In one of the deadliest attack since the US-led campaign against the Taliban in 2001, approximately 80 people were killed in two blasts at a protest march in Kabul on Saturday. At the site of the blast, thousands of locals from Afghanistan’s Hazara minority community were reportedly protesting over the route taken by a multi-million dollar power transmission line. They were protesting because the power line bypassed areas with a large number of Hazaras. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack, according to the group’s Amaq News Agency. Suffice it to say, the death toll represents a major escalation for the terrorist group, which was largely confined to the eastern province of Nangarhar. However, Kabul will be more worried by the Islamic State’s explicit reference to the Hazara’s Shi’ite religious affiliation. Security experts contend that this marks a frightening departure for Afghanistan, where sectarian strife between Sunni and Shia Muslims has been relatively rare, unlike Iraq. To the uninitiated, the Islamic State is an ultra-hardline Sunni group. For the long-suffering Hazara community, which makes up about 9 percent of the population, this is yet another reminder of the brutalities they suffered under the Taliban regime. Thousands were killed during Taliban rule. Amidst all the bloodshed, one must note the Taliban’s reaction to the most recent attack. The militant group denied any involvement and said that the attack was “a plot to ignite civil war”.
There is a fundamental difference between the Islamic State and Taliban, even though both sides owe their allegiance to the Sunni school of Islam. “While Islamic State fights to establish a Caliphate encompassing the entire ummah (Muslim community), the Taliban merely seeks to establish an Afghan state that they claim is ruled by Islamic Law,” according to Akhilesh Pillalamarri, a noted international relations analyst, editor, and writer. Both sides declared war on each other in January 2015, after the IS announced the establishment of its unit in “Khorasan”, an old name for the region that comprises of modern-day Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan, Iran and Central Asia. “IS was the first major militant group to directly challenge the authority of the Taliban’s founder, Mullah Muhammad Omar, who was regarded by the Taliban as Amir-ul Momineen (Leader of the Faithful) of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” according to an analysis by the BBC on the subject. This is unlike the Al-Qaeda, which acknowledged his authority. In other words, the IS and Taliban are involved in a bitter turf war, which has further muddied the waters.
Earlier this month, a Taliban-backed suicide bomber killed 40 policemen. Meanwhile, last month, the Taliban orchestrated the death of 14 security guards of the Canadian embassy in Kabul. On that particular day, a total of 25 people had died in three separate terror strikes. Both the Islamic State and Taliban claimed responsibility for these attacks. Days after the United States had announced that it will expand their military’s authority to conduct air strikes against the Taliban, the country has witnessed a wave of violence. Going back to April, a similar attack on a security services facility in Kabul killed at least 64 people.
Experts had contended that recent death of Mullah Akhtar Mansour would create a leadership vacuum in the Afghan Taliban. But Mansour’s death was soon followed by the appointment of Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada as the new Supreme Leader. Experts contend that his appointment has raised important questions regarding the development of a fragile peace process in Afghanistan and the future of the Taliban. The militant group has seen tremendous internal friction this past year and continues to jostle for influence and control against IS gains further north. Under Akhundzada, however, the Afghan Taliban seems to have found a unifying figure. “The Taliban already control units in Helmand that allow the group monetary access to profits from the global opium trade,” according to a recent column in the Huffington Post. “There is little incentive to participate in peacemaking, especially for a leader who will not want to appear weak.” Reports indicate that US President Barack Obama had authorised the drone strike that killed Mansour in the southwestern Pakistani province of Baluchistan. Calling the death “an important milestone”, Obama said Mansour had rejected peace talks and had “continued to plot against and unleash attacks on American and Coalition forces”. But the attack has also destroyed the possibility of any peace talks between the Taliban and the US-backed Kabul regime.
All in all, these developments could further escalate the scale of violence in Afghanistan. According to a recent study, the death toll in Afghanistan’s civil war has quadrupled since American and British combat troops left the country, with 15,000 people being killed last year. Afghanistan suffered the biggest increase in fatalities of any war zone in the world in 2015. The American strategy for stability in Afghanistan, which hinged on Pakistan’s cooperation, has failed miserably.