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Confusion reigns over surrender of 200 ISIS fighters in Afghanistan

(CNN) Over 200 ISIS fighters have surrendered to the Afghan army in the country's north, with some reports suggesting they handed themselves over to the military rather than be captured by the Taliban.

Among the fighters who gave themselves up after days of intense fighting with the Taliban were the leader in the north of the Islamic State Khorasan -- or IS-K, as the terror group is known in Afghanistan -- Habib Rahman, and his deputy, according to a spokesman for the local Jawzjan provincial government, Mohammad Reza Ghafori.

IS-K has fought for the past few years against the more established and widespread Taliban insurgency as they vie for influence and the Afghan government struggles to assert control.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in a statement that 153 IS-K fighters had been killed, more than 100 injured and 134 captured. He added the surrender meant the Taliban had now cleared the north of Afghanistan of IS-K.

An Islamic State Khorasan member, second right, speaks to a journalist after he surrendered to government security forces.

Yet it remained unclear exactly why the IS-K fighters had surrendered. A spokesman for the Afghan ministry of defense, Mohammad Radmanish, said the IS-K fighters surrendered because of an Afghan army onslaught instead. The US military has also expended significant resources, and lost several soldiers, in assisting Afghan forces fighting IS-K in the country's east.

Mufti Nehmatullah, the IS-K deputy leader in the north, said the fighters surrendered because "we were tired of fighting and pressure was on us from both sides." He added that the Taliban repeatedly asked the fighters to join them but "we chose to join Afghan security forces rather than the Taliban."

Potentially a key moment

The events in northern Jawzjan province come at a particularly important time on the Afghan battlefield, with the government struggling to regain territory from the Taliban, and the US apparently beginning the first direct talks with the insurgent group. The Taliban prevailing over IS-K in this fight would be another sign of their seeming potency in the war.

IS-K fighters are often unpopular among the Afghan population and are seen as outsiders. Their ruthless tactics such as beheadings and the detonation of bombs under live victims have given the Taliban room to appeal to Afghans by creating specific "elite" units to tackle the terror group.

IS-K attacks often focus on civilian targets, and have frequently penetrated the secure heart of the capital, Kabul.

The Taliban's apparent role, however, in vanquishing the terror group from the north of the country will be uncomfortable news for an Afghan government struggling to assert itself territorially. The recent report by the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) cites US military figures to say that nearly two-thirds of the population is under Afghan government control (65%), but that the percentage under insurgent control has risen from 11% to 12% from the same period last year. An Afghan government security plan states an aim to control 80% by the end of next year.

Last year, US President Donald Trump made the rare move of giving a personal speech outlining his policy for Afghanistan -- the US' longest war, which he had previously suggested it should withdraw from. The White House's strategy replicated many elements of the Obama administration's closing policy, and focused on special forces to hunt terrorists, the beefing up of Afghan security forces and finally a negotiated settlement with the insurgency.

Discussions begin

The latter part of the strategy -- talks -- has picked up pace in the past week with the disclosure that the State Department's top official for the region was recently in Doha for possible exploratory discussions.

One tribal figure and a Taliban official have confirmed reports that Alice Wells, a top US envoy for South Asia, did in fact meet with a low-level Taliban official to discuss openings for direct US-Taliban negotiations. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert has said the US is "exploring all avenues to advance a peace process in close consultation with the government of Afghanistan."

Yet if the talks had occurred they would be a stark concession to the Taliban, who have always sought direct talks with the US -- which they see as their predominant military opponent -- rather than only with the Afghan government. Such a sudden shift would also be in keeping with Trump's recent appeals to North Korea and even Iran.

While Trump's policy speech was focused on staying the course and "winning" the war, the problems he faces remain amplified versions of those Obama confronted, hobbled by fewer US troops in the field and a slow eroding of the legitimacy of President Ashraf Ghani, who is under pressure to hold elections and faces several internal challengers.

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