Today
Mon 29 November 2021

Tom Mutch reports from Kabul as the Taliban face an insurgency from the ISIS-inspired jihadi movement, ISIS-K

Jeeps packed with Taliban fighters drive down the streets of Kabul towards Sardar Dawood Khan Military Hospital as ambulance sirens pealed through the air. Smoke plumes billowed into the sky from two large explosions. 

A witness close to the scene described heavy gunfire that lasted at least an hour and Taliban officials at the scene confirmed at least 25 dead and 50 wounded in an attack likely carried out by the Islamic State State-Khorasan Province (ISIS-K).

It was just the latest deadly attack in a major city since the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan in mid-August. In the previous two weeks, suicide blasts at Shia mosques in the cities of Kunduz and Kandahar killed dozens of worshippers at Friday prayer.

Just over two months after the fall of Kabul it feels as if Afghanistan’s fragile peace is already crumbling.

Taliban security outside Sardar Dawood Khan Military Hospital after the ISIS-K attack

Doctor Lutfullah was an ear and throat specialist working on the fifth floor of the hospital when the attack happened. He described the scene to Byline Times. “At about 1 pm we heard an explosion at the gate then within fifteen minutes men were storming the compound. They opened doors and were shooting anyone they could find while shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ repeatedly.

“I hid in my office while the fighting went on outside. Eventually, I heard a grenade explode in the corridor outside. Taliban special forces found me and took me from my office to outside.” As he was led to safety, he saw “a horrible sight as the hallways were covered in blood and broken glass. I saw colleagues of mine lying dead.”

A government spokesperson later said that they had killed five militants in a shootout and had captured another that they were held for interrogation. He added that the Taliban had immediately sent forces to engage the attackers and had ‘pacified’ the area.

These tragic scenes have been far too common in Kabul during the last decades of conflict and war. Militants had frequently carried out these types of attacks throughout the major cities of Afghanistan as they attempted to destabilize the US-backed Afghan government. The complex attack structure seen at the hospital was one the Taliban themselves had perfected. The Taliban had promised that their rule heralded an end to the conflict and instability that has plagued Afghanistan for four decades.  

Yet here were scenes reminiscent of any point in the last two decades of their insurgency. A Taliban commander at the scene told Byline Times “one man drove up to the gates of the hospital and detonated a suicide vest. The other attackers entered through the hole caused by the blast.” It is an attack pattern the Taliban themselves had perfected over many years. But this time they were running the show. Their fighters were the ones organizing a security perimeter and evacuating staff and casualties.

It is a grim reminder of the huge obstacles ahead of the new government as it tries to transition from a militant insurgency to a functioning administration capable of securing peace in the country.


The Promise of Peace

Just the previous week, Sadiq Shaheen, a Taliban commander and chief of security for Bamyan province in central Afghanistan, boasted how the Taliban had bought peace to the country for the first time in decades.

Sadiq Shaheem. Photo: Tom Mutch

“You drove here from Kabul, didn’t you? You can see for the first time that the roads are safe and that no one bothers you while you travel. The people in these districts live in peace. Under the Islamic Emirate, we have bought peace for the first time.”  Shaheen was right. Our drive had taken us through Wardak province which had once been a hotbed of militant activity but was now perfectly calm. For several years this road had been considered far too dangerous to drive.

When we stopped at villages on the way the locals described how it was the first time in decades that they could walk through their streets without fearing they could be collateral damage in the endless fighting. Even in the cities people who are deeply opposed to the Taliban and despair for the economic situation will tell you that they feel much safer than before.

But with the economy of Afghanistan in freefall and no recognition from the international community. many people are still deeply distrustful of their new rulers. Many Afghans especially women and members of ethnic minorities fear a return to the dark ages of the 1990s when the Taliban’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam had severely restricted basic rights. Punishments had included the stoning of adulterers and chopping off the hands of those caught stealing. More still are worried about whether the Taliban will carry out earlier threats to punish those or were associated with the previous administration or who worked for US and Afghan forces.



“We don’t believe that ISIS-K has a very large presence in the country,” Shaheen told Byline Times. “Instead, we believe that many of these attacks have been carried out by elements of the old Government such as former members of the NDS or the special forces.” He claimed the Taliban’s own intelligence services had evidence of this, but he did not produce any. However, the Wall Street Journal recently reported that there was a growing number of former government defectors who had joined the jihadists.

With their detailed knowledge of Afghanistan’s urban areas and sophisticated understanding of insurgent techniques, they could bolster the ISIS-K’s ability to wage war in Afghanistan. Many of these men would have been taught by US and NATO forces who were responsible for training the old armed forces. After the reported collapse of the resistance in Panjshir province ISIS is now the only group seriously contesting the Taliban’s rule in the country. Other recruits include disaffected Taliban fighters who are angry at what they say is the group’s reluctance to reintroduce the harshest of restrictions, particularly on women.

One journalist here told Byline Times that many recruits simply revelled in repression no matter how religiously illiterate the rules were. “I interviewed one Islamic State fighter who told me that he was angry the Taliban were not stoning all prisoners of war to death saying it was un-Islamic,” the journalist said. “Of course, anyone who knows the slightest thing about Islam knows that this penalty has never been suggested in any code for prisoners of war. He was just making it up.”

The end of the conflict and the increase in security is increasingly the Taliban’s main and only claim to legitimacy as the government beyond their military superiority. If this Hobbesian pact falls apart then the country risks being dragged back into a destructive civil war.

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The Taliban’s approach to security was initially very hands-off. The dozens of army checkpoints bristling with sandbags and barbed wire that were scattered throughout Kabul were mostly abandoned. Armed men still patrolled in jeeps but rarely bothered anyone. Access to sensitive areas became much easier. You could enter the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for a meeting with only the briefest of security searches. This was apparently a deliberate strategy for making the population feel more at ease. Now, this is being exploited by Islamic State’s militants to inflict as much carnage as they can.


Canary in the Coal Mine

Earlier this summer, shortly before the Taliban takeover, the Dasht e Barchi neighbourhood in western Afghanistan, home to the Hazara ethnic minority, was devastated by a bombing attack against a girl’s school which killed around 85 students.

Because this community follows Shia Islam in a Sunni majority community, they have frequently been the first to suffer when instability hits Afghanistan. For this reason, they have become a canary in the coal mine for the fate of the country. Their religious beliefs make them a major target of the Islamic State not just in Afghanistan but in Iraq and Syria. They were also persecuted by the Taliban during the group’s first stint in power.

In June, community leaders had already lost such faith in the soon-to-collapse Afghan Government, they had stopped caring whether the Taliban retook power. “The government do not defend us or allow us weapons to defend ourselves,” one of them tod Byline Times. He said the government had refused to investigate the attacks and suspected that they saw them as useful propaganda against the Taliban.

After the takeover in August, the Taliban promised to respect and protect minorities in the country. But two of the largest recent atrocities have been against the Hazaras and the Taliban seem powerless to stop them. It remains to be seen whether the new authorities can get the situation under control. If they can’t then Afghanistan could be doomed to an endless cycle of violence.

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