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A Kandahar mosque attack exposes the Taliban's security challenges


Dozens of people are dead in southern Afghanistan after suicide bombers attacked a Shiite mosque in Kandahar during Friday prayers. The attack comes one week after a similar incident killed dozens of Shiite worshippers in the country's north. The regional affiliate of the Islamic State, ISIS-K, has taken responsibility for both attacks. Joining us now to talk more about this is Andrew Mines, a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. Welcome.

ANDREW MINES: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: So Kandahar, you know, is the second largest city in Afghanistan. It's considered a Taliban stronghold. Can you just talk about the significance of the attack taking place in this city in particular?

MINES: One of the things that we haven't seen really in IS-K's past - ISIS in Afghanistan's past - is them go directly into the Taliban heartland in Kandahar and go after civilian populations there specifically, not as much as they have in other places. And so this is a direct confrontation with the Taliban. It's part of ISIS' - the Islamic State's branding campaign to really undermine the Taliban's credibility, not only to protect their own fighters and their own personnel but to protect civilian populations and especially vulnerable minority populations like the Hazaras, like the Shiites that we're seeing.

CHANG: Can we just step back for a moment and have you briefly explain? What is the relationship between ISIS-K and the Taliban? How would you describe it?

MINES: Their relationship dates all the way back to 2015 and probably even a little bit before that. What happened was, when ISIS-K was setting up their organization, there were these initial kind of conversations between the Taliban and, actually, ISIS in Iraq and Syria, where the Taliban were asking ISIS to kind of call off these fledgling efforts. Those talks went south very quickly. We saw the Islamic State brand the Taliban, essentially, as traitors to the jihadist movement. And what ensued was basically several years of varying intensity of warfare between these two organizations. And they've left death, destruction and a lot of civilian displacement in their wake.

CHANG: Well, if the Taliban seems to be struggling to contain ISIS-K, I mean, what does that mean for the U.S.' ability to do the same, given that the U.S. has already left Afghanistan?

MINES: The U.S. had done a good job in the past of, over time, whittling away at IS-K's leadership, their rank-and-file, their territory. And by 2020, you know, most had basically declared the group defeated, if not significantly degraded. Obviously, that was very, you know, short-sighted because this is an organization that moves through those low periods, that's able to resurge on the other side. And so now people who have, you know, served and have actually done the types of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance that are necessary for over-the-horizon counterterrorism to work have said that they estimate those capabilities to be at basically a quarter of what they were last year.


MINES: And those were already in decline. And so we've seen where that has gone - particularly Iran in the weeks just after the pullout, too, when a U.S. drone strike, in error, killed an aid worker for the Americans and members of his family, which was just tragic and shows some of the shortcomings of relying on that posture.

CHANG: Well, I mean, what does this security situation mean for people who are living in Afghanistan right now? - because half of the people there need humanitarian assistance, and I imagine these recent attacks just make it more difficult to deliver that aid to them.

MINES: This is a huge, huge open question, I suppose, for a lot of humanitarian organizations. These are people that are used to kind of working in similar conditions. But, you know, the possibility of things going south very quickly is very real. A lot of humanitarian organizations have been targeted in the past by ISIS-K, and we can be sure that the group will be trying to target them going forward. It's part of that rejectionist strategy to keep the international community out of Afghanistan but also to undermine the Taliban's credibility and their ability to provide governance to the people.

CHANG: Andrew Mines, a fellow at George Washington University. Thank you very much for joining us today.

MINES: Thanks for having me on.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAMBERT'S "MANDAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Amy Isackson