At least 12 Taliban and six Islamic State fighters have been killed in bloody clashes that erupted in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, according to the Afghan military.
The rival militant groups aim to take control eastern Afghanistan, where Kabul has apparently lost government writ, and fighting between the two has significantly escalated since last year. The latest clashes broke out last Monday and continued into the weekend.
Last month, the Taliban unleashed an attack on ISIS forces in Afghanistan’s Kunar province and claimed to seize control in a majority of districts.
ISIS first appeared in Afghanistan in 2014. Since then it has become increasingly deadly. Afghan intelligence officials believe the group has a total strength of 3,000-4,000 fighters, although they lack public support because they have attacked the country's minority Shi’ite population.
“ISIS is deadly, no doubt, but it’s no match for the Taliban, which enjoys massive support among a large chunk of Afghanistan’s population,” Ibrahim Gul, a former Afghan intelligence officer, told The Media Line.
The Taliban is comprised of ethnic Pashtuns and Arabic-speaking foreign nationals with ties to Al-Qaida, and has a strength of 60,000 regular fighters.
A little over a week ago, it announced the start of a spring offensive despite agreeing to peace talks with the United States to end the years-long Afghan war and obtain a withdrawal of American troops from the country. It issued a lengthy missive in five languages, including English, announcing that the fighting would continue while foreign forces remained.
US special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad condemned the announcement as “reckless” and “irresponsible.”
Khalilzad was born and raised in Afghanistan and was a US ambassador to the United Nations, Baghdad and Kabul before being appointed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to his current post.
“Through this announcement, Taliban leaders demonstrate their indifference to the demands of Afghans across the country,” Khalilzad tweeted.
Qais Mangal, spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defense, termed the Taliban's spring offensive "mere propaganda" in a phone conversation with The Media Line.
“They can’t blackmail the government and people of Afghanistan,” Mangal said. “Rest assured, the Taliban will not reach their vicious goals and their operations will be defeated like in previous years.”
The situation in Afghanistan, however, has gone from bad to worse.
In an unusual admission, President Ashraf Ghani has said that more than 45,000 security officials have been killed since he came to power in 2014.
"The number of international casualties is less than 72. It shows who is doing the fighting," Ghani said at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, earlier this year. "Since I've become president... over 45,000 Afghan security personnel have paid the ultimate sacrifice."
Over the years, the Taliban have gained strength. They maintain the upper hand in the 18-year-long war in Afghanistan and frequently carry out deadly attacks targeting military bases, soldiers and police. This is especially true for the past three years, according to a report compiled by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR).
The report says the Afghan government currently controls or influences only 55% of the country's districts, the lowest level since SIGAR began tracking district control in November 2015, when the government controlled over 72%. During this time, Taliban influence or control has risen to 12.5% from just 7%.
Some analysts believe things will only get worse for the government once the US-led international forces leave.
“Afghanistan forces lack strength and expertise to cope with the Taliban and ISIS. I can predict [an] Afghanistan taken over by the Taliban post-US withdrawal,” Mohammad Rashid, an Islamabad-based expert on Afghanistan, told The Media Line.
Interestingly, high-level Afghan officials believe that even if Taliban-US peace talks actually materialize, they might not bode well for Afghanistan’s future.
“The Taliban who are in contact with the US are mainly moderate Taliban,” Afghan media reports have quoted Interior Minister Masoud Andarabi as saying. “Even if they reach an agreement with the US to end their support for international terrorists, the key challenge that will remain will be the radical Taliban factions that enjoy safe havens in Pakistan.”
However, Mohammad Faisal, a spokesperson at Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told The Media Line that the solution to the conflict in Afghanistan lies in an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process.
“Pakistan wants peace and stability in Afghanistan,” Faisal said. “This is why Pakistan facilitated talks between the Taliban and the US. Pakistan will continue to support and facilitate the Afghan peace process in good faith and as part of a shared responsibility.”
Afghanistan has long accused Pakistan of harboring Taliban fighters, arguing that the group continues to recruit members in Pakistan, a charge Islamabad has repeatedly denied.
Experts in Pakistan say the Taliban are increasingly recruiting fighters from inside Afghanistan as its territorial control grows.
“As the Taliban grow [their] influence in Afghanistan, claiming more districts, they find it easy to recruit from districts falling under their jurisdiction,” Jalal Mehsud, a Jalalabad-based expert on the Afghanistan conflict told The Media Line.