawful detentions, extrajudicial killings and of using labels like Taliban, ISKP and al-Qaeda to go after any potential unwanted elements without providing proper evidence.
Wesley Morgan, an author and journalist who has reported extensively on the US war in Afghanistan, says there is a fear that the Taliban “could label various groups as Daesh (ISIL) that aren’t, just like the US and Kabul before them did for decades.”
Eliminating ISKP, a longtime Taliban foe, has proven much more difficult than the group will let on. Though, the Afghan group successfully wrested districts from ISKP in eastern Afghanistan in the past.
Civilian and Taliban sources speaking to Al Jazeera in 2019 had said that the Taliban joined with local uprising forces long before the Afghan forces ramped up their efforts to fight ISKP.
Though much of ISKP’s activity has been based in Nangarhar, neighbouring Kunar has proven to be an especially valuable province for ISKP recruitment. For decades, parts of Kunar have been home to the small population of practitioners of the Salafi school of Islam.
Experts and analysts have said that, that the Salafi interpretation of Islam is much more amenable to the hardline and highly sectarian views espoused by ISKP than the Hanafi school, which most of the country adheres to.
Taliban blamed the US for failure to prevent the airport attack saying it “took place in an area where US forces are responsible for security”.
But in the immediate aftermath of the bombings, families of the victims directed their anger at the Taliban, whom they saw as failing to prevent one of the most lethal attacks in 20 years.
“This is all your fault; you all did this. You didn’t secure anything,” a relative of one of the victims could be heard yelling at the Taliban forces at the Italian-run emergency hospital in Kabul.
Relatives of victims who spoke directly to Al Jazeera also questioned whether the Taliban could take on a group known to have carried out increasingly brazen and audacious attacks. Attacks that show no sign of letting up.
The Taliban, said Morgan, have another pressing fear that should drive them to act decisively against ISKP forces, defections.
The Taliban leadership “don’t want disaffected or rogue fighters defecting in the hopes of seeing action” with the ISIL, Morgan told Al Jazeera.
There is a serious historical precedent for this fear. One of the first leaders of ISKP forces in the southwestern provinces of Helmand and Farah was Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadem.
Before his 2014 defection, Khadem had served both in the Taliban government of the 1990s and as part of their 20-year rebellion against the US occupation. Likewise, several high-ranking commanders of the Pakistani Taliban pledged allegiance to ISIL in 2015.
Morgan, the expert, said taking out the Taliban’s “indisputable enemy” would prove much more enticing to their fighters than trying to sever ties with what meagre al-Qaeda forces still exist in Afghanistan.
“Targeting al-Qaeda could anger parts of their base, but taking out ISIL-K is an easy win,” he said.
Despite the Taliban’s claims that their group is unified, residents in major cities across the country have had direct run-ins with rogue Taliban fighters, who have behaved with a hostility and aggression that seems to belie the promises of the “general amnesty” espoused by their leadership.
The acting Minister of Defence Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob specifically addressed these concerns in a recent audio message, where he said, “There are some bad and corrupt people who want to join us … To fulfil their own interest or to defame us and make us look bad.”
Yaqoob said any rogue elements among the ranks would be dealt with, however, for those Taliban members who still long for battles and aggression, ISIL, a much-feared armed group that is known among Afghans for its brutality and violence, may prove to be an attractive alternative.
Morgan, the writer and journalist, said the Taliban have another very important reason for doing everything in their power to take out the ISKP forces, international recognition.
When the Trump administration signed a peace deal with the Taliban in February 2020 it was with the assurance that the Taliban would sever ties with other armed groups, like al-Qaeda and ISIL affiliates, and that it would not allow any other armed group to use Afghan soil to target the US or its allies.
In the month since former President Ashraf Ghani fled and they took over the country, no foreign government, including longtime allies like Islamabad and Tehran, have acknowledged the Taliban as the official government of Afghanistan.
As well as facing diplomatic isolation, the Taliban has been struggling to revive its crippled economy exacerbated by cutting off its ties with global financial institutions.
Defeating ISKP, said Morgan, “is in the Taliban’s interest,” and it would be a clear indication that the Taliban, too, believes in “counterterrorism”.
Quite simply, “it’s a way to build up international goodwill,” said Morgan.