Battlefield exchanges and covert assassinations herald an expanding war between the Afghan Taliban and the Islamic State (IS) militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In recent weeks, the two sides have engaged in skirmishes in eastern and northern Afghanistan while IS is accused of orchestrating the killings of several pro-Taliban clerics in northwestern Pakistan.
In the latest round of fighting, IS claimed to have captured a remote district in eastern Afghanistan after defeating rival Taliban fighters.
A statement by the terrorist group now controlling parts of Syria and Iraq said IS fighters have overrun the mountainous Chaparhar district in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar Province.
An Arabic-language statement by the IS Amaq news agency on May 1 pointedly labels the Taliban as “apostates” and claims to have overrun Chaparhar after killing or injuring 10 Taliban fighters and capturing three more.
Attaullah Khogyani, a spokesman for Nangarhar’s governor, confirmed the clashes. He said 21 Taliban fighters and eight IS militants were killed in the April 30 clashes.
The clashes come days after the Afghan officials said scores of fighters were killed in battles between the Taliban and IS in the northern province of Jawzjan.
On April 26, provincial spokesman Mohammad Reza Ghafoori said 76 Taliban and 15 IS militants were killed in the fighting that broke out a day earlier.
The Taliban, usually eager to claim battlefield successes, are surprisingly silent over the recent clashes. It was not possible to independently verify IS and Afghan government claims about fighting in remote Afghan regions.
A more sinister struggle between the two rival jihadist organizations appears to be under way in neighboring Pakistan.
On April 29, the Taliban confirmed that one of their leaders, Maulvi Daud, was killed on April 27 in Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. The confirmation followed an IS claim on April 28 saying the group had assassinated a Taliban leader in Peshawar a day earlier.
Earlier in April, the Pakistan Express Tribune daily reported that police in Peshawar suspected IS to be behind the assassination of three pro-Taliban clerics in the city.
According to the newspaper, unknown assassins first killed an Afghan cleric, Maulana Bahar Sahibzada, on April 14. A few days later, another Afghan cleric, Mullah Jalil, was killed in the Shamshato refugee camp near Peshawar on April 19. The next day, a Pakistani cleric, Mufti Abdul Qayum, was gunned down at a Peshawar mosque.
The Afghan Taliban are widely seen to be operating from sanctuaries and safe havens in Pakistan, where many of its fighters are recruited from pro-Taliban religious schools.
The two leading Sunni jihadist organizations have been at each other’s throats since the emergence of IS in Afghanistan in 2015.
Months after IS announced its Khorasan Province branch, a historical region comprising today’s Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia, former Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur issued a warning for IS leader Abu Bakar Al-Baghdadi.
"[We] will be forced to react to defend our achievements," Mansur wrote to Baghdadi in an open letter issued in June 2015.
"In light of religious sanctions, you should help your brothers in the Islamic Emirate [Taliban] to remain united and strong,” Mansur wrote. “Refrain from taking steps from afar that result in disappointing the mujahedin [Taliban] leaders, religious scholars, and thousands of pious fighters, which will prompt them to lose their love and sincerity for you."
Their rivalry is magnified by the fact that the Taliban and IS adhere to different schools of Islam’s Sunni denomination.
IS follows Takfiri-Salafism, while the Taliban adhere to Deobandism, which is a puritanical from of Hanafi Sunni Islam practiced in South Asia.
-- With reporting by AP and Reuters