The extremist Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for a series of deadly roadside bombs targeting Taliban fighters in eastern Afghanistan, raising the specter of wider conflict between the country's new Taliban rulers and their long-time rivals.
A string of explosions struck Taliban vehicles in Afghanistan's provincial city of Jalalabad over the weekend, killing eight people, among them Taliban fighters. On Monday, three more explosions were heard in the city, an IS stronghold, with unconfirmed reports of additional Taliban casualties.
The Taliban are under pressure to contain IS militants, in part to make good on a promise to the international community that they will prevent the staging of terror attacks from Afghan soil. There is also a widely held expectation among conflict-weary Afghans that – despite fears and misgivings about the Taliban – the new rulers will at least restore a measure of public safety.
“We thought that since the Taliban have come, peace will come,” said Feda Mohammad, a brother of an 18-year-old rickshaw driver who was killed in one of Sunday's blasts, along with a 10-year-old cousin.
“But there's no peace, no security. You can't hear anything except the news of bomb blasts killing this one or that,” Mohammad said, speaking at the family home where relatives and neighbors gathered for a memorial ceremony, drinking black tea and reciting verses from the Quran.
The latest IS bombings come as the Taliban face the daunting task of governing a country shredded by four decades of war. The economy is in free fall, the health system on the verge of collapse and thousands of members of the country's educated elite have fled. International aid groups predict worsening drought, hunger and poverty.
“Our misery has reached its peak,” Abdullah, a shopkeeper in Jalalabad, said Monday, a day after IS claimed responsibility for the bombings that rocked the city the two days before.
“People have no jobs, people sell their carpets to buy flour ... still there are explosions and (IS) claims the attacks,” said Abdullah, who like many Afghans goes by one name.
The weekend bomb blasts served as a reminder of the threat the militants pose. Just weeks ago, as American and foreign troops completed their withdrawal and frantic airlift from the country, IS suicide bombers targeted U.S. evacuation efforts outside Kabul international airport in one of the deadliest attacks in Afghanistan in years. The blast killed 169 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members.
The events have bolstered fears of more violence, as IS militants exploit the vulnerability of an overstretched Taliban government facing massive security challenges and an economic meltdown.
“They're making a very dramatic comeback,” Ibraheem Bahiss, an International Crisis Group consultant and an independent research analyst said of Islamic State. “There could be a long-term struggle between the groups.”
For now, the Afghan affiliate of IS has shied away from attacks against the West and maintained a local focus, but that could change, Bahiss said.