On April 19, two members of Islamic State (IS) riding on motorcycles fired upon a vehicle traveling in the area of Haji Camp, near Peshawar, in Pakistan. The shooting resulted in the death of Maulvi Naik Muhammad Rahbar, the Taliban’s shadow governor of Nangarhar province. Also injured was the head of the Rahbar’s network in the province, Azizullah Mashhur Mustafa (Twitter.com/ZiaulhaqAmarkhi, April 19).
Though background information on Rahbar is scarce, he is a Sunni Muslim Pashtun from the Khogyani district in southern Nangarhar, and is believed to have been 35-years-old at the time of his death (Twitter.com/bsarwary, April 19; Afghan Bios, August 6, 2018). Rahbar was a key leader of the Taliban, having led the insurgency’s forces in a crucial province on the border with Pakistan. Rahbar was most acclaimed for leading Taliban forces against Islamic State Khorasan Province (IS-K), who claimed responsibility for his death soon after the attack. IS-K established a foothold in Nangarhar in June 2015, with the province quickly becoming their stronghold in the country. The group’s territory was only reclaimed following a multiyear campaign from both Taliban and Afghan forces, with U.S. assistance. Rahbar oversaw Taliban operations against IS-K, after that group first seized territory in Nangarhar in June 2015. IS-K was likely motivated to remove Rahbar due to this past history (Twitter.com/AbdulMateenImr1, April 19).
Rahbar is only the most recent Taliban leader to be assassinated while in Pakistan. Maulvi Abdul Hadi, the Taliban shadow governor of Laghman, and Abdul Samad Mullah Toor, another influential senior commander, were killed in Peshawar in February and January, respectively. This Hadi and Toor were both killed while in Peshawar, showing the danger Taliban commanders face when entering Pakistan. While in Pakistan, often posing as refugees, Taliban leaders are less protected and less armed than they typically are while on campaign in Afghanistan. The Taliban’s enemies, including IS-K, but also the United States—which has committed drone strikes against the group in Pakistan—have taken advantage of these vulnerabilities to strike influential leaders (Arab News, April 20).
In a statement released the day after Rahbar’s assassination, the Taliban stated, “Due to the recent rise in hopes for lasting peace and full Islamic rule in the country, the internal and external enemies of the Islamic Emirate want to martyr the peaceful leaders of the Islamic Emirate who want to find a peaceful solution to the ongoing crisis in the country” (Voice of Jihad, April 20). The statement reflects the widespread belief among the Taliban that the group is on the verge of victory in the country following President Joe Biden’s announcement of a withdrawal from the country by September 11 (TOLO News, April 29). It also portends the potential danger of an IS-K revival following a U.S. withdrawal from the country.
Though IS-K has lost its territorial holdings in Afghanistan, it is currently undergoing an operational resurgence, claiming responsibility for multiple suicide bombings and targeted killings in the past year. Suicide bombings by IS-K have targeted Afghan minorities, such as an attack against Shia Hazaras in October 2020 that killed 24 (Anadolu Agency, October 25, 2020). The UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan stated in a recent report that IS-K was responsible for 673 casualties in 2020 (UNAMA, 2020). A suicide bombing at the funeral of an influential police commander in Nangarhar in May 2020 also resulted in 24 deaths (Al Jazeera, May 12, 2020). Despite the Taliban’s seeming dedication to clearing IS-K from its territory in Afghanistan, the vacuum left by U.S. forces, combined with the loss of Rahbar and other leaders, could result in a resurgence for the Islamic State province if the Taliban redirect resources to combat government troops in other parts of the country.
Rahbar’s assassination will likely hamper Taliban operations against IS-K in Nangarhar in the short-term. He was an experienced insurgent commander, with deep ties to the local community. Video footage of his funeral in his home district of Khogyani demonstrated that the ceremony was well attended by potentially hundreds of locals, who largely venerated the Taliban leader for his battlefield successes against IS-K (Twitter.com/paykhar, April 20). His loss, combined with the creation of a security vacuum created by a withdrawal of U.S. forces, is likely to prove a boon for remaining IS-K forces in Nangarhar.