An American and Australian man have been released from captivity by the Taliban as well as 10 Afghan soldiers after Afghan authorities let three Haqqani network fighters out of jail in return. The move brings back hope for negotiations to resolve the Afghan war which is now approaching two decades of combat. Sixty-three-year-old US citizen Kevin King and 50-year-old Australian national Timothy Weeks had been held by the Taliban for over three years prior to the deal. An unsuccessful Navy SEAL operation to rescue King and Weeks in 2016 failed, as did a further attempt this past April.

Previous Peace Negotiations Stalled After Taliban Launched September Attack in Kabul

A previous planned meeting at Camp David with Taliban representatives and the Afghan government was called off when American Sergeant First Class Elis Ortiz was killed in a Taliban suicide car bomb attack which also claimed the life of Romanian Army Corporal 3rd Class Ciprian-Stefan Polschi (posthumously promoted to the rank of second lieutenant) and 10 Afghan civilians. Forty-two civilians were also injured in the September attack.

Negotiating With Terrorists And Dictators

The Trump Administration has had considerable success in helping free American hostages, including the May, 2018 release of Kim Hak Song, Tony Kim and Kim Dong Chul from North Korean captivity under the authoritarian government of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. However, Trump slammed the Barack Obama Administration for agreeing to the release of army deserter Private Bowe Bergdahl (formerly Sergeant) in exchange for freeing five Taliban fighters from the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay. Bergdahl was freed after five years of harsh confinement in exchange for Obama letting the Taliban fighters go. Trump characterized Obama’s exchange as accommodating to terrorists and indicated Bergdahl should be shot for treason or thrown out of an airplane. Speaking on Afghan television Tuesday, Ghani said that even though his government’s decision to free Haqqani prisoners in exchange for the freedom of Weeks, King and Afghan soldiers was difficult he believed it was definitively in the interest of advancing peace for the Afghan people.

The Haqqani Network

The Haqqani network was created by CIA asset and Afghan mujahideen fighter Jalaluddin Haqqani in the 1980s. Its original purpose was to expel Soviet troops from Afghanistan. Its new purpose is to spread Islamic fundamentalism and kill and expel American and other foreign troops from Afghanistan, particularly along the mountainous border area with Pakistan in the nation’s east. Jalaluddin’s son Sirajuddin took over in his footsteps.

Who Was Released On The Taliban Side?

Anas Haqqani—younger sibling of Taliban’s deputy leader and chief of the deadly Haqqani network Sirajuddin Haqqaniwas released in the swap, along with fellow Haqqani militants Hafiz Rashid and Haji Mali Khan. Haqqani and Rashid were seized by American authorities in 2016 in Bahrain and Khan was captured in 2011 in eastern Afghanistan. The freed prisoners were taken to Bagram air base and then the Qatari capital of Doha where previous peace talks between the Taliban, Afghans and US have taken place. The Taliban did not release more details on the prisoners, but said the swap does not mean a cessation in hostilities or renewed peace talks. That said, a 48-hour temporary ceasefire was observed so that the prisoners could be safely extracted by helicopter from where they passed over to US personnel in Zabul, southern Afghanistan.

Foreign Reactions To The Swap

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan expressed optimism that the swap will lead to restarting peace talks. This is especially important since Pakistan has long failed to effectively stop the Taliban and Haqqani network from using its territory for staging attacks and training. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison stated his support for Weeks and his family, praising the end of the “long ordeal” he endured after being seized by the Taliban in August, 2016 driving near the American University of Afghanistan where they were working as English teachers. The joy of both the Weeks and King family are even greater considering that both men were suffering physically, with King especially having serious cardiac and kidney problems.

Hope For Renewed Talks Or Just A Small Bright Spot?

The Afghan war is not easy to resolve, particularly when the Taliban are active across 70 percent of the country and hold more territory than they did when most ISAF international coalition troops pulled out in 2014. The Taliban enjoy significant pockets of support around the country and a sizeable revenue stream from taxation, tolls, opium sales, mining and other resources. The prisoner exchange came about partly thanks to the head US Afghan peace negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad who has worked to bring Pakistan, Afghanistan and the US together on hosting peace talks with the Taliban. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo mentioned the attempts by Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani to broker a cease-fire in 2018 and open peace talks that have been unsuccessful. Pompeo expressed hope that the prisoner swap can restart talks, but noted that it’s only one step and far from a resolution.

Although President Trump wants to keep drawing down US troops from Afghanistan and the Pentagon has a plan for if he does, it is not likely Trump will react well to hearing that America is losing or that he is abandoning ship, especially from Democratic politicians and members of his own party. The American-supported Afghan government is hard to maintain without a more effective Afghan National Army and better foothold and advantage in terms of on-the-ground military reality. Even if the Taliban agree to peace talks eventually, the chance of a lasting diplomatic solution to the conflict that would also deny the Taliban from regaining control of the country’s government is increasingly hard to picture.

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