KABUL: The Islamic State group claimed a spectacular assault on Afghanistan’s largest military hospital that bore the hallmarks of the Taliban, prompting officials to voice misgivings as IS’s nascent presence in the country dwindles.
IS claimed via its propaganda agency Amaq that its fighters dressed as doctors stormed the Sardar Daud Khan hospital in Kabul on Wednesday, reportedly killing around 50 people — hours after the Taliban denied responsibility.
Officials on Thursday cast doubt that the attack was the handiwork of IS, a group seeking to expand its foothold in Afghanistan but which faces heavy pressure from both US air strikes and a ground offensive led by Afghan forces.
“We have leads and clues that contradict IS’s claim,” a senior Afghan security official told AFP.
“The group has faced heavy losses and does not have the capacity to carry out such complex attacks. There are indications that the (Taliban-allied) Haqqani network was behind it.”
The gun-and-grenade attack, which lasted six hours, rattled Kabul’s diplomatic district and sent plumes of smoke rising in the sky.
The brutality of the assault was characterised by how the assailants began stabbing victims with knives once they ran out of bullets, defense ministry officials said.
“The attack had the hallmarks of the more dominant Taliban, which has repeatedly carried out such spectacular coordinated attacks on government targets,” Atiqullah Amarkhail, a Kabul-based security analyst, told AFP.
“This shows that when the Taliban or Haqqanis are not willing to take responsibility for an attack, the opportunistic IS will come forward to contradict American and government claims that they have been badly weakened.”
IS, notorious for their brutal reign of terror in Syria and Iraq, has been making inroads into Afghanistan in recent years. They are known to be comprised of disaffected Pakistani and Afghan Taliban, as well as Uzbek Islamists.
Some Afghan provincial officials have repeatedly sought to grab world attention by playing up the IS threat in the face of dwindling foreign aid and a receding international troop presence.
But the group has been steadily losing territory and its strength has depleted to 600-700 fighters from 3,000 in early 2016, NATO says, adding that it killed the top 12 IS commanders in Afghanistan last year.
The Taliban, sensitive about its public reputation, is known to distance itself from attacks on medical facilities or those that result in high civilian casualties.
The death toll from the hospital raid has risen to more than 50, with the fatalities including civilians, local Tolo News reported Thursday citing security sources.
“Whenever there is an attack on public places, the Taliban don’t usually claim responsibility,” Rahimullah Yusufzai, a Pakistani expert on militant movements, told AFP.
But he cautioned against dismissing the group entirely.
Despite the military pressure on the group, IS jihadists have returned to some of the areas in eastern Afghanistan from which they were cleared, a recent UN report said.
“It’s important to remember that despite their losses, IS still has determined fighters,” Yusufzai said. “We cannot rule them out as a threat.”