JAWZJAN/KABUL (Afghanistan) • When a Taleban commander defected to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in northern Afghanistan a few months ago, his men and the foreign fighters he invited in started to enslave local women and set up a bomb-making school for 300 children, officials and residents said.
The mini-caliphate established six months ago in two districts of Jawzjan province marks a new inroad in Afghanistan by ISIS, which is claiming more attacks even as its fighters suffer heavy losses in Iraq and Syria.
ISIS in Jawzjan has now attracted the attention of the United States forces in Afghanistan, which will launch an offensive in the north in the next few days, US Army General John Nicholson said on Tuesday.
Qari Hekmat, a prominent Taleban leader in Jawzjan, switched allegiance around six months ago, raising the movement's black flag over the local mosque and forcing residents to swear fealty to ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.
"They started killing a lot of people and warned others to cooperate," said Mr Baz Mohammad, who fled Darz Aab district after his 19-year-old son was recruited into ISIS at the local mosque.
Hekmat's Taleban fighters long held sway in Darz Aab and Qushtepa districts, with the Afghan government having little control, residents who fled to Shiberghan, some 120km away, told Reuters.
But when Hekmat had a falling-out with the central Taleban leadership and switched allegiance, his men were joined by about 400 ISIS-affiliated fighters from China, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, Chechnya and elsewhere, said Darz Aab's district chief, Mr Baz Mohammad Dawar.
Life soon changed for the worse, families and local officials said. "The Taleban had mercy and we spoke the same language, but ISIS fighters are foreigners and more brutal and barbaric."
Gen Nicholson, commander of Nato-led forces in Afghanistan, said on Tuesday that about 1,400 operations had been conducted against ISIS since March, "removing over 1,600" from the battlefield and cutting off their outside finance and support.
"ISIS has been unable to establish a caliphate in Afghanistan," he said. "We see no evidence of fighters making their way from Iraq and Syria to Afghanistan because they know if they come here, they will face death."
But even if ISIS is not bringing in new fighters, it is another obstacle to Afghan security after 16 years of war against the Taleban. "Whether it is ISIS or Taleban, they are our enemy," said Jawzjan police chief Faqir Mohammad Jawzjani. "And they have to be eliminated."