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Conflicting reports have emerged from Afghanistan about the death of Mullah Mansoor Dadullah, the leader of a Taliban splinter group. Experts believe the Taliban infighting could eventually strengthen IS in Afghanistan.
Afghan officials claimed Thursday that Mullah Mansoor Dadullah, a deputy to the splinter faction's leader Mullah Mohammad Rasool, was killed late Wednesday.
Ghulam Kelani Farahi, a senior police official in the southeastern Zabul province, told media that Dadullah was "lured into a trap" and killed by the main Taliban group, headed by Mullah Akhtar Mansoor.
Mansoor was elected by a Taliban council as the leader of the militant group after former commander Mullah Omar was declared dead in July.
Farahi's claim could not be verified due to the heavy fighting between the rival Taliban factions in the Zabul province.
The Associated Press news agency quoted a Taliban commander in Zabul as saying that Dadullah was killed by one of his bodyguards "who was working as a spy" for Mullah Mansoor.
"When the other bodyguards were not paying attention, this Mansoor man opened fire on Dadullah and killed him," the Taliban commander told the AP on condition of anonymity.
But the Rasool faction was quick to deny the claims: "He (Dadullah) is safe and sound. We know Mullah Mansoor and his men are now spreading rumors about his killing as they suffered heavy losses at the hands of Dadullah and his fighters in Zabul," Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, the faction spokesman, said.
Siegfried O. Wolf, Director of research at the Brussels-based South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF), said the killing of Dadullah might strengthen the position of Mullah Mansoor. "But this would be only a temporary advantage," he told DW.
The clashes in southern Afghanistan killed about 60 of Rasool's followers and 20 militants associated with Mansoor during the weekend, according to Farahi.
The opponents of the widely-recognized Taliban head, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, elected Rasool "supreme leader" earlier this week.
Among the dead militants who were fighting for the breakaway group are "foreign fighters from Uzbekistan," Farahi said, adding that another 30 people were wounded.
The battle in Zabul is the first instance of rivalry between Taliban leaders bursting into the open.
Schism gives IS advantage
According to Mohmand Nostrayar, governor of one of the districts where fighting was taking place, the Middle Eastern Sunni militant group "Islamic State" (IS) is supporting Rasool's forces.
A Taliban commander loyal to the central leadership gave a similar account to the AP news agency.
"It is obvious that Mullah Rasool's group can't face Akhtar Mansoor alone so they need IS. We said that before and now it has been proven," he said.
IS and the Taliban are on hostile terms, despite the fact that both organizations are dominated by Sunni extremists. Lately, IS has been building up its presence in Afghanistan and recruiting disenchanted Taliban members.
"IS remains the major problem for the Taliban movement. It is gaining strength and the Taliban infighting will help this process," analyst Wolf told DW. "The latest protest by the Afghans reflects this fear. I expect more fighting between different Taliban factions in the future as well as more clashes between Taliban fighters and IS militants," he added.
Wolf believes that the Taliban factionalism will lead to more defections of frustrated Taliban militants to IS. "In the long run, Mansoor could face a rebellion within his own ranks and will lose ground to IS."
Chances of an IS-Taliban alliance
Experts are of the view that while there could be some cooperation between IS and the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, a proper alliance between the two extremist groups is "highly unlikely."
"There are certainly ideological convergences between the two groups, but otherwise there are simply too many factors that constrain the possibility of a partnership, much less a close alliance," Michael Kugelman, Afghanistan expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, told DW.
Wahid Mazhda, an expert on the Taliban in Kabul, shares that view. He believes that, while it is possible for some small Islamic groups in Afghanistan to join IS, the Middle Eastern militant group would face ideological difficulties in recruiting fighters from Afghanistan.
"IS and the Taliban are very different ideologically and culturally. In Pakistan, however, they could find some supporters, and they already have," he told DW. "Central Asia is more attractive for IS because there are a number of dictatorial regimes, and some extremist groups there have already shown a willingness to join them to overthrow the regional governments," he added.