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Islamic State attack claim signals escalation by group in Afghanistan

The Islamic State’s claim of responsibility for a deadly assault on a Pakistani consulate is sparking fears that the group is expanding operations in Afghanistan just as Kabul embarks on another attempt at peace talks.

“I think it is now an alarming issue for the government,” Kabul political analyst Mohammad Younas Fakor said. “This was the first time they carried out such an attack, which may mean they will increase their violence the rest of the year.”

“Before Wednesday, Daesh was only limited to a few districts of Nangarhar, but now they carried out an attack in the city, so they are trying to spread out,” he said, using a common shorthand for the Islamic State group.

The attack began Wednesday morning when a suicide bomber killed three Afghan policemen in the eastern city of Jalalabad. Two other attackers then stormed a guesthouse next to the consulate, firing at the consulate and Afghan security forces, police and provincial officials said. Four more Afghan security personnel died in the ensuing two-hour gunbattle before the attackers were killed. At least 10 other people, including three civilians, were wounded.

Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, according to SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks extremist groups. It would mark the group’s first such complex attack on a major Afghan city.

For the most part, the group’s violence has been concentrated in rural areas of Nangarhar province, in eastern Afghanistan, where they have battled both Afghan security forces and the Taliban. But Wednesday’s attack in the provincial capital was different, involving multiple attackers in one of Afghanistan’s most populous cities.

If the Jalalabad attack proves to have been carried out by Islamic State militants, it would be significant, said Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghan Analysts Network. Given the history of groups erroneously claiming attacks in Afghanistan to increase their profile, however, the statement should be approached with caution.

And the group is still made up mostly of fighters who simply switched allegiance from the Taliban or other insurgent groups, so they have not yet significantly increased pressure on Afghan forces, he said.

“Militarily, it’s not a different thing, whether you fight with a black flag or a white flag,” he said in reference to the Islamic State and Taliban flags, respectively.

The attack appeared to be against the Pakistani consulate, and it came just two days after Islamabad hosted a four-country meeting aimed at bringing a fractured Taliban and other insurgent groups to the peace table.

The rise of Afghanistan’s Islamic State branch, made up largely of fighters from the Pakistani Taliban and disaffected former Afghan Taliban, underscores how complex any negotiations to end the war in Afghanistan will be with multiple insurgent factions fighting both the Afghan government and each other.

It was the latest in a wave of attacks in the country since the start of the year following Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s New Year’s Eve announcement of the new peace talks initiative. There have been several car bomb attacks in Kabul and gunmen engaged in a daylong battle at the Indian consulate in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif last week.

On Monday, representatives from Afghanistan, the U.S., Pakistan and China met in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, to discuss a roadmap for resuming peace talks that were abruptly halted last summer after Afghan officials revealed that longtime Taliban leader and founder Mullah Mohammad Omar had been dead for two years. Since then, his successor, Mullah Aktar Mansoor, has been jockeying to consolidate his support base among the increasingly fractured Taliban. The next meeting is scheduled for Monday.

Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.

druzin.heath@stripes.com

Twitter: @Druzin_Stripes

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