The Taliban has repeatedly boasted of defeating its rival, the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) militant group, and bragged about establishing complete security in Afghanistan in recent months.
But a spate of high-profile attacks claimed by IS-K militants in recent weeks has punctured the Taliban's narrative that it has restored law and order in the war-wracked country.
Since seizing power in August 2021, the Taliban has waged a ruthless crackdown against IS-K militants and their followers. But IS-K has remained resilient and has launched regular attacks on Taliban fighters and officials.
Experts say IS-K is seeking to undermine the Taliban-led government and expose its failure to provide security. The Taliban has long portrayed itself as a stabilizing force that can bring peace to Afghanistan. In the 1990s, during its first stint in power, the Taliban used brute force and repression to pacify large parts of the country following a devastating civil war.
"The IS-K's primary aim is to prevent the Taliban from transitioning into a [functional] government from an insurgency," said Abdul Sayed, a Sweden-based researcher who tracks IS-K. The Taliban has struggled to make that transition as it grapples with a freefalling economy, international isolation, and widening internal rifts. IS-K attacks have further challenged the Taliban's hard-line rule.
"The Taliban cannot formulate a comprehensive counterterrorism policy as long as they operate like an insurgency and fail to grow into a government acceptable to Afghans," he added.
'Defeated And Suppressed'
Since seizing power on August 15, the Taliban has constantly downplayed the threat posed by IS-K, which first emerged in 2015.
"Without doubt, Daesh has been defeated and suppressed," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi last month, using an Arabic acronym for IS-K. Mujahid said IS-K's bombings of mosques and schools were "symptoms of its weakness and defeat."
But a string of deadly IS-K attacks in recent weeks, mostly targeting religious minorities, have busted the Taliban's claim.
IS-K claimed responsibility for an April 22 blast at a mosque and religious school in the northern province of Kunduz that killed at least 33 people. The day before, IS-K said it was behind an attack on a Shi'ite mosque in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif that killed at least 12 worshippers and wounded scores more.
Several other major incidents, including a bombing at a mosque in Kabul that killed up to 50 people on April 29, have gone unclaimed, although they bear the hallmarks of previous IS-K attacks.
Sayed says IS-K militants are employing urban warfare and guerilla tactics to sow chaos. "These attacks are aimed at proving that the Taliban's seizure of power has been a failure," he said.
In the last four months of 2021, IS-K carried out at least 119 attacks in Afghanistan, up from 39 during the same period in 2020, according to a recent report published by Sayed. The attacks included suicide bombings, assassinations, and ambushes on security posts.
Of those, 96 targeted Taliban officials or fighters compared with only two in the same period in 2020, Sayed adds. He says that marks a significant change from last year, when IS-K was primarily targeting civilians.
On April 24, IS-K claimed to have killed Mawlawi Abdul Fattah, the head of the department of petroleum and mining in the northeastern province of Badakhshan. Reccardo Valle, an Italian researcher tracking IS-K, says Fattah was among at least a dozen Taliban fighters and officials who have been targeted in recent months.
In November, IS-K militants stormed a military hospital in Kabul, killing at least 20 people, including a prominent Taliban commander. A month earlier, IS-K militants targeted a memorial service for Taliban spokesman Mujahid's mother, killing several people.
Many IS-K fighters are former members of the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militant group, which was thrown into disarray and driven out of its bases in Pakistan's northwestern tribal belt by a massive military operation in 2014. Disgruntled members of the TTP, also known as the Pakistani Taliban, founded the IS-K in eastern Afghanistan in early 2015.
But IS-K soon found itself fighting turf wars with the Afghan Taliban. Since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the rivalry has intensified.
The Afghan militants have waged a nationwide hunt for IS-K members and even targeted the country's small Salafi minority to curb alleged support for the group from among its members.
Experts say IS-K remains a key security challenge for the Taliban.
Zia Ur Rehman, an independent Pakistani journalist who tracks militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, says IS-K is aiming to weaken "the Taliban's claims that they are a force of stability in Afghanistan and the region."
"They are also trying to use their status as the most potent militant group operating against the Taliban inside Afghanistan," he said.