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Are ISIS Fighters Prisoners or Honored Guests of the Afghan Government?

Are ISIS Fighters Prisoners or Honored Guests of the Afghan Government?

SHEBERGHAN, Afghanistan — The top commander of the Islamic State in northern Afghanistan stood behind a lectern decorated with the shield of the Afghan government’s powerful intelligence agency.On his left was the police general in charge of the province. Arrayed behind him was an assortment of other dignitaries: police, army, political figures. An attendant put…


SHEBERGHAN, Afghanistan — The top commander of the Islamic State in northern Afghanistan stood behind a lectern decorated with the shield of the Afghan government’s powerful intelligence agency.

On his left was the police general in charge of the province. Arrayed behind him was an assortment of other dignitaries: police, army, political figures. An attendant put a bottle of mineral water nearby, in case the intense heat made the commander thirsty.

This is how the Islamic State commander, Maulavi Habib ul-Rahman, began his “imprisonment” on Thursday. Along with 250 of his fighters, Mr. Rahman had surrendered the day before to the Afghan government in the northern province of Jowzjan, to avoid being captured by the Taliban.

He thanked his hosts and, in a scolding tone, warned them to stick to the deal they had just made. “Provide us with personal security as well as stay loyal to the commitments made between us so it prepares the ground for others who fight against the government to join the peace process,” Mr. Rahman demanded from the dais.

Taliban insurgents who had conducted a monthlong offensive against them.

Other insurgents have joined the government side through a formal peace process open to those not accused of human rights abuses, but that is not a possibility with the Islamic State, officials insisted.

“They surrendered to Afghan forces — they did not join the peace process. These are two different things,” said Gen. Faqir Mohammad Jawzjani, the provincial police chief, who shared the podium with Mr. Rahman.

If they were prisoners, however, it was hard to tell. The government arranged for them to stay in a guesthouse in the provincial capital of Sheberghan. Guards were posted around it not to keep the insurgents in, but to keep their potential enemies out, according to the provincial governor. Although the fighters were disarmed, they were allowed to keep their cellphones and other personal possessions.

In the guesthouse, the Islamic State fighters celebrated their good fortune, hugging and slapping one another on the back. One of their commanders, Mufti Nemat, wearing a pink shalwar kameez and a knockoff of an Apple watch and holding a satellite phone, fielded calls steadily between giving interviews.

until he was killed in an American airstrike in April. Mr. Rahman and Mr. Nemat, who are brothers-in-law, then emerged as the leaders of the group.

Mr. Nemat bemoaned what he described as a “fake news” climate around their decision to go over to the government side. “We believe that the U.S. supports the Taliban,” he said. “Everyone is against us. Every side puts pressure on us: the Afghan government, the Taliban and also the people. The whole world is against us.”

Mr. Nemat said he joined the Islamic State because he believed in the group’s ideology, which he felt was closer to Afghan values than that of the Taliban or the government. Mr. Nemat, Mr. Rahman and their followers previously fought on the side of the Taliban and the government before joining the Islamic State in 2016.

“We want other people to accept our ideas with their hearts, not by force,” Mr. Nemat said. “There is no need to force people to accept us.”

killings of six workers from the International Committee for the Red Cross last year, an atrocity that was part of the reason the Red Cross has suspended much of its operations in northern Afghanistan.

On April 15, “they beheaded a 12-year-old child on an allegation of cooperating with local police,” said Baz Mohammad Dawar, 32, also a refugee from Darzab. “They committed hundreds of crimes including raping women and girls, enslaving women, killing and beheading.

“People will not let this go. They killed too many of their sons, and stole so much of their livestock, there will be huge protests if the government does not punish them.”

The Islamic State still has a major pocket of fighters in the southern part of Nangarhar Province, in eastern Afghanistan, but concerted attacks on them by American and Afghan special forces, backed up by airstrikes, have greatly reduced their presence in that area. In recent months, they have concentrated instead on launching suicide attacks on lightly defended civilian targets.

An official with the National Directorate of Security, the powerful intelligence agency, said the Islamic State group would be in for a surprise once they were transferred to the custody of the N.D.S. in Kabul.

“We don’t do peace with ISIS,” he said. “ISIS is an international terror group. We don’t make peace with terrorists.”

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