Every few days, the bodies are dumped on the outskirts of the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad.
Some were shot or hanged, others beheaded. Many have handwritten notes tucked into their pockets, accusing them of being members of the Afghan branch of the Islamic State.
No one claims responsibility for the gruesome extrajudicial killings, but the Taliban are widely held accountable. IS was responsible for a suicide bombing outside Kabul airport in August that killed more than 150 people, and is a fierce rival of the Taliban. The two groups are now engaged in a murky and bloody battle. Jalalabad is on the front line.
Afghanistan is now more peaceful after the end of the Taliban uprising. In Jalalabad, however, their forces are facing an almost daily stream of targeted attacks. IS, known locally as “Daesh”, is using some of the same hit and run tactics that the Taliban employed so successfully against the previous government, including roadside bombings and stealth killings. IS accuses the Taliban of being “apostates” for not being sufficiently intransigent; the Taliban dismiss IS as a heretical extremist.
In the province of Nangarhar, headquarters of Jalalabad, the head of the Taliban’s secret services is Dr. Bashir. It has a ferocious reputation. He previously helped drive IS out of a small stronghold he had established in nearby Kunar.
Dr. Bashir denies any connection to the corpses left on display by the roadside, but proudly claims that his men arrested dozens of IS members. Many IS fighters who had been imprisoned under the previous government fled prison during the chaos surrounding the Taliban takeover
In public, Dr. Bashir and the rest of the Taliban downplay the IS threat. They say the war in Afghanistan is finally over and they are bringing peace and security to Afghanistan. Anything that undermines that narrative is unwelcome. Dr Bashir goes so far as to claim that IS does not even formally exist in Afghanistan, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
“The name ‘Daesh’ refers to Syria and Iraq,” he says. “There is no criminal group with the name of ‘Daesh’ here in Afghanistan.”
Instead he refers to the militants as “a group of traitors who have rebelled against our Islamic government”.
Indeed, IS is not only formally present in Afghanistan, but has established a specific offshoot or “province” covering the country, “IS-Khorasan” – using an ancient name for the Central Asian region. The group established its presence in Afghanistan for the first time in 2015 and carried out horrific attacks in subsequent years, but since the Taliban took over it has launched suicide bombings in areas of the country that its militants had never been seen. first.
Earlier this month, IS attacked mosques belonging to the Shia minority in the northern city of Kunduz and the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.
Dr. Bashir, however, insists there is no reason to worry. “Let’s tell the world not to worry,” he says. “If a small group of traitors stand up and carry out such attacks, God willing, just as we defeated a coalition of 52 countries on the battlefield … they too will be defeated.” After fighting a war of insurrection for two decades, Dr. Bashir adds, “it’s easy for us to prevent a guerilla war.”
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But fears about the rise of IS are shared by Afghans already exhausted by years of bloodshed as well as by neighboring countries and the West. US officials have warned IS in Afghanistan could develop the ability to launch attacks abroad within six months to a year.
For the moment IS does not control any territory in Afghanistan. The group had previously managed to establish bases in both Nangarhar and Kunar provinces, before being driven out by assaults by the Taliban, as well as by Afghan army units backed by American airstrikes. The group has only a few thousand fighters compared to the approximately 70,000 Taliban members, who are now armed with American weapons.
But there are fears that IS may end up recruiting some of the other Central Asian and Pakistani foreign fighters believed to be based in the country, as well as disillusioned Taliban members if rival factions develop within the group in the future. The United States hopes to continue using so-called “beyond the horizon” attacks launched from outside Afghanistan to target IS. The Taliban, however, are optimistic that they can deal with the insurgents alone.
Many IS members have deserted in favor of the Pakistani Taliban and Taliban militants, a connected but separate group. “We know them very well and they know us very well,” a Taliban figure tells me, smiling darkly.
In recent days, dozens of IS members have surrendered to Dr. Bashir’s forces in Nangarhar. One, a former member of the Taliban, tells us he was disillusioned after defecting to IS.
Unlike the Taliban, who have repeatedly stressed that their sole purpose was to establish an “Islamic Emirate” in Afghanistan, IS has global ambitions, he tells us.
IS “would threaten everyone, the whole world. They wanted to take their government to the whole world,” he says. But “words are different from actions,” he adds. “They are not powerful enough to take control of Afghanistan.”
Many Afghans wearily refer to the rise in IS attacks as the beginning of a “new game” in the country. In Jalalabad, it is not only the Taliban who are being targeted. Civil society activist Abdul Rahman Mawen was returning home from a wedding earlier this month when gunmen opened fire on his vehicle. Her two young children, ages 10 and 12, huddled in the car while their father was killed. IS issued a brief statement of claim.
Speaking from the family home, his brother, Shad Noor, is disheartened. “From the bottom of my heart, when the Taliban took over we were very happy and optimistic that corruption, killings, explosions would be eradicated,” he says.
“But now we are realizing that a new phenomenon is being imposed on us, the name of Daesh.”
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