New Delhi: In a live broadcast on state television, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has announced the conditional release of three prominent Taliban leaders in an attempt to free an American and an Australian professor taken hostage in August 2016. The three members of the Haqqani network are Anas Haqqani, Haji Mali Khan and Hafiz Rashid. Flanked by Amrullah Saleh (ex-spy chief , Taliban opponent and Presidential running mate), National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib, other ministers and leaders, President Ghani said the “very hard decision” was made to release them “conditionally in exchange” for the two teachers of the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) in Kabul.
Anas Haqqani is the brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, the head of the Haqqani network. The group was founded by their father Jalaluddin Haqqani who died in September 2018. Anas Haqqani is an information technology expert who played a key role in strategic decision-making and fundraising.
Hafiz Abdul Rashid Omari is the brother of Muhammad Nabi Omari, the former Guantanamo inmate who is currently a key member of the Taliban political office in Qatar. Haji Milli Khan is the uncle of Anas Haqqani. All three were taken into custody by the NDS (National Directorate of Security—Afghan intelligence agency) between 2011 and 2014.
The announcement comes a day after Pakistan’s intelligence chief Lt Gen. Faiz Hameed and the country’s Foreign Secretary held talks in Kabul. The official reason for the talks, though, is a spat between the two countries on the ‘harassment’ of diplomats and Pakistani shelling across the Durand line.
The two professors to be swapped are 60-year-old U.S. national Kevin King and 48-year-old Australian citizen Timothy Weeks. The Taliban media wing, Al-Emara, had released two ‘proof-of-life’ videos of the kidnapped teachers in January and June 2017 with both pleading to U.S President Donald Trump, Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner as well as then Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to negotiate for their freedom.
In the last few weeks, U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad has reportedly had marathon negotiations with the Taliban. He has travelled to Pakistan and briefed the leadership in Kabul as well. American forces have, in the past, attempted a rescue mission to free the two but the captives were not found at the location of the raid.
The Taliban have been refusing to negotiate directly with what they call a puppet regime in Kabul though a deal between them and the U.S. was called off at the last minute by President Trump in September 2019, days before the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The two sides were on the brink of a ceasefire against foreign troops in return for a commitment that the U.S. forces will leave Afghanistan. The Taliban insist they would then have had talks with a group of Afghans that represented the government, other political figures, women and activists to negotiate a comprehensive ceasefire and power-sharing. That may happen as early as November 21 in Beijing. The hope now as President Ghani added in Tuesday’s live broadcast is to “facilitate direct peace negotiations”. If it took U.S. President Donald Trump just two tweets to call off peace talks with the Taliban, it may just take two more tweets from him to restart talks.