Officials in eastern Afghanistan say hundreds of fighters loyal to the ultra-radical Islamic State (IS) militant group have surrendered over the past week.
Shah Mahmood Miakhel, the governor of eastern Nangarhar Province, says recent military operations have forced hundreds of IS fighters to surrender to the Afghan forces.
“The surrendered people include 225 [male] fighters and 190 women and 200 children,” he told reporters in Jalalabad, Nangarhar’s capital, late on November 17. “Most of them are Pakistanis but they include citizens of other countries,” he added without naming the other nations.
Miakhel says the Afghan government might hand over some of the surrendered women and children to the embassies of their respective countries in Kabul.
In an interview with Radio Free Afghanistan last week, Miakhel noted that military operations by the Afghan forces supported by local tribal volunteers have substantially weakened IS in Nangarhar, where the group has held large swathes of rural territories since its emergence in early 2015. IS has also claimed credit for gruesome attacks in Kabul and other cities.
“We have eliminated their capacity to carry out large attacks, suicide and car bombings,” he said. “Their remaining fighters are dispersed in small groups, most of whom are on the run or hiding.”
Miakhel says they have cleansed 95 percent of Nangahar’s territory from the influence of IS and the Taliban. “The success is the result of the bravery of our security forces and the backing of our people,” he said. “We have plans to cleanse the remaining parts of Nangarhar from their presence.”
But previous claims of defeating IS in Nangarhar have proved wrong. The hard-line militant organization that once controlled large parts of Iraq and Syria has proved resilient. Its Afghan branch, known as Khorasan Province, has survived years of Afghan and U.S. military operations. In April 2017, the United States dropped its biggest non-nuclear bomb, dubbed the “mother of all bombs,” on IS hideouts in Nangarhar’s Achin district.
Obaid Shinwari, a member of the provincial council in Nangarhar, says IS was defeated after more than a year of sustained operations by U.S. and Afghan forces. He says frequent battles between IS and the Taliban in various parts of Nangarhar in recent months also contributed to IS’s defeat. “The IS threat in Nangarhar is at its lowest in years,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan.
IS has not commented on the surrenders in Nangarhar, but some of the 83 fighters shown to journalists in Jalalabad on November 17 said they came from adjoining Pakistani regions. Afghan officials say many of the surrendered fighters were Pakistanis from Khyber, Orakzai, and Kurram districts, which border Nangarhar.
“The mullahs constantly told us to cross into Afghanistan for waging jihad because infidels were ruling there,” said one surrendered fighter, who refused to give his name. “But once we arrived here, we realized that only Afghans were being killed.”
Earlier this month, Russell Travers, acting director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism center, told a congressional panel that of all IS branches, they were most concerned about its branch in Afghanistan.
"They have attempted, certainly, to inspire attacks outside of Afghanistan," he said, adding that "they certainly have got the desire" to carry out the attacks themselves.
Western counterterrorism officials estimate the number of IS fighters to be in the thousands.
Earlier this month, IS media outlets disseminated photos of fighters in Afghanistan giving bay'ah, or an oath of loyalty, to the organization’s new leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi. He succeeded Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, whom U.S. officials say was killed in a special forces raid in northwestern Syria last month.