Officials: First Islamic State fighters defect to Afghan government
KABUL, Afghanistan — Several Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan have become the first members of the extremist group to desert and go over to the government, officials said Wednesday, predicting that more would follow.
“Ten Daesh fighters have joined the reconciliation process today and put down their guns,” said Attaullah Khogyani, spokesman for the governor of Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province, where the Islamic State group affiliate in Afghanistan is primarily based. Daesh is a commonly used Arabic acronym for the extremist movement.
“This is the first time on the national level that Daesh fighters have given up fighting and joined the peace process,” Khogyani said in a telephone interview from the provincial capital of Jalalabad, 100 miles east of Kabul.
The Islamic State, which has overrun large parts of Syria, Iraq and Libya, has been struggling to set up a presence in Afghanistan for more than a year. Their fighters were quickly chased out of southern Helmand and Kandahar provinces by government forces. Since then they have tried to regroup in the remote, mountainous regions of Nangarhar province along Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan.
The guerrillas, who have had a hard time attracting popular support in a country that resists any foreign influence, have been harried by government troops and U.S. drone strikes, which President Barack Obama approved against the militants in January.
Islamic State adherents are also being hunted down by Taliban insurgents, who have repeatedly warned Islamic State leaders in the Middle East to keep out of Afghanistan.
On Monday, Afghan ground forces and coalition airstrikes in Nangarhar killed as many as 43 Islamic State militants, according to officials. Earlier this month, a U.S. drone strike destroyed the group’s mobile radio station, known as the Voice of the Caliphate, which had been broadcasting illegally from an inaccessible area in the same province.
U.S. and NATO commanders say that the Islamic State can count on just 1,000 to 3,000 fighters in Afghanistan, most of them former Taliban fighters, and members of Pakistani and Uzbek radical groups who switched allegiance.
Haji Malik Nazir, head of Nangarhar’s provincial peace committee, said that the 10 Islamic State deserters had been fighting the Taliban in an eastern district. He held out the possibility that more disillusioned militants could soon abandon the radical religious group.
“It is very important that these Daesh fighters have joined the peace process,” Nazir said in a telephone interview. “They have brought their weapons, too, and said some more will reconcile very soon.”
Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.