A Deal With the Devil

By Kathleen McGowan, a fellow at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. She was the special assistant to the American ambassador in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2004 (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 02/04/07):

IF consecutive suicide bombings aimed at the vice president of the United States and the American ambassador to Afghanistan weren’t dramatic enough illustration of the Taliban’s resurgence, President Hamid Karzai’s decision two weeks ago to swap five Taliban captives for a kidnapped Italian reporter, Daniele Mastrogiacomo, should make perfectly clear the disaster unfolding in Afghanistan.

The precedent that this trade establishes is as obvious as it is staggering in its implications. Taliban insurgents, international terrorists, opium traffickers and garden-variety criminals learned years ago that attacking foreign aid workers and journalists was the easiest and least costly way to keep rural Afghanistan, in particular the southern and southeastern areas along the border with Pakistan, both ungoverned and ungovernable.

The murder in 2003 of Ricardo Munguia, a worker with the Red Cross, was just the opening salvo in a campaign to intimidate the international community and the Karzai government. This strategy has been undeniably effective: successive attacks have led most major humanitarian organizations, the United Nations and many news media outlets to reduce their presence significantly or withdraw from the parts of Afghanistan where their contributions are most needed.

But not since being run out of Kabul in late 2001 has the Taliban been able to so publicly bring the elected government (and the international community by association) to its knees. President Karzai’s decision to release the Taliban prisoners in exchange for Mr. Mastrogiacomo is the ultimate validation of the terrorists’ strategy and effectively declares open season on the few unarmed non-Afghans still brave (or foolish) enough to continue working in the country outside of Kabul.

Yet perhaps more troubling than the self-evident precedent that has been set by this particular episode are the less obvious implications of the prisoner swap. Consider the message the exchange sends to Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s government in Pakistan. For several years now, President Karzai has accused his counterpart in Islamabad of trying to undermine the Afghan government by allowing the tribal areas of Pakistan to be used as a sanctuary for insurgents who cross the border to attack Afghan and coalition-affiliated targets. Recently, American and European officials have also ratcheted up pressure on General Musharraf to crack down on Taliban elements in Pakistani territory. In response, the government of Pakistan occasionally arrests a (presumably dispensable) Taliban “official” and hands him over to the Afghans.

One of the first such sacrificial lambs offered up to Kabul was Abdul Latif Hakimi, captured in Baluchistan Province in Pakistan in October 2005. As the Taliban spokesman through much of 2004 and 2005, he was living more or less openly in Quetta, issuing regular statements to the press in which he boasted of Taliban operations that included the shooting, beheading and blowing up of scores of unarmed civilians.

While most of the Taliban’s victims during this time were (and continue to be) Afghans, it was most likely pressure from London that led the Pakistani government to finally arrest Mr. Hakimi after he claimed responsibility for the murders, in separate incidents, of two British civilians working in Afghanistan in 2005. (One of those civilians was my fiancé; an unrelated criminal gang was later charged with killing him in a botched kidnapping attempt.)

According to Mr. Hakimi, both men were killed at the direction of Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, who was the deputy at the time to the Taliban’s chief, Mullah Muhammad Omar. Mullah Obaidullah, of course, was the Taliban leader arrested last month during Vice President Dick Cheney’s visit to Pakistan.

Mr. Hakimi was one of those released as ransom for the Italian journalist. President Musharraf must be left wondering how to read these mixed signals. While the selective capture of Taliban leaders is surely more appeasement of the West than an honest attempt at dismantling the Taliban’s command structure based in Pakistan, Kabul’s decision to release Mr. Hakimi and four other Taliban leaders, in exchange for the life of one risk-taking foreign journalist, will provide President Musharraf with invaluable rhetorical cover.

Afghans, too, must rightly be wondering about the value of their own lives. For while the spotlight of international attention and outrage shone brightly on the plight of Mr. Mastrogiacomo, little has been said about the two Afghans kidnapped along with their Italian colleague. One, Syed Agha, was beheaded by his Taliban captors before the deal was reached. The second, Ajmal Naskhbandi, apparently wasn’t part of the bargain. According to an Italian television broadcast last Thursday, the Taliban says it is still holding him and has demanded the release of two Taliban prisoners in exchange for his freedom. Therein lies a dilemma: dealing with the Taliban to save Mr. Nashkbandi will fuel a vicious cycle of kidnappings; yet walking away from him now will only further alienate President Karzai from the people who elected him to protect the interests of Afghans above all others.

President Karzai no doubt came under tremendous pressure from Rome to save Mr. Mastrogiacomo, who was kidnapped while traveling in Helmand Province, a Taliban stronghold and active combat zone. He was taken after having arranged a meeting with Taliban representatives near the location where another Italian journalist was kidnapped just six months ago.

Popular support for Italy’s presence in Afghanistan is tenuous, and the issue almost brought down Prime Minister Romano Prodi’s government in February. Perhaps President Karzai was told that the exchange was the cost of keeping Italy’s 2,000 troops in his country.

The governments of Italy and Afghanistan should be applauded for valuing Mr. Mastrogiacomo’s life — after all, the struggle in Afghanistan is, at its most elemental level, about recognizing the value of all human lives. But this deal, however expedient in the near term, comes at a tremendous cost to Afghanistan’s future prospects for building a peaceful, tolerant and just society.