The Taliban kidnapped a U.S. citizen last week in the eastern Afghanistan province of Khost as the U.S. government seeks to move forward in its negotiations with the Taliban to extricate itself from the country.
The kidnapping took place in a bastion of the al Qaeda-affiliated Haqqani Network less than three months after the Taliban and U.S. conducted a prisoner exchange that freed three senior Haqqani Network leaders and two America professors. That prisoner exchange was supposed to push negotiations forward, U.S. officials claimed, but it hasn’t.
Newsweek first reported that Mark R. Frerichs, “a former U.S. Navy diver and the managing director for International Logistical Support, a U.S. government contractor,” was kidnapped in Khost last week. Frerichs’ disappearance has triggered a multi-agency search across Afghanistan.
While the U.S. military is frantically searching for Frerichs in Afghanistan, he is very likely being held across the border in Pakistan, where the Taliban has detained other U.S. and foreign hostages. The Haqqani Network continues to control territory in the tribal agencies of North and South Waziristan, as well as in Kurram, despite claims by the Pakistani government and military that it has rooted out the group through military operations.
The Haqqani Network is an integral and powerful faction of the Taliban that is closely allied with al Qaeda and other foreign terrorist groups. The Haqqanis also receive the backing of Pakistan’s military, its influential Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, and the government.
Sirajuddin Haqqani, the head of the Haqqani Network, is the Taliban’s deputy emir. His father, who also was a key Taliban leader, hosted Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders during the 1980s war against the Soviets. Sirajuddin and more than a dozen key Haqqani Network leaders have been listed by the U.S. government as Specially Designated Global Terrorists for their ongoing support of al Qaeda.
Kidnapping takes place after U.S. seeks an undefined “reduction in violence”
The kidnapping of Frerichs took place as U.S. seeks a “reduction in violence” in order to secure a deal with the Taliban that will allow for U.S. troops to withdraw from the country. The U.S. also hopes to get assurances from the Taliban that it will not allow Afghanistan to be used by foreign terrorist groups, even thought the Taliban hosts al Qaeda and other jihadist groups to this day.
These negotiations are often described by U.S., Western, and Afghan officials and the press as “peace talks” that will end the violence across Afghanistan. But the Taliban has been very clear that it views such talks as a method to get U.S. troops out of the country and restore the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The Taliban refuses to even talk with the Afghan government, which it describes as “un-Islamic,” “impotent,” “powerless,” and “a tool of the invaders,” – let alone will the Taliban share power with it.
The U.S. stopped asking the Taliban for a ceasefire and has since requested the Taliban commit to reducing violence. This is a nebulous term that has no specific meaning, and the Taliban is refusing to commit to it for longer than 10 days. According to The New York Times, “a reduction in violence would mean scaling back attacks on major cities and highways.”
If true (and note that many reports on the so-called peace talks have proven to be false), this would mean that Afghanistan’s rural areas, which are dominated by the Taliban and where the group draws most of its strength, would remain fair game. The Taliban could meanwhile seek to expand its control of the rural areas in preparation for assaults on major cities after U.S. forces leave.
Dealing with the Taliban has not benefited the U.S. or Afghanistan
The U.S. has conducted two prisoner exchanges with the Taliban over the past six years. In both cases, the Taliban has come out on top, while the U.S. has received little except for the return of three Americans who were held by the Taliban. Meanwhile, the U.S. has alienated the Afghan government by sidelining it during negotiations.
When the Taliban freed Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. soldier who abandoned his post in eastern Afghanistan, in 2014, it received five senior Taliban leaders (known as the Gitmo 5 and the Taliban 5) who were in U.S. custody at Guantanamo Bay. All five Taliban leaders were directly linked to al Qaeda, and served in senior positions in the Taliban. At the time, the Obama administration claimed that the exchange would lead to a peace agreement with the Taliban. Negotiations died shortly after the Taliban 5 were freed.
The Taliban celebrated the release of the Taliban 5 as a major victory. To rub its victory in the face of the U.S. government, the Taliban 5 were unbelievably named as members of the Taliban’s current negotiating team with the U.S.
Bergdahl was meanwhile court martialed and sentenced to a dishonorable discharge from the Army for abandoning his post.
Five years after the Bergdahl-for-Taliban 5 swap, the U.S. pressured the Afghan government to release three senior leaders of the Haqqani Network and dozens of other Taliban prisoners in exchange for two American professors who were kidnapped by the Taliban. Among the Taliban leaders freed on Nov. 19, 2019, were Haji Malik Khan, Sirajuddin’s uncle who was a top Haqqani Network leader and served as an emissary to the al Qaeda-allied Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan; Anas Haqqani, a brother of Siraj who served as a key propagandist, strategist, fundraiser in the Gulf, and ambassador for the Haqqani Network; and Qari Abdul Rasheed Omari, the Taliban’s military commander for southeastern Afghanistan.
The 2019 prisoner swap was again hailed by U.S. officials as a key step in achieving an elusive so-called peace deal with the Taliban. Except the prisoner swap has not achieved this goal and in fact has emboldened the Taliban to reject calls to implement a cease-fire and negotiate with the Afghan government.
Frerichs’ recent kidnapping has provided even more leverage for the Taliban, further weakening an already weak U.S. negotiating position – as the U.S. is withdrawing troops from Afghanistan without extracting concessions from the Taliban.
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