Taliban Free 2 Hostages In Exchange For 3 Militants

Nov 19, 2019
Originally published on November 19, 2019 11:24 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

NPR has confirmed that two hostages who were held by the Taliban for the past three years have now been freed. They are American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks. They were professors at the American University in Kabul when they were abducted in 2016. Their release comes as part of a prisoner swap with the Afghan government, and it might show signs of life in the stalled peace negotiations there. NPR's Diaa Hadid joins us from Islamabad. Hi, Diaa.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So these two, they were - as I noted - professors at a major university in Kabul, the American University. What can you tell us about the circumstances of their capture and detention?

HADID: Right. So what we know is that they were snatched from a Kabul street close to the American University of Kabul in August 2016, and they appear to have been deliberately targeted. And since the Taliban held them - had captured them, they released two or perhaps three videos of the men pleading for their release. It was quite harrowing, emotional stuff.

And then a few weeks ago, news began filtering out that maybe a deal was in the works to release these two men. And last week, the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, made an announcement that a deal would take place, and they would release three high-ranking Taliban insurgents who were being held by the Afghan government. And then it just didn't happen, and there was all sorts of mutual recriminations, and Taliban and the Afghan government blamed each other.

Then last night, we got word that the three high-ranking Taliban insurgents had been released, and they were heading to the Gulf state of Qatar, where the Taliban has a political office.

MARTIN: So, I mean, how do Afghans feel about this, the release of these three Taliban?

HADID: There's actually plenty of anger about this because one of the men being released is Anas Haqqani. He's the brother of the deputy leader of the Taliban, a man called Sirajuddin Haqqani. And you might have heard the name Haqqani before because it's a network of militants who are widely seen as a pretty fearsome armed wing of the Taliban. You know, many Afghans have been asking, like, well, when these men get released and more Afghans die, who's going to be caring or thinking about us? And there's really no answer to that question.

MARTIN: So if this is meant to sort of grease the wheel on peace negotiations, are there signs that it might?

HADID: So certainly, like, that seems to be the context of the deal, and it comes in this broader context of - like, of revived American efforts to find a way out of Afghanistan after nearly two decades in the country.

And so we have the U.S. envoy there, Zalmay Khalilzad, who was speaking to the Taliban, negotiating with them for months on the terms of an American withdrawal of a lot - of many troops - withdrawing, not entirely, not all of them. And it seems that the deal came in that context. And what we understand now is that this is meant - this prisoner release is meant to pave the way for peace talks between the Taliban and Afghans, which will include the Afghan government.

MARTIN: Which hadn't been the case before. It was the U.S. negotiating with the Taliban, and a lot of critics of that process said none of this matters until you get the Taliban and the Afghan government in the same room.

HADID: Exactly. And they're meant to be meeting in China, although a date hasn't been set yet for that meeting.

MARTIN: OK. NPR's Diaa Hadid reporting from Islamabad on the release of these two hostages, an American and an Australian, who had been held by the Taliban for the past three years. Diaa, thanks. We appreciate it.

HADID: You're welcome. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.