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Negotiations Questioned After Taliban Releases Hostages

By Ron Synovitz

August 31, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The negotiations that led to the release of 19 South Korean hostages this week by their Taliban captors are being described as a "triumph" for the Taliban by some western politicians and analysts.

But others argue that the Afghan government demonstrated strength by refusing to meet directly with the Taliban and by rejecting their demands to trade hostages for Taliban prisoners.

The last remaining hostages were transported to freedom on August 30 after South Korean negotiators struck a deal with the Taliban captors.

The negotiators promised that Seoul would withdraw its 200 soldiers from Afghanistan by the end of this year -- a move that already had been decided before the kidnappings. They also promised that South Korea would not send any more "Christian missionaries" to Afghanistan.

In Seoul today, the South Korean government today dismissed media speculation that it had paid a ransom to Taliban militants to secure the hostages' release, and said there had been no "secret agreement" with the Taliban.

Incentive For More Kidnappings?

Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moller has expressed fears that civilians now face greater threats because of that deal. He says terrorists could be encouraged to seize more hostages in order to try to dictate the foreign policies of other countries.

In Germany, an opposition Green Party spokesman, Winfrid Nachtwei, said the fact that South Korea negotiated directly with the Taliban was nothing less than "a political triumph," in which all of the Taliban's "extortionate demands" appeared to have been met.

Kabul itself did not deal with the hostage takers. Afghan President Hamid Karzai's office rejected suggestions that the negotiations with South Korea meant a propaganda victory for the Taliban.

Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan today that South Korean officials did not agree to the terms of their deal with the Taliban until after they had consulted the government in Kabul.

"We are very happy they were released. We were working together with Korean officials to win their safe release so [the hostages] could go back to their homes," Spanta said. "In the last six weeks, we were in contact with the South Korean government in all matters. And all of the steps that they took were done in coordination with the Afghan government."

The Taliban killed two men from the original group of 23 South Korean aid workers kidnapped on July 19. They freed two ill women in mid-August when direct talks with South Korea began, after the failure of negotiations with Afghan mediators. The remaining 19 hostages were freed this week after the deal was reached with South Korea.

Kabul consistently rejected the kidnappers' main demand for Taliban prisoners to be freed in exchange for the South Koreans.

Political Recognition For The Taliban

Barnett Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan and director of the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, told RFE/RL that the deal was a "tactical success" for the Taliban, but said its significance should not be overstated.

"It is not a turning point in the history of Afghanistan or the history of NATO or the Western world. It just means [the Taliban] had a tactical success in gaining some political recognition by capturing some hostages -- in the course of which they also committed a war crime by executing two of those hostages," Rubin said. "They succeeded in being interviewed by the press and being treated as a negotiation partner by a sovereign government -- though not a major one. It doesn't signal anything about the political policy of anybody."

Rubin also said it is wrong to suggest that the Taliban achieved everything that it had hoped for when militants seized the South Korean aid workers from a bus in Ghazni Province.

"All their demands weren't met, because they were demanding the release of Taliban prisoners. But I think from the Taliban's point of view, the most important thing was that they demonstrated that they can play a role on the international stage," Rubin said.

"The Taliban did behave as a coherent negotiating partner. They formulated a position. They negotiated. They reached an agreement. And they have implemented that agreement. They have succeeded in legitimizing themselves somewhat more as a political organization," Rubin continued. "But there is a tendency on the part of the media and politicians, when something gets in the headlines, to overinterpret it and [to] think that because they are paying attention to this event, it is a big turning point. It is not."

Demands Not Met

Haji Zahir Kharoti is an Afghan tribal elder in Ghazni Province who attended the negotiations as a mediator and who eventually transported most of the South Korean hostages from their Taliban captors to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Kharoti told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that the Taliban dropped their demands for the release of Taliban prisoners in order to save face after they realized Kabul would not trade hostages for Taliban prisoners.

"The Taliban finally understood that the South Korean government had no influence over the Afghan government about the release of Taliban prisoners," Kharoti said. "They therefore came to the realization that there was no reason to pressure the Korean negotiators on this issue.

The Taliban "also realized in the end that it was not good that they had abducted women. It is against Islam. Therefore, they decided, out of respect for Islam, to accept another deal with the Korean government negotiators," Kharoti said.

But in telephone interviews since the releases, Taliban spokesman Qari Yusef Ahmadi has been telling journalists that more foreigners will be abducted in Afghanistan -- particularly those from countries that have military forces in Afghanistan. Ahmadi says Seoul's decision to negotiate directly with the Taliban made the kidnapping of the South Koreans a success.

(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondents Asmatullah Sarwan and Saliha Ishaqzai Khaliqi contributed to this report.)

Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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