5 August 2018

Taliban Surge Routs ISIS in Northern Afghanistan

By Najim Rahim and Rod Nordland

MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan — More than 200 Islamic State fighters and their two top commanders surrendered to the Afghan government on Wednesday to avoid capture by Taliban insurgents, after a two-day battle that was a decisive victory for the Taliban, participants on all sides confirmed.One of the Islamic State commanders, Mufti Nemat, was reached by cellphone after his surrender, and he confirmed that he and 200 to 250 of his fighters had turned themselves in to the government after the battle in northern Afghanistan, in which 40 of his insurgents had been killed by the Taliban. “It was a dark night, a pell-mell situation,” he said. “For two to three nights, we have been unable to sleep; we are very exhausted.”

The spokesman for Afghanistan’s commando forces, Maj. Ahmad Jawid Salim, said in a post on his Facebook page that the surrenders marked the end of the Islamic State in northern Afghanistan.

“After the surrender of more than 200 Daeshis in Darzab District last night, the Daeshis have been wiped out of the north,” he said, using an alternative name for Islamic State members.

Zabihullah Mujahid, spokesman for the Taliban, who was also reached by cellphone, said that after the attack on the Islamic State group, the Taliban had taken 128 fighters prisoner, with the rest fleeing to government positions in the area. “There will be investigations, and our military courts will decide on their fates,” he said. “Let’s see what happens.”

The Taliban and the Islamic State are bitter enemies in Afghanistan, attacking each other wherever they can. The Islamic State’s main concentration is in the south of Nangarhar Province, in eastern Afghanistan, but they had another major group in the northern province of Jowzjan, particularly in Darzab, the district that was Mr. Nemat’s stronghold.

Mr. Nemat refused to give details of the fight against the Taliban or to reveal why he had decided to surrender. He was critical of the government, however, saying that the Afghan National Army had promised to send helicopters to evacuate him and his followers, who included 30 women.

“It was an emergency situation,” he said. “We were promised choppers around 9 p.m. last night to evacuate us, but unfortunately nothing came.”

Instead, the Islamic State fighters fled on foot to government lines, but more could have escaped the Taliban pursuit, Mr. Nemat said. “We lost contact with the others last night. I think they contacted the Taliban or went somewhere else.”

Among his followers, he said, were about 25 to 30 foreigners, mostly from Central Asian countries, but also two Frenchmen, known only by Arabic pseudonyms, Abu Mohammad and Abu Mariam.

In addition to Mr. Nemat, who is also known as Mufti Nematullah Qaweem, the other Islamic State military commander, Maulavi Habib ul-Rahman, surrendered to the Afghan government forces, according to Abdul Hafiz Khashi, the deputy police chief of Jowzjan Province. The two leaders are brothers-in-law.

“The areas the Daeshis controlled were taken by the Taliban,” Mr. Khashi said.

The police chief of Darzab, Capt. Mohammad Ismail Mubarez, said the Taliban had forced the Islamic State fighters to surrender to the government side. “Two hundred of them surrendered,” he said. “They came at four in the morning with their weapons.”

The defeat was the latest in a series of setbacks for the Islamic State in Khorasan, as the group’s affiliate in Afghanistan calls itself. Since last year, their positions in southern Nangarhar Province have been battered by American airstrikes and ground attacks from American and Afghan Special Forces.

The group has reacted in Nangarhar Province by concentrating its attacks on civilian “soft targets,” most recently on Tuesday, with an attack on a refugee agency. The Afghan government responded to that assault by declaring that the army would take charge of security in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar Province, from Wednesday.

In northern Afghanistan, Mr. Nemat was a former Taliban leader who had switched sides to the government in a deal brokered by the country’s first vice president, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum. Last year, Mr. Nemat switched sides again, this time to the Islamic State. Initially, he was successful, overrunning government positions in Darzab, and the group gained traction elsewhere in the north as well.

In April, however, the American military said that it had killed the overall Islamic State commander in the north, Qari Hekmatullah, in an airstrike.

According to Maulavi Abdulhai Hayat, head of the Jowzjan provincial council’s security committee, about 2,000 Taliban militants recently gathered in Jowzjan from as far away as Helmand Province in the south, with the aim of destroying the Islamic State. While both the government and the Taliban wanted to stop the Islamic State in the north, there was little sign of cooperation between them in the recent battle, he said.

After a month of heavy fighting in the area, the Islamic State fighters suffered 100 fatalities and were pinned down to two villages in Darzab, and when the final battle began two days ago, those militants offered to surrender to the government, Mr. Hayat said.

To facilitate that, government forces then bombed Taliban positions to prevent them from capturing all of the Islamic State fighters themselves, he added.

Mr. Nemat suggested in the interview on Wednesday that he might be ready to switch sides again. “If you’ll remember,” he said, “in the past I brought 200 of my men and joined the government.”

For the time being, however, Afghan officials said that Mr. Nemat and his followers were prisoners, not allies. After switching allegiance to the Islamic State, many of them boasted of engaging in acts of extreme barbarism that are that organization’s calling card, such as beheadings and the use of child soldiers.

Residents of Darzab traveled to the Jowzjan provincial capital, Sheberghan, to petition the governor to punish the Islamic State prisoners for the crimes they committed while in control of their area, according to local officials.

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