When the last U.S. soldiers left Afghanistan on August 31, the Taliban triumphantly declared an end to the two-decade war in Afghanistan.
The Western-backed Afghan government had collapsed, the Taliban captured the capital, Kabul, and many Afghans expected the hard-line militants to restore order.
But the Taliban’s intensifying rivalry with the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), a rival militant group, has signaled the beginning of another phase of war in Afghanistan -- a development that many Afghans dread will provoke further bloodshed.
“Every day, two or three people are killed,” Abdullah, a resident of the eastern province of Nangarhar, a stronghold of IS-K, told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi.
Abdullah said IS-K bomb attacks and assassinations have increased since the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan on August 15.
“People here are perplexed,” said Abdullah, who did not reveal his real name for fear of reprisals. IS-K, he added, was “very weak under the previous government but is now experiencing a revival."
There has been surge in IS-K attacks against the Taliban and Afghan civilians in the past two months. Experts say the extremist group has been bolstered by the diminished U.S. counterterrorism presence in Afghanistan and the Taliban's inadvertent release of hundreds of IS-K inmates from prisons during its sweep of the country.
An IS-K suicide bomber blew himself up inside a Shi’ite mosque in the northern province of Kunduz on October 8, killing more than 70 people and injuring over 140. It was the deadliest attack since the international troop withdrawal.
The Taliban has tried to downplay the threat posed by IS-K, vowing to eliminate the group.
But communities caught in the middle of the intensifying war between the Taliban and IS-K said they fear more violence.
“We don’t know if Daesh is behind it, but Taliban fighters are being killed in attacks here,” said Gul, another resident of Nangarhar, using the Arabic acronym for IS-K.
“Such attacks then prompt the Taliban to raid houses and detain people, who turn up dead days later -- sometimes mutilated or beheaded,” added Gul, who revealed only his first name for fear of reprisals.
‘Death, Destruction, Displacement’
Nangarhar, located along the border with Pakistan, has been the epicenter of clashes between the Taliban and IS-K militants.
Since its emergence in early 2015, IS-K swiftly seized pockets of territory in Nangarhar and in the provinces of Kunar and Jowzjan. The atrocities it committed -- which included forcing civilians to sit on explosives -- forced hundreds of thousands of residents to flee their homes.
Subsequent Afghan and U.S. operations as well as Taliban attacks weakened IS-K. But the group has remained resilient and is now threatening to unleash another war in Afghanistan.
“Death, destruction, and displacement will likely afflict tens of thousands of Afghans in the coming months and years if IS-K is not kept in check,” said Andrew Mines, a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University in Washington.
Experts said IS-K is trying to sow sectarian divisions and render Afghanistan ungovernable.
“If the country is unstable, it delegitimizes the Taliban and could provide IS-K chances to rule in areas where the Taliban is diminished,” said Jacob Zenn, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation think tank in Washington. “Ironically, IS-K might try a strategy against the Taliban that the Taliban had used against the U.S.”
That strategy, experts said, included infiltrating and exploiting governing institutions, forming operational alliances with other groups, and assassinating moderate voices of opposition.
Taliban acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi claimed the new government was "controlling" the IS-K "issue."
"Whatever preparations they had made have been 98 percent neutralized," Muttaqi told an event in Qatar this week, using the formal name of the Taliban-led government.
Experts said the Taliban faces the difficult task of adjusting from an insurgency to a government. The Taliban, they said, will likely have to make compromises to gain international recognition, stave off an economic collapse, and tackle the country’s devastating humanitarian crisis.
IS-K, observers said, will attempt to exploit any concessions made by the Taliban.
“Over time, things may quickly become more advantageous for IS-K,” said Mines.
Experts said the Taliban has inadvertently strengthened IS-K by releasing hundreds of its inmates from prisons during its sweep of the country during the summer.
“These escapees may be partially responsible for the uptick in IS-K attack operations,” Mines said. “With more assets and personnel back in their ranks, IS-K’s operational capacities almost certainly improved.”
He added that the Taliban has since targeted high-profile IS-K escapees.
'Threaten Our Future'
Bearing the brunt of the escalating war between IS-K and the Taliban are Afghans caught in the middle.
In the northern province of Faryab, years of deadly clashes between the Taliban, IS-K, and Afghan government troops forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes.
“Afghans have been burning in war for over 40 years,” said Ahmad, a resident of Faryab who only revealed his first name. “Every house has orphans, widows, and disabled people.”
Ahmad hoped the Taliban takeover would herald a period of relative security, even if Afghans had to endure the militant group's repressive laws and draconian rules.
But he said IS-K's resurgence has shattered those hopes.
“Daesh poses a serious threat to the future of our country,” the 28-year-old said. “They disturb the peace and threaten our future stability.”