JALALABAD, Afghanistan – Aref Mohammad’s war against Islamic State ended earlier in the autumn when his unit of Taliban fighters was attacked by the terrorist group in eastern Afghanistan. A bullet shattered his femur, leaving him disabled and barely able to walk, no matter the fight.
But for the Taliban movement he served under, now the government of Afghanistan, the war against Islamic State had just begun.
“If we knew where they came from, we would pursue them and destroy them,” Mr. Mohammed, 19, from his hospital bed in Jalalabad, the capital of Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province, where Islamic State has maintained a presence since 2015.
In the two months since the Taliban took control of the country, the Islamic State’s affiliated organization in Afghanistan – known as Islamic State Khorasan or ISIS-K – has stepped up attacks across the country, charged the new and untested government and struck the alarm bells in the air in the country. West on the potential resurgence of a group that could ultimately pose an international threat.
The attacks have mainly targeted Taliban units such as Mr Mohammad and Afghanistan’s Shiite minorities. Suicide bombings in Kabul, the capital, and in major cities, including Kunduz in the north and Kandahar in the southern heartland of the Taliban, have killed at least 90 people and wounded hundreds of others in just a few weeks. And on Tuesday, Islamic State fighters carried out a coordinated attack with armed men and at least one suicide bomber at a major military hospital in the capital, killing at least 25 people.
This has put the Taliban in a precarious position: After spending 20 years fighting as a rebel, the group is struggling to provide security and live up to their distinctive law and order. This has proved particularly challenging for the Taliban as they try to defend themselves and civilians in overcrowded cities against almost daily attacks with an army trained for guerrilla warfare in the countryside.
The rise in attacks has fueled growing unrest among Western officials, with some predicting that Islamic State – often seen as a regional threat – could achieve the ability to attack international targets in six to 12 months.
Colin Kahl, the U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Politics, told lawmakers last week that the Taliban’s ability to pursue the group “must be decided.”
Sir. Kahl’s sentiments underscore the central concern of Western intelligence societies: there is little way to measure the Taliban’s effectiveness against ISIS-K. There is no longer reliable access to intelligence, as restricted drone flights provide piecemeal information given the distance they have to fly just to get to Afghanistan, according to U.S. officials, and the established network of informants has collapsed.
The Taliban, which has refused to cooperate with the United States to fight Islamic State, is instead fighting the war on their own terms with tactics and strategies that look far more localized than a government campaign against a terrorist organization.
“The Taliban got used to fighting rebels and relying on a series of asymmetric attacks to target Afghan and American forces,” said Colin P. Clarke, an anti-terrorism analyst at Soufan Group, a New York-based security consulting firm. “But it seems clear that the Taliban have not given much thought to how the equation changes as a counter-rebel, which is actually the role they are now playing against Islamic State.”
But where the Taliban have changed their strategy to fight Islamic State – once working with the Americans and the previous government to curb the terrorist group in the east – is on the diplomatic stage.
While the Taliban is seeking international recognition, the group has used the terrorist group’s resurgence as a bargaining chip for more financial assistance, according to Qatar officials, reminding other countries that a powerful Islamic State also poses a threat to them.
Recognizing the potential threat along its common border with Afghanistan, Pakistan is delivering some intelligence to the Taliban on Islamic State, according to U.S. officials. The Washington Post first reported on this development.
Dr. Basir, the leader of the Taliban’s Jalalabad intelligence arm, who goes by one name, is one of the group’s leaders adapting to fight a war he was once on the other side of as a Taliban insurgent. He is now responsible for defending and securing a city with hundreds of thousands of people.
For the past many years, Jalalabad has been an easy target for Islamic State, which has sent cells of warriors into the city from surrounding districts and carried out assassinations and bombings at will.
But the group has taken advantage of the weeks the new government came together and has drastically expanded its reach.
Between September 18 and October 28, Islamic State carried out at least 54 attacks in Afghanistan – including suicide bombings, assassinations and ambushes at security checkpoints, according to an analysis by ExTrac, a private company that monitors militant violence in conflict areas. It corresponds to one of the most active and deadly periods of Islamic State in Afghanistan.
Most of these attacks are aimed at Taliban security forces – a marked shift from the first seven months of the year, when Islamic State was primarily targeting civilians, including activists and journalists.
In his fight against Islamic State, Dr. Basir that his men had adopted methods similar to the previous government, and even relied on equipment used by the former intelligence service to intercept communications and radio traffic – tools that the West has provided over the past two decades in an effort to monitor the Taliban.
But he insisted that the Taliban had what the last government and the Americans did not have: the broad support of the locals, which has been a boon to the type of human intelligence capable of warning authorities of attacks and battlefields that always have been difficult to achieve in the past.
That level of trust and cooperation may decline, security analysts say, as there is growing fear that the Taliban could use the ISIS-K threat as an excuse to carry out state-sponsored violence against certain sections of the population, such as members of the former government.
“There is also a bit of hubris and arrogance because they think the ISKP has such a limited appeal in the country – that according to the Taliban it is so out of the world that it will never have the widespread appeal, so they think they can afford it. to ignore the threat, ”said Ibraheem Bahiss, an International Crisis Group consultant and independent research analyst.
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In 2015, Islamic State in Khorasan was officially established in the eastern part of Afghanistan by former members of the Pakistani Taliban. The group’s ideology took hold, partly because many villages there are inhabited by Salafi Muslims, the same branch of Sunni Islam as Islamic State. A minority of the Taliban, who mostly follow the Hanafi school, were Salafist fighters eager to join the new terrorist group.
The attraction of young fighters to Islamic State is particularly pronounced in Jalalabad, where Salafist mosques have emerged in increasing numbers in recent years, providing ample recruitment base for the terrorist group.
The Taliban have shown openness to Salafists, accepting a pledge of allegiance from some Salafist clergy earlier this month. But there is still widespread unrest in their community, especially in Jalalabad.
At a Salafist religious school in the city, the Taliban cracked down on ideology by forcing the school’s founder to flee. They have allowed boys to continue their Koranic studies, but have banned Salafist works from the curriculum.
For Faraidoon Momand, a former member of the Afghan government and a local power broker in Jalalabad, the deteriorating economic situation in the country is also driving Islamic State recruitment.
“In any society, if the economy is bad, people will do what they have to do to survive,” Mr Momand said.
As dusk fell over Jalalabad on the last day of October, a unit of Taliban fighters belonging to the intelligence service drove through the streets in a modified Toyota pickup, a machine gun mounted in its bed, while the streets were filled with commuters and night shoppers.
The talibars pulled up at key intersections and checkpoints, jumped out and helped with the screening of cars and the ubiquitous yellow three-wheeled rickshaws pushing and honking as they crowded the streets. They stuck their heads in, shone with flashlights inside, interrogated passengers and waved them on.
“We have a court for every criminal,” said Abdullah Ghorzang, a Taliban commander. “But there is no court for ISIS-K. They will be killed wherever they are arrested.”
Victor J. Blue reported from Jalalabad, Afghanistan; Thomas Gibbons-Neff from Doha, Qatar, and Christina Goldbaum from Kabul. Reporting was contributed by Eric Schmitt of Washington; Safiullah Padshah from Jalalabad; and Sami Sahak from Los Angeles.