KABUL -- The killing of a senior Taliban commander during the Tuesday (November 2) attack by the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) signals a new and more worrying stage for the group that is struggling to maintain security since taking over Afghanistan in August.
At least 19 people were killed in Tuesday's attack on Kabul's main military hospital, according to a Health Ministry official who did not want to be named.
Cracks in the Taliban's facade have been laid bare in recent weeks, as the country has been hit by a series of bloody assaults claimed by its main rival, the Khorasan branch of ISIS (ISIS-K).
Hamdullah Mokhlis, a member of the hardline Haqqani Network and an officer in the Badri Corps special forces, is the most senior figure to have been killed since the Taliban seized Kabul.
"When he got the information that Sardar Daud Khan Hospital was under attack, Mawlawi Hamdullah (Mokhlis), the commander of the Kabul corps, immediately rushed to the scene," the Taliban media official said.
"We tried to stop him, but he laughed. Later we found out that he was martyred in the face-to-face fight at the hospital," he added.
The Haqqani Network is the most violent faction of the Taliban, blamed for some of the deadliest attacks in Afghanistan during the last two decades.
Thanks to its financial and military strength -- and a reputation for ruthlessness -- the network is considered semi-autonomous while remaining within the Taliban fold.
The former Afghan government in the past accused the Haqqani Network of working with ISIS-K to launch attacks.
Mokhlis' death comes after Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, whose late father, Jalaluddin, formed the Haqqani Network, last month hailed the sacrifices of suicide bombers during a meeting in Kabul.
Haqqani, himself a designated terrorist with a $10 million (900 million AFN) bounty for his arrest, made his remarks October 18 at the Intercontinental Hotel, which Taliban gunmen stormed in 2018, killing at least 19 people and taking dozens of hostages.
Pro-Taliban social media accounts and local media published images of the minister praying and embracing men said to be family members of former Taliban suicide bombers.
"Haqqani praised the jihad and sacrifice of the martyrs and mujahideen," calling them the "heroes of Islam and the country", Afghan state broadcaster RTA reported.
'Our lives were ending'
The attack Tuesday began with a suicide bomber detonating his explosives near the facility's entrance before gunmen broke into the hospital grounds.
As part of the response, Kabul's new rulers deployed their special forces to the roof of the building in a helicopter captured from the previous Afghan government.
In a statement released on its Telegram channels, ISIS-K said that "five [ISIS] fighters carried out simultaneous coordinated attacks" on the site.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid played down the death toll and said the attack was put down within 15 minutes thanks to the rapid intervention.
Although both ISIS and the Taliban are hardline Sunni Islamist militants, they differ on details of religion and strategy.
ISIS has claimed four mass casualty attacks since the Taliban takeover on August 15, including suicide bomb blasts targeting Shia mosques.
The hospital, which treats wounded soldiers from both the Taliban and former Afghan security forces, was previously attacked in 2017, when gunmen disguised as medical personnel killed at least 30 people in an hours-long siege.
That attack was claimed by ISIS, and the Taliban denied responsibility.
However, survivors of the 2017 massacre told AFP at the time that the attackers chanted "Long live the Taliban" in Pashtu and raided all but two wards on the hospital's first floor where Taliban patients were admitted.