Mooted offensive after northern push against ISIS
Taliban prepare 'decisive' anti-ISIS operation in eastern Afghanistan
Taliban leaders say they are massing fighters for a "decisive" operation to drive ISIS from its eastern Afghanistan stronghold of Nangarhar, days after a similar offensive routed the latter from the country's north.
Sources from both of the rival militant movements told The National a Taliban attack in the Afghan province was imminent after weeks of heavy clashes elsewhere.
The Taliban are also attempting to unite other militant factions from the patchwork of extremists in eastern Afghanistan, including the Pakistan Taliban, to turn on ISIS.
One Taliban commander who declined to be named, said hundreds of fighters had already been told to travel to the east of the country in advance of the operation to be commanded by local leader Mullah Naik Mohammad. A Taliban so-called "Red Unit" of commandos has also been assigned to the force.
Others in the movement said the assault on Nangarhar would only take place after Taliban fighters had cleared ISIS from nearby Nuristan and Kunar, where clashes have been continuing for weeks.
Any attack on Nangarhar, where ISIS is thought to control nearly half of the province's districts, is likely to see large numbers of civilians caught up in fighting and forced to flee.
It will also involve Taliban fighters tackling ISIS in an area where it has remained stubbornly potent, despite an aggressive campaign of raids and air strikes by Afghan and US forces.
“Hundreds of Taliban fighters were instructed to move towards Nangarhar to launch a major operation against Daesh strongholds,” the Taliban source said, using ISIS's Arabic acronym.
"[The Taliban] has also convened an important meeting of various militant groups operating in Afghanistan, including Pakistani Taliban and this time all the militant groups will participate in the conclusive battle of Nangarhar for the complete elimination of Daesh."
Another source, who also declined to be named because they were not authorised to speak to journalists, said: "A lot of work is yet remaining to clear Kunar and Nuristan from Daesh, but it is clear that [the Taliban] will this time eliminate the scourge of ISIS from entire Afghanistan."
The Taliban and ISIS have fought since militants first declared allegiance to the self-proclaimed caliphate of Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi in early 2015. The local offshoot of the extremist group has established a firm foothold in Afghanistan even as its heartland in Iraq and Syria has been swept away. Many of its fighters are defectors from other groups, particularly the Pakistani Taliban.
"The Taliban and ISIS have been fighting in Nangarhar since 2015," said Wahid Muzhda, a political analyst and former Taliban official.
“The Taliban never wanted other groups to come into Afghanistan and fight, because they think one group is enough.”
The recent escalation of Taliban attacks on ISIS has raised questions over why the militants have stepped up their campaign. Diplomatic sources said the defeat of ISIS was sought by several of the regional powers accused of providing backing to the Taliban.
Speaking to The National, one European diplomat said: “Everyone's wants ISIS out of Afghanistan — Nato, the US, Russia, Iran, Pakistan. It's one of the rare areas where we all align.”
The Taliban has rejected accusations it is co-operating with US efforts against ISIS and has claimed the group was created by the West to undermine it in Afghanistan. Both sides say they have been targeted by US air strikes during their clashes.
More than 150 ISIS fighters, including foreigners allegedly from France, Turkey, Indonesia and Central Asia, last week surrendered in the northern province of Jowzjan as they tried to escape a Taliban onslaught.
The surrender marked the collapse of the only ISIS enclave outside of eastern Afghanistan.