ISIS fighters killed 11 Afghan soldiers and wounded 15 more in an assault near a military academy in Kabul Monday, the fourth major militant attack in the country in nine days.
The raid on the army outpost came just two days after the Taliban carried out a massive bombing in the capital’s secure zone that killed more than 100 people, the country’s deadliest attack since May. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the slaughter was a response to an increasingly aggressive U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.
“The Islamic Emirate has a clear message for Trump and his hand kissers, that if you go ahead with a policy of aggression and speak from the barrel of a gun, don’t expect Afghans to grow flowers in response,” he said in a statement claiming responsibility for the Jan. 27 bombing, using the term the group uses to describe itself.
Analysts say the latest spate of attacks – two of which were claimed by the Taliban, and two by ISIS’s Afghan branch – highlighted the enduring vulnerability of the Afghan capital, where more than 130 people have been killed in three attacks in the past nine days.
It also raised the prospect that the rival militant groups were competing to carry out high-profile attacks in order to attract recruits and support.
“In terms of the Taliban, this could be a strategic attempt to demonstrate their continued strength in Afghanistan through high-profile attacks, whether in order to test the strength of the Afghan government, or in an attempt to 'outbid' their competitors, most notably (ISIS),” Emily Winterbotham, senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, told VICE News.
“As (ISIS) proves its resilience, we could therefore see attacks escalate as the groups seek to 'outbid' each other.”
The current surge in violence also includes a Taliban attack on Kabul Hotel Intercontinental on Jan. 20, which killed 22 people, and an ISIS assault on the office of Save the Children in Jalalabad Wednesday, killing six.
In Monday’s attack, five ISIS insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenades and rifles raided the outpost near the Marshal Fahim military academy just before dawn. Four of the attackers were killed – two by detonating their suicide vests and two shot by security forces – and a fifth militant was arrested, Afghan defense officials said. The academy was previously targeted three months ago when a suicide attacker drove a bomb-laden car into a bus carrying its cadets, killing 15.
The recent wave of violence has rattled the Afghan government and its U.S. backers, which had expressed confidence that a more aggressive military approach was driving back the Taliban from provincial centers in the countryside. Trump condemned the huge Jan. 27 bombing, carried out using an ambulance packed with explosives, as despicable, and said it “renews our resolve and that of our Afghan partners.”
U.S. and Afghan officials have said the major attacks in Kabul show that the militants are feeling the pinch in the rest of the country.
But Winterbotham said the vulnerability of the capital, which militants may be targeting in an attempt to demonstrate their strength through high-profile operations, was of “grave concern.” Security in the capital had deteriorated rapidly since 2016, and it accounted for the highest number of civilian casualties from attacks. The latest round of attacks indicated that that would remain the case in 2018, she said.
She said it also seemed the more aggressive U.S. approach to the conflict under Trump was unlikely to lead to a downturn in violence.
“It is worth noting that violence in Afghanistan actually increased hand-in-hand with increased foreign troop presence, even at the height of the surge,” she said. “Military action failed to beat the Taliban then, there is no reason to think that it will work now.
Cover image: Afghan security officials inspect the blast side in Kabul, Afghanistan on January 27, 2018. (Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)