Even by Afghanistan’s standards of often-shifting alliances, a recent meeting between ethnic Hazara elders and local commanders of the Taliban insurgents who have persecuted them for years was extraordinary.
The Hazaras — a largely Shiite minority killed in the thousands during the Sunni Muslim Taliban’s extremist rule of the 1990s — came to their old enemies seeking protection against what they deemed an even greater threat: masked men in the area calling themselves operatives for the Islamic State group.
In a sign of changing times, the Taliban commanders agreed to help, said Abdul Khaliq Yaqubi, one of the elders at the meeting held in the eastern province of Ghazni.
The unusual pact is a window into deepening anxiety in Afghanistan over reports of Islamic State extremists gaining a foothold in a nation already weary of more than a decade of war with the Taliban.
Back-to-back kidnappings within a month of two groups of Hazara travelers — by men widely rumored, though far from proven, to claim fealty to the Islamic State — have many spooked.
The current threat the group formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant poses in Afghanistan is less about real military might than the opportunity for disparate insurgent groups, including defectors from an increasingly fractured Taliban, to band together under this global “brand” that controls portions of Iraq and Syria, observers said.
The fear is especially sharp among religious minorities like the Hazaras, who worry that the influence of the anti-Shiite extremists could introduce a new dimension of sectarian strife to the war.
“Whether DAESH exists or not, the psychological impact of it is very dangerous in Ghazni, which is home to all ethnicities,” Ghazni Deputy Governor Mohammad Ali Ahmadi told reporters, using an Arabic-language acronym for the Islamic State group. “This could easily stir up tensions.”
Unlike in Iraq or Syria, the Islamic State group controls no Afghan territory and operational links between local fighters and the group’s leadership are murky.
However, reports of self-proclaimed Islamic State-allied fighters have been growing since last summer. In Kandahar, the Taliban’s birthplace, armed clashes between alleged fighters for the group and Taliban have been reported.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s latest report on Afghanistan said a handful of Taliban commanders had declared allegiance to the Islamic State and were increasingly seeking funding or cooperation from the group.
However, it added that there was “no indication of widespread or systematic support” for Afghan fighters from Islamic State leaders in the Middle East.
Some say the Islamic State’s intolerance toward Shiites, who the Sunni extremists view as apostates, leaves them with less traction in Afghanistan, where sectarian violence has been rare since the Taliban lost power.
The Afghan government said the group does pose a problem.
“The simple thing is that DAESH is here and they do exist,” said Ajmal Abidy, spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
The International Crisis Group (ICG) in Kabul cited reliable reports that groups of self-described Islamic State fighters were in six provinces, plus rumors of dozens of members in several others.
Any support the Islamic State has appears to echo divisions in the larger Taliban insurgency, ICG analyst Graeme Smith said.
“It is a moving target ... Just because it is not militarily significant today does not mean that can’t change,” he added.
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