Officials and local witnesses say Taliban government forces smashed an Islamic State cell in the north of Kabul late Sunday in a protracted assault that shattered the peace of a normally quiet neighborhood of the capital with hours of explosions and gunfire.
The presence of an allegedly well-armed insurgent group in Kabul highlighted the frightening scope of the issue facing the new government, with Afghanistan’s economy on the verge of collapse and major portions of the country in danger of hunger.
The Taliban operation followed a bombing near a mosque in Kabul earlier on Sunday, which Islamic State later claimed responsibility for. A number of civilians were killed or injured in the bomb, which seemed to be the biggest strike in the Afghan capital since US soldiers left at the end of August.
The local Islamic State affiliate, known as ISIS-Khorasan after the region’s ancient name, has already claimed to have carried out assaults on Taliban targets and is still at odds with the Afghan Islamist movement.
A special Taliban force carried out an operation against ISIS elements in Kabul’s 17th district, in the city’s north, demolishing their base and murdering all those inside, according to Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid.
Residents said Taliban forces cordoned off the area before launching their assault about 7.30 p.m., followed by a fighting that lasted several hours and was interrupted by at least two explosions as suspected ISIS members detonated explosives.
“The confrontations were really fierce for approximately three hours, and there were several huge explosions,” claimed Hashmatullah, a local trader.
One local resident, who asked not to be named for security reasons, said a final blast occurred at around 11.30 p.m. when an explosives-packed car blew up, apparently killing all the ISIS fighters in the building where they were holed up.
He said sporadic gunfire could be heard late into the night and early morning near the compound.
As pickup trucks carried furniture and other items out of the partially destroyed compound on Monday, Taliban soldiers sealed off the area, ushering away bystanders.
LINGERING SECURITY THREATS
The Taliban, who are also fighting the remnants of forces loyal to Ahmad Massoud, an opposition leader from the Panjshir region north of Kabul, have said they have almost complete control of the country.
But Sunday’s violence, and a string of smaller incidents in recent days in areas including Nangarhar on the border with Pakistan and Parwan north of Kabul, have shown that security threats have not disappeared.
Islamic State’s Amaq news agency said on Telegram the group carried out the mosque bombing.
IS has also claimed responsibility for bomb attacks in the eastern city of Jalalabad as well as a suicide attack in late August that killed 13 U.S. soldiers and scores of Afghan civilians who were crowded outside the Kabul airport gates, desperate to secure seats on evacuation flights.
Samiullah, a resident of Kabul who runs a street vendor cart near the mosque, said that, initially, even if the economic situation had worsened since the Taliban takeover, the improved security situation was a consolation.
“We regret that the situation has gone from bad to worse,” he told Reuters close to the mosque premises after being ordered to move away from his usual spot. “The situation is not normal yet. No one is allowed in this area except for the Taliban.”