The Taliban has expanded its shadowy war against the Islamic State branch in Afghanistan, deploying hundreds more fighters to this eastern province in an increasingly violent fight and critical test of the group’s counterterrorism abilities after the U.S. troop withdrawal.
More than 1,300 additional Taliban fighters have been deployed to Nangahar province in the past month with or-ders to increase the tempo of operations, according to Taliban security officials.
Taliban night raids against sus-pected Islamic State-Khorasan members are on the rise, and many of the hundreds arrested have disappeared or turned up dead, according to Jalalabad residents and Taliban fighters.
“The fight is difficult, and yes sometimes it is brutal, but we have to eradicate Daesh not just for Afghanistan, but for the entire world,” said Qari Nurullah Fateh, a Taliban fighter under the group’s intelligence wing in Jalalabad.
Daesh is the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State commonly used in Afghanistan. “If someone doesn’t surrender to us, we kill them.”
Fateh’s unit carries out multiple search operations for Islamic State suspects in Jalalabad most nights from sunset until early morning prayers.
Previously, the fighters would only leave base once or twice a week. Fateh estimated that seven to 10 Islamic State suspects are arrested in Jalalabad every week and about six are killed.
The Taliban crackdown has sent shock waves through the province and is emerging in Islamic State recruitment propaganda calling on Nangahar residents to rise up and resist.
It is unclear how many new fighters have joined the Islamic State’s ranks, but since the Taliban takeover the group has strengthened, become more active and ex-panded its presence to nearly every Afghan province, according to United Nations assessments.
The wave of Islamic State attacks here and across Afghanistan is the first sustained challenge to the Taliban’s grip on security since the group took control of the country in August. But the escalating fight in Nangahar risks over-stretching limited Taliban resources and further alienating many Afghans.
The Islamic State began attacking Jalalabad within weeks of the Taliban takeover. Local Taliban commanders initially responded by killing several accused collaborators and hanging their bodies along main roads and at busy intersections.
“This was a very effective way to respond,” said Fateh, the Taliban fighter in Jalalabad. “It was a lesson to the people that this is what happens if you join Daesh. We wanted to show them the consequences.” Two other elite Taliban fighters confirmed Fateh’s account.
“Myself, I strung up two of the bodies,” Fateh said, estimating other Taliban fighters hung about 40 more. Dozens of accused collaborators were beheaded.
He said the punishments were carried out in accordance with Islamic law and were approved by Taliban provincial leadership.
But since the brutal killings, violence has only increased, according to data collected by local health officials.
And some Jalalabad residents and former Afghan government officials warn that the Taliban’s approach to restoring order will fan Islamic State recruitment efforts.
Community leaders in Nangahar have pleaded for the Taliban to end the killings, warning “otherwise we cannot stop our youth from joining the [Islamic State] and the beginning of a very brutal era,” said Abdul Sayed, a Lon-don-based researcher of extremist organizations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, citing statements released via public WhatsApp groups.
At a recent news conference, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid downplayed the threat, saying the Islamic State does not have any support among Afghans and the group has “largely been dealt with.”
But Khalil Hamraz, the spokesman for the Taliban’s directorate of intelligence, acknowledged at the same confer-ence that the Taliban’s military takeover of the country inadvertently bolstered Islamic State ranks.
Taliban attacks on prisons across the country freed jailed Islamic State members who now threaten security in Afghanistan, he said.—Agencies