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The Azadi Briefing: Islamic State-Khorasan Strikes At The Heart Of The Taliban Government

A gun hangs in a house belonging to Islamic State fighters that was destroyed in the ongoing conflict with the Taliban in Kabul on January 5.
A gun hangs in a house belonging to Islamic State fighters that was destroyed in the ongoing conflict with the Taliban in Kabul on January 5.

Welcome to The Azadi Briefing, a new RFE/RL newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan. To subscribe, click here.

I'm Abubakar Siddique, a senior correspondent with RFE/RL's Radio Azadi. Here's what I've been tracking and what I'm keeping an eye on in the days ahead.

The Key Issue

The Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) has claimed credit for a deadly suicide attack on the Taliban government's Foreign Ministry building in Kabul.

The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a statement to AFP on January 13 that at least 10 people are believe to have been killed and another 53 wounded in the attack by the Islamic State offshoot, which has heightened its deadly campaign in Afghanistan. Some Taliban officials and diplomatic sources said the death toll was as high as 20. Most of the victims were civilians working for the ministry.

A diplomatic source said on condition of anonymity that the blast occurred as Taliban officials were meeting with their Chinese counterparts, a claim later rejected by a Taliban official. But the brazen bombing -- coming just a day before Russia's top diplomat for Afghanistan was to visit with Taliban officials in the same building -- put a spotlight on the isolated government's inability to stop IS-K attacks, even on highly secured targets.

The attack struck at the heart of the Taliban government and follows the recent assassination of a senior Taliban security official in the northeastern province of Badakhshan.

Why It's Important: The IS-K's escalating attacks on the Taliban government are part of its broader strategy to steer a nationwide insurgency challenging Taliban rule and are a clear signal that the extremist group aims to establish itself firmly as the Taliban's main jihadist rival.

While most of the IS-K attacks carried out since the Taliban seized power in August 2021 were against religious minorities and civilians, this one was at the struggling government's front door.

It is also a continuation of a recent campaign to undermine the Taliban's relations with regional powers and neighbors. Since September, the IS-K has targeted the diplomatic and commercial presence of Pakistan, Russia, and China.

The direct attack on a key ministry creates another major hurdle for the Taliban's hard-line Islamist government, which is not recognized by any country and has become further isolated due to its imposition of repressive policies, particularly its ban on women's education and work.

The attack also indicated that the Taliban's crackdown on the IS-K and Afghanistan's tiny Salafist community has not successfully eliminated the group or seriously undermined its capacity to foment violence. Since seizing power in August 2021, the Taliban has targeted Afghan Salafists in the belief that the community provides the bulk of IS-K's recruits. But most of IS-K's known members and leaders are foreign, and it has consistently deployed foreign fighters in high-profile attacks.

What's Next: If the Taliban doubles down in its effort to fight the IS-K through repression, it can expect to see an escalation in attacks. A change in the Taliban's oppressive policies of governance, however, could create an opportunity to take advantage of popular support against IS-K violence. It could also open the way for international help in countering the threat IS-K poses to regional security.

The Week's Best Stories

  • Afghans dependent on humanitarian aid for survival face an even more dire situation after major international aid agencies suspended their operations in Afghanistan in response to the Taliban's ban on Afghan women working for NGOs.
  • In a video report, we take you to Afghanistan's central province of Daikundi, where residents are struggling to heat their homes this winter amid soaring fuel costs.
  • In another video report, we meet the growing number of homeless Afghan drug addicts in the southern province of Nimroz. Addiction rates in Afghanistan continue to soar as international assistance has dried up since the Taliban seized power.

What To Keep An Eye On

On January 11, the executive committee of the intergovernmental Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) met in the Saudi port city of Jeddah to discuss the Taliban's recent restrictions on Afghan women and the deteriorating human rights situation in Afghanistan.

A communique issued by the 57 OIC members, all Muslim majority countries, expressed its "disappointment over the suspension of female education in Afghanistan and the decision ordering all national and international nongovernmental organizations to suspend female employees."

The OIC indicated that it would continue to engage with the Taliban to encourage it to rescind its discriminatory policies and adhere to universal human rights principles and standards.

Why It's Important: The OIC statement and the visit by a delegation of Muslim scholars recently sent to Afghanistan undermine the Taliban's claim that its treatment of Afghan women and other extremist policies are in keeping with Islamic Shari'a law.

A united Muslim diplomatic position deprives the Taliban of any credibility and legitimacy to claims that its policies and treatment of Afghans are compatible with its efforts to create an Islamic political system. It strengthens international pressure on the Taliban's unrecognized government to recognize that adhering to international norms of human rights and governance is the only way to end its current isolation.

The OIC stands indirectly strengthens the hand of more pragmatic voices within the Taliban against hard-line clerics led by the group's supreme leader, Mawalawi Haibatullh Akhundzada, who is behind most of the Taliban's extremist policies.

That's all from me for now. Remember to send me any questions, comments, or tips.

Until next time,

Abubakar Siddique

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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

Azadi Briefing

Radio Azadi is RFE/RL's Dari- and Pashto-language public service news outlet for Afghanistan. Every Friday, in our newsletter, Azadi Briefing, one of our journalists will share their analysis of the week’s most important issues and explain why they matter.

To subscribe, click here.