Taliban commanders say they are preparing a major offensive to drive Islamic State group militants from their stronghold in Afghanistan.
Hundreds of fighters spearheaded by the Taliban’s so-called Red Unit elite forces are said to be massing for a multi-fronted attack on the local branch of Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL) in Nangarhar province.
The Taliban announcement comes days after another large Taliban operation swept away ISIL’s northern Afghan enclave, in Jowzjan province.
The rival militant groups have been enemies since the first appearance of ISIL in Afghanistan in 2015 and regularly clash. Fighting has intensified this summer. The Taliban have for weeks been trying to clear ISIL fighters from other eastern provinces of Laghman, Nuristan and Kunar before what they say will be a “conclusive” fight for Nangarhar.
Nangarhar has become ISIL’s stronghold in Afghanistan and intense American-led air strikes and counter-terrorism raids have failed to shift the extremists. ISIL has boasted of a string of deadly suicide bombings in the province in recent weeks.
An unnamed Taliban commander told a local news agency: “The crimes and brutalities of this group have reached the peak and they have been targeting public properties, schools, educational institutions, religious minorities and ordinary civilians. [The Taliban] has now decided to take decisive steps against this group.”
Sources on both sides said skirmishing was ongoing in parts of parts of Nangarhar, where ISIL are estimated to fully or partly control more than a third of its districts. The major offensive is expected soon.
More than 150 ISIL fighters surrendered in Jawzjan last week after they were surrounded by hundreds of Taliban fighters.
But an ISIL source told the Telegraph that their defeat in Jowzjan was unlikely to be repeated in Nangarhar and Kunar where mountains and forests favoured the defenders.
The Taliban had used Humvee armoured vehicles captured from the Afghan forces during the fighting in Jowzjan, surrounding the ISIL defenders until they ran out of ammunition.
“The Afghan Taliban several times planned and executed big attacks against Islamic State in Nangarhar, but they were repeatedly defeated and this time they will face defeat and humiliation,” he said.
“Nangarhar and Kunar are mountainous regions and ISIL has a strong presence, where it will be difficult for the Afghan Taliban to bring Humvees. They will face immense difficulties.”