Hostage deal undermines Afghan government

By Sardar Ahmad, KABUL, AFP

The South Korean hostage drama in Afghanistan undermined Kabul’s fight against the Taliban by creating the impression that the extremists have a degree of political legitimacy, analysts say. The 19 Korean aid workers returned home Sunday after being held for 42 days by the hardline militia, which eventually struck a deal with the South Korean government for their release. Seoul has been criticized for negotiating with “terrorists” and the Afghan government says it only allowed the talks to go-ahead to save the lives of the Koreans. But analysts say Kabul ceded a critical advantage to its enemy, in a battle which is as much about public perception as military action. “This was a game which ended in the favor of the Taliban, from the very beginning to its end,” said Afghan lawmaker and editor Shukria Barakzai. “In short, this deal gives the Taliban legitimacy, publicity and identity.” The saga saw representatives of the al-Qaeda-linked militia guaranteed safe passage to talks with a South Korean team in the small town of Ghazni, about 140 kilometers (90 miles) south of Kabul. They held what was effectively the Taliban’s first press conference since their government was toppled in late 2001, and were also able to frequently shuttle their hostages from hideout to hideout before agreeing to free them. “The whole process was a blow to the government,” said Afghan writer and analyst Waheed Mujda, who was a civil servant in the Taliban’s 1996-2001 government. “After this, anyone in the outside world is thinking if one wants to deal with Afghanistan, one must understand that the Taliban are also there as a reality and an existing power,” he told AFP. The Taliban’s “smart” handling of the hostage crisis risked increasing opposition in European countries which are supplying troops to Afghanistan’s anti-Taliban efforts, Mujda said. This dissatisfaction is already high, according to a recent poll, with international casualties mounting and costly British- and U.S. -backed efforts unable to stop opium production from reaching a new record this year. President Hamid Karzai’s government steadfastly refused to consider the Taliban’s demand that it release jailed extremists in exchange for the South Koreans, even after two hostages were killed.

Kabul, which said it was prepared to launch military action to free the group, only allowed Seoul officials to meet directly with the Taliban because the hostages’ lives were at stake, Karzai’s spokesman Homayun Hamidzada said. Pakistan’s independent daily The News pointed to the direct negotiations between Seoul and the Taliban as a sign of Kabul’s weakness. This “reflects the reality that the Taliban are in control over parts of the country and that the Karzai government has limited or no such influence in such areas,” the paper said in an editorial. Reports have said the hardliners were eventually swayed by a South Korean ransom payment, which media have put anywhere between two and US$20 million. Taliban spokesmen and the South Korean government have insisted there was no payout. But few believe the militants were satisfied with South Korea’s reaffirmation that it would withdraw its 200 soldiers by year’s end and stop visits by missionaries. “They showed they are able to hold face-to-face talks with a government,” a senior Afghan government official told AFP under condition of anonymity. “They bargained over the country’s politics and demanded a Korean military withdrawal.” Afghan Foreign Minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta admitted the talks could send a “dangerous message,” even though South Korea had already said it would withdraw its forces and had previously banned missionary visits to Afghanistan. “If the impression is created now that the international community and the Afghan government allow themselves to be blackmailed, then this sends a very dangerous message,” he told German radio. The Afghan government had shown some strength by refusing to meet directly with the Taliban and rejecting their demand to release prisoners, the Afghan daily Outlook Afghanistan said Sunday. But the episode did nothing to convince the insurgents to abandon kidnappings — which they have described as an effective strategy, a Western diplomat said on condition of anonymity.