The Taliban is talking peace, but Islamic State is wreaking havoc with suicide attacks in eastern Afghanistan
Islamic State has been targeting a range of ‘soft targets’, ranging from a cricket match to a crowded prayer service
A midwife training centre. A refugee help office. A cricket match. A convoy of Sikh and Hindu leaders. A customs building. An junior school. A ceasefire celebration. And on Friday, a crowded prayer service in a Shiite mosque.
The fast-growing list of recent terror attacks in eastern Afghanistan, mostly suicide bombings claimed by Islamic State, represent a gruesome array of what experts call “soft targets.” The victims have been mostly civilians, the sites benign and lightly guarded, and the tolls of dead and wounded high.
On Sunday, though, a suicide bomber killed three foreign solders, identified as Czechs, who were on a foot patrol near Bagram airbase in eastern Afghanistan. One American soldier and two Afghan troops were wounded in the incident.
Since January, when an office of Save the Children, a British charity, was attacked in Jalalabad city, the pace of assaults has steadily increased. By late July, with more than 200 people killed in a dozen attacks, officials finally called in Afghan national army troops to protect the prosperous, panic-stricken trading hub near the Pakistan border.
At a time when hopes for reconciliation with Taliban insurgents have been bolstered by a successful ceasefire in June and reported meetings last month between US officials and Taliban representatives in Qatar, the surge of attacks by the regional branch of Islamic State extremist militia, known to Afghans as Daesh, has stood in sharp, ominous contrast to that progress.
It has also come as the jittery nation prepares for parliamentary elections in October, and as Afghan officials have announced that presidential elections will be held next April. Security at the polls is by far the top concern among officials, and continued terror attacks could prevent people from voting or force polls to close in several regions of the country. Between 1,500 and 2,000 Daesh fighters are said to be active in Afghanistan.
“Daesh does not have any plan to win the hearts and minds of people, but to show that the government is weak and that it cannot stop these attacks,” said Javed Kohistani, a retired army general. He said the main goal of the relentless bombings, especially deep inside cities like Jalalabad, is to “frighten people … and make them stop trusting the government security forces.”
Afghan security officials said the group’s new focus on civilian targets in cities and towns, especially those near its base close to the Pakistan border, is a result of sustained battlefield losses. American and Afghan special operations forces have been waging a joint counterterror campaign against Islamic State, mostly in the east, and officials said the campaign has had significant success. But, they said, that has driven the group to seek out softer targets.
In late June, Afghan officials said Islamic State leader Adam Khan, who they said had planned recent attacks in Jalalabad, was killed in a raid by the national intelligence agency in the rural Chaparhar district of Nangahar Province. Officials said Khan was behind attacks on the Jalalabad cricket field, medical school, education department and customs facility.
And one week ago, officials said about 150 Islamic State fighters and loyalists, including 30 women and children, surrendered in northeastern Jowzjan province after weeks of intense fighting with Afghan army troops. However, Taliban insurgents also took credit for the mass surrender, claiming that their fighters had killed more than 150 Islamic State forces and captured 130.
The two insurgent groups have been fighting turf wars for the past several years, and the unexpected success of the mid-June ceasefire between the Taliban and the Ghani government sparked violent retaliation in Nangahar by Islamic State, which bombed two gatherings during the truce that included local elders, Taliban commanders and Afghan security forces.
Afghan military officials called the Jowzjan surrender a “turning point” in the conflict with Islamic State, noting that two of its senior leaders were among those who turned themselves in. “With this, the Daesh chapter is going to be closed in the north,” an army spokesman said.
But on Friday, a bomb tore through a crowded prayer service of Shiite Muslims in Gardez, the capital city of eastern Paktia province. More than 30 worshippers were killed and scores injured. It was claimed Sunday by Islamic State, which views Shiites as infidels and has claimed numerous previous attacks on Shiite targets.
“Daesh has no roots here and cannot flourish here because the tribes are ideologically against it,” Abdullah Hasrat, a spokesman for the Paktia governor, said Saturday.
“Daesh only spreads hatred and killing,” he said. “Whoever did this, it was for the purpose of creating divisions among the people, tribes and sects.”