"In terms of educational performance, a remarkable feature found in about one-third of the ISKP members interviewed is their outstanding intellectual record," he wrote. "In addition to several professors of universities who recruited for ISKP, the presence in the Kabul cell of many 'A-graders' (awal-numra, those who topped their classes – usually of about thirty students – in annual rankings) and graduates gives it a distinctly elite character. A significant number of A-graders were drawn from the Sharia faculty. Others came from law, chemistry, engineering and literature departments, often in state-funded universities. Three universities contributed the largest number of recruits to ISKP’s ranks: Kabul University, Nangarhar University and Al-Biruni University."

ISKP tactics are also sowing mistrust between the two main parties to the conflict, the government and the Taliban. After the horrific attack on the maternity ward in May, the government was quick to blame the Taliban, though no group took responsibility and some analysts, like Ruttig, thought the ISKP was much more likely responsible for the attack. "Obviously, the attack bears all the hallmarks of the ISKP. It doesn't make sense for the Taliban to have carried it out," Ruttig said.

"The Afghan government is still exploiting Islamic State threat for its own benefit. This was apparent after the most recent attacks, when Kabul blamed the Taliban for the bloodbath and conducted new operations against them," said Zakir Jalaly, a Kabul-based political analyst. After the attacks in Kabul and Nangarhar, Ghani’s government claimed that both ISKP and the Taliban were the culprits. The Taliban denied any responsibility.

A stumbling block to negotiations

Indeed, according to Jalaly, there is considerable evidence to indicate that the Taliban took the fight against ISKP seriously and pushed them back in rural sites. At the same time, the government in Kabul is likely to regard ISKP as an unlikely bedfellow in its political battle against the Taliban, which, contrary to ISKP, is the largest and most organised insurgency in the country. Until today, no group has claimed responsibility for the Kabul hospital attack.

Moreover, the mere existence of ISKP is often blamed on the Taliban. Undoubtedly it will continue to be a stumbling block to any negotiations leading to peace or, as Mozhdah put it, "less conflict" in general.

For the moment, both the Taliban and the government are pushing ahead with plans for negotiations, with prisoner releases underway. In a statement, the Taliban ordered "all the Mujahideen to adopt special preparatory measures for the safety of our countrymen and not to attack the enemy in any place".

The government of President Ashraf Ghani welcomed the announcement, accepted the truce and also declared it would release hundreds of Taliban prisoners imminently. Concurrently, calls from politicians and civil society activists grew louder in demanding an extension of the ceasefire and the commencement of intra-Afghan talks.

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