By Fred Burton and Scott Stewart
Afghanistan's Taliban rebels last week released the remaining South Korean Christian aid workers
kidnapped in Ghanzi province July 19. Two of the original 23 hostages, the pastor leading the team and another man, were shot dead shortly after the abduction, and two female hostages were released Aug. 11 as a sign of the kidnappers' good faith. The remaining 19 hostages, 16 of them women, were released in two groups following extended negotiations between the South Korean government and the Taliban. Shortly after the kidnapping, a Taliban spokesman said the hostages would be killed unless South Korea withdrew its troops from Afghanistan and the Afghan government released 23 Taliban prisoners held in Ghazni province. Unlike the precedent
set in March when Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo was exchanged for five Taliban prisoners, the Afghan government rejected this demand for a prisoner release — likely due to the overwhelmingly negative reaction it received after bowing to Italian pressure to release captives in the Mastrogiacomo case. However, the South Koreans did "agree" to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan (they had decided to do this before the kidnapping) and end all missionary work in the country. In addition, a ransom appears to have been paid as part of the final deal. Paying a ransom is a fairly standard practice in these kidnapping cases, while the agreement to pull out troops already scheduled for withdrawal echoes a 2004 deal between the Philippine government and hostage-takers in Iraq. However, the third part of the settlement, the agreement to end missionary aid work in Afghanistan, has set a precedent that could have repercussions that reach far beyond the Hindu Kush. Taliban Kidnappings
Although this case is notable because it marks the first time the Taliban grabbed such a large group of foreign hostages, the rebels have kidnapped a number of aid workers and other foreigners since the U.S. invasion in late 2001. This is not surprising, considering that kidnapping is a prominent feature of insurgent warfare and has been an important facet of intertribal politics in Afghanistan for centuries. Of course, it also is a lucrative business and can help raise funds, either for the kidnappers' personal use or for the insurgent cause. Because the Taliban do not operate under one military leader, however, there has been no consistent track record on the release of hostages. Some kidnapping groups kill their victims outright, while others seek ransom deals. This case also is noteworthy because shortly after the kidnapping, the South Korean government entered into direct negotiations with the Taliban. A sovereign state negotiating with an insurgent group as its equal gives that insurgent group a cachet of power. However, because of the Taliban's lack of unity, there was quite a bit of confusion at the beginning as to which group the South Koreans were negotiating with. Unconfirmed reports suggest the South Koreans made an early ransom payment that apparently did not go to the captors. Details are sketchy and it is unclear whether the group that received the payment was a legitimate Taliban faction or whether it was a band of criminals posing as Taliban. We also do not understand why no proof of life was demanded before any ransom was paid. Despite the initial confusion, the South Koreans eventually were able to open a direct channel with the proper Taliban leaders. Given that that they had such a large pool of foreign hostages and a direct channel to the South Korean government — not to mention their favorable deal in the Mastrogiacomo kidnapping — the Taliban must have considered their negotiating position quite strong at the beginning of the process. As the scenario unfolded, however, their hand began to weaken. Although the kidnappers executed two of the hostages early on, they failed to get a prisoner exchange put on the table this time around. This might be because Seoul's clout in Kabul is not on par with that of the Italians, though undoubtedly the condemnation Kabul received following the resolution of the Mastrogiacomo case was fresh in the minds of the Karzai administration. As the crisis unfolded, we anticipated that the refusal to consider a hostage exchange would cause the Taliban to execute another male hostage or two to try to force a change in the negotiating paradigm. Before that could happen, however, the Taliban's position was undercut by the large number of Afghans (and other Muslims) — many of whom support the Taliban — who condemned the kidnappers for taking women hostages. It was variously described as un-Afghan and un-Islamic. The Taliban side also disagreed on what to do with the hostages and how to proceed with the negotiations. Given the rising public sentiment and internal dissent, additional executions would only have served to further confuse and inflame the issue. At this point, the momentum of the negotiations clearly shifted in favor of the South Koreans. The Taliban wanted to resolve the issue but needed to find a way to save face in the process. Releasing the hostages unconditionally would have complicated their future kidnapping ventures and let others know that maintaining a hard-line against Taliban kidnappers would force them to eventually release their hostages with no political cost. This would have set a precedent the Taliban could not afford. The kidnappers were able to save face in part, then, when Seoul pledged to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2007. South Korea, which has about 200 troops performing noncombat missions in Afghanistan, already had scheduled a complete withdrawal by the end of the year, so the pledge did not cost it either in practical or tactical terms. The deal, however, did set a precedent for Afghanistan similar to the one set in Iraq in 2004, when the Philippine government agreed to withdraw its troops, who already were scheduled for withdrawal, as part of a deal in a kidnapping case. In fact, Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi appeared to confirm the precedent-setting aspect of this case in a telephone interview with The Associated Press last week, saying, "We will do the same thing with the other allies in Afghanistan, because we found this way to be successful." The South Korean government's pledge to discontinue all missionary activities in Afghanistan by the end of the year also allowed the kidnappers to extract themselves gracefully from the case. This, too, was somewhat painless for Seoul, as it banned all travel by South Koreans to Afghanistan following the kidnapping, while many of the Korean missionaries in Afghanistan at the time of the abductions already had returned home. Moreover, South Korea's missionary groups agreed to the condition. Although it is difficult for a country to absolutely prohibit its citizens from traveling to another country — consider the number of Americans who have traveled to Cuba over the years in defiance of the travel ban — South Korea's official prohibition nonetheless satisfied its end of the agreement. As a result of the concessions, the Taliban have declared a "great victory" in this case — though they clearly did not achieve their original objective of getting prisoners released. They probably received some ransom; reports placed the payment at $20 million. But even if that figure is accurate, it is a relatively small payment for the return of such a large group — especially a group of Asians, as Asians are known for paying out large ransoms in politically motivated kidnappings. Although it is not enough to justify the claim of a huge victory, $20 million will buy a lot of weapons for Taliban fighters to use against Afghan and NATO forces. Furthermore, the agreement to withdraw all South Korean missionaries from Afghanistan will likely resonate well with the Taliban's radical Islamist supporters and certainly will be much better received than a decision to continue holding women hostages. In the end, it is clear that no matter how the South Korean hostage drama played out, the Taliban were going to continue to kidnap foreigners. However, due to the pressure brought upon them as a result of this case, they might think twice before again snatching a group of young women. Beyond the issue of proselytization, the Taliban believe Afghanistan's many foreign missionary and secular humanitarian aid organizations support the Afghan government. Therefore, they will consider the drawdown of such agencies a blow to the government. As a result, in future kidnapping cases, the Taliban can be expected to demand that the hostages' home country ban all missionaries or aid workers from Afghanistan. Beyond Afghanistan
History has shown that the actions of jihadists in one part of the world are carefully watched by jihadists elsewhere, and tactics that prove successful spread rapidly. We have seen this in the use of suicide vests and then their use against soft targets, in the use of roadside bombs, in the beheadings of hostages on video for shock effect and in the use of improvised explosive devices that utilize explosively formed projectiles. In this context, then, the precedent set by the South Koreans in this case has implications that extend beyond Afghanistan.
In the first place, jihadist groups around the world now not only have seen the South Korean government pay for the return of hostages but also have witnessed the government agree to block the action of private missionaries in a country. South Korean Protestant churches have a vibrant and far-reaching missionary program — one of the largest networks of Christian missionaries in South and Southeast Asia. This case has sent a signal to jihadists and other militant Islamist operatives in other countries that this wide network of South Korean missionaries is a desirable target. And this target set can easily be expanded to include other foreign missionaries. Many of the world's militant groups are hostile to all Christian missionaries, not just South Koreans, and some have used violence against Christians in the past. Such groups could be inspired by the recent South Korean/Taliban agreement to undertake kidnapping as a means of forcing Christian missionaries out of their respective countries. In the Philippines, Abu Sayyaf and other militant groups have been kidnapping missionaries and others for years. Many of the groups undertaking these operations, however, do so for monetary rather than political or religious reasons — although they often have attempted to use a veneer of ideology to justify their actions. Given its long history of kidnapping, we do not anticipate a dramatic change in the situation in the Philippines. Rather, the real change likely will occur in places where there has been violent opposition to Christians and missionaries, but where kidnapping has not really taken root as a tactic — such as Indonesia, Turkey or even Pakistan and Bangladesh. It is possible that militant groups in those countries, having seen the Taliban success, will begin to embrace kidnapping as a means of forcing out foreign Christians. In negotiating kidnapping cases, however, Christian organizations have long resisted even the suggestion that they remove missionaries from a region or country. Therefore, should this tactic be adopted elsewhere, it likely will fail — though that will provide little solace to the victims.