Taliban and Islamic State fighters have added a new twist to the Afghan conflict by carrying out a number of deadly attacks on the Shiite Muslim minority. Experts warn of increased sectarian clashes in the future.
War-plagued Afghanistan's poor security situation continues on its downward trajectory with no prospects in sight for improvement. Over the weekend, dozens of civilians, many of them Shiite Muslims, were massacred in a remote village in northern Afghanistan.
Such attacks are not uncommon in the country, but what drew attention this time round was the accusation by Afghan authorities that fighters allied with the Taliban and the self-styled "Islamic State" (IS) terror groups jointly conducted these attacks.
The fighters killed more than 50 men, women and children in the remote Sayad district of northern Sar-e Pul province on Saturday after overrunning the Afghan Local Police (ALP) - a government-backed militia - in a 48-hour battle, according to local officials.
"The lucky ones were able to flee the village but most of them have lost relatives, children or people they knew," one resident of Sar-e Pul who provided shelter to the displaced victims of the Mirza Olang village and preferred to remain anonymous told DW. "Their stories are heartbreaking. The Taliban have killed as many as they could after taking control of the village. Almost all the victims are Shiite Muslims," he added.
A common enemy
Afghan officials told DW that the Taliban and IS cooperated in carrying out the killings. If true, the development would add a new dimension to the already convoluted picture in Afghanistan and raise pressure on the nation's hard-pressed security forces.
It would also mark a turnaround in the relationship between the two outfits, which have been hostile to each other and vied for supremacy since IS gained a foothold in eastern Afghanistan in 2015. Fighters from the two groups have often engaged in bloody clashes against one another.
There is also a divergence in the two groups' goals. The Taliban are fighting to topple the Afghan government and impose Shariah, or Islamic law, in the conflict-ridden country. IS, for its part, wants to create a global caliphate.
But if it's confirmed that the two cooperated in carrying out the Mirza Olang attack, then that would support claims that both groups have joined hands in some cases to defeat their common enemy: the Afghan government.
Following the government's accusations, the Taliban denied they had used foreign fighters and cooperated with IS, saying that the claims were intended to discredit it.
Nevertheless, the group's spokesman confirmed the Taliban's involvement in the attack, indicating that it is engaging in the sort of brutal tactics employed by IS aimed at spreading fear among people.
"The Taliban are worried that the Islamic State may be perceived as the more violent group in Afghanistan which could result in the Afghan government and the international community shifting their focus," Kabul University lecturer Faiz Mohammad Zaland told DW. "That is why they are committing such acts to keep up with the brutality carried out by IS and keep themselves at the center of the Afghan conflict," he added.
The latest attack also raised fears that the Afghan conflict is taking on a sectarian form, with the Taliban and IS now increasingly targeting the Shiite Muslim minority.
Attacks on Shiite Muslims, mostly among the minority Hazara community, have increased since IS-affiliated groups emerged in parts of Afghanistan in 2015. Only last week, two suicide bombers throwing grenades killed more than 33 worshippers at a Shiite mosque in the western city of Herat. IS claimed responsibility for the incident.
Afghanistan has a long history of deadly tribal clashes and bloody civil war, and if not taken effective action, experts warn, violence along sectarian lines could have harsh consequences for the nation's already war-ravaged, indigent population.
"Afghanistan has been in a state of war for decades but we are seeing a new dimension to war with such incidents," Kabul-based political analyst Wahid Muzhdah told DW. "More and more groups are targeting people based on their religious belief and the sect of Islam they follow," he added, stressing that such incidents were previously very rare in the Afghan conflict.
Even during the nation's civil war in the 1990s, experts argue, civilians were rarely targeted based on the sect of Islam they follow.
Observers see similarities between the current state of affairs in Afghanistan and those that led to bloody sectarian violence in countries like Iraq and Syria. They underline that the Afghan war will become more complex if the government's failure to protect religious and sectarian minorities continues.
The targeting of minorities and committing atrocities will also weaken the position of the Taliban, Zaland said. "Such acts cannot be justified if there ever is a peace deal in the future between the Taliban and the government in Kabul," he noted.