The Afghan government said it plans to begin talks with 14 countries to discuss what to do with hundreds of their citizens who have been captured while fighting alongside the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP).
Ahmad Zia Seraj, the head of Afghanistan's intelligence agency, National Directorate of Security (NDS), said last week that his government wanted to "find an acceptable solution to the problem."
The foreign nationals in Afghan custody are 408 ISKP members, including 173 women and children. According to the Afghan government, 299 of them are from Pakistan, 37 from Uzbekistan, 16 from China, 13 from Tajikistan, 12 from Kyrgyzstan, five from Russia, five from Jordan, five from Indonesia, four from India, four from Iran, three from Turkey, two from Bangladesh and two from Maldives.
Abdul Wahid Taqat, a former senior intelligence official in the Afghan government, predicted a ‘difficult’ legal and political process for the repatriation of the ISKP prisoners, saying Kabul will likely need to use international bodies to convince those countries take back their citizens.
“Returning these fighters would not be easy because Afghanistan has no treaties to extradite or exchange terrorists with most of these countries,” Taqat told VOA, adding that “a reasonable option for Afghanistan is to involve the United Nations Human Commission on Human Rights to find a solution.”
Most of the countries are hesitant to take back their citizens who have joined terror groups because of legal and security risks these “dangerous individuals” pose, said Colin Clarke, a senior fellow at the Soufan Center.
Clarke, however, said that some countries will likely be more responsive to the Afghan government request.
“More authoritarian countries do not need the proof; countries that are more transparent will need it to prosecute [these individuals],” he said. He added that China has interest in taking back its citizens back because it has “inflated the threat of terrorism to justify their treatment of Uyghurs.”
Reuters reported in 2015 that the Afghan government arrested and handed over a number of Uyghur militants to China as a way to persuade China to help with convincing Pakistan to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.
Taqat said the Afghan government’s announcement shows that foreign fighters still have bases in the country and that their presence would remain a "formidable threat" after foreign troops leave.
The fighters “will pose a greater threat to the security and stability of Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal,” said Taqat.
The U.S. and its NATO allies have announced that they will pull out all their forces from Afghanistan by September 11.
The Islamic State branch, ISKP, was formed in January 2015 in the eastern provinces of Afghanistan and in northern Pakistan. The group has suffered major setbacks in recent years, including the loss of its key pockets of territory and the removal of its top leadership.
Despite the losses, a U.N. report in May 2020 said that ISKP still has about 2,200 armed fighters in the South Asian country and remains capable of launching different attacks.
During the announcement Tuesday, NDS’s chief Saraj said that 299 out of 208 ISKP prisoners were Pakistani citizens because “60% of Daesh fighters are Pakistanis.”
Daesh is an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
Saraj said Aslam Farooqi, an ISKP leader and Pakistani citizen, will be turned over to Pakistani authorities only in exchange for Taliban leadership.
“We would only hand him over to Pakistan if we agree on a mutual exchange. When Pakistan hands over some Taliban leaders to us, we will think about it.”
Farooqi was arrested with a dozen other ISKP fighters in April 2020 in the southern Kandahar province.
Earlier this month, Pakistan demanded that Afghanistan hand over Farooqi to Pakistan.
“Aslam Farooqi was involved in anti-Pakistan activities in Afghanistan, he should be handed over to Pakistan for further investigation,” Pakistan’s foreign office said in a statement.
Regional observers say that most of ISKP fighters were the alienated members of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) who joined the terror group after it was formed in 2015.
The Afghan government said that in addition to the ISKP fighters, it is holding an additional 309 foreign fighters who are affiliated with al-Qaeda and other militant groups.