After days of speculation, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani confirmed that the government has decided to free convicted terrorist Anas Haqqani in exchange for two foreign nationals, who were abducted in 2016.
In a statement, Mr. Ghani announced that the Afghan government would conditionally release three key members of the Haqqani network, an insurgent group with close ties to the Taliban, including Anas Haqqani, son of the group’s founder. While it is not clear, when the exchange will take place, the deal will facilitate the freeing of U.S. national Kevin King and Australian citizen Timothy Weeks, both professors at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul who were taken just weeks ahead of a major attack on the Kabul campus in August 2016. It is believed that they are currently held by the Haqqani Network in Pakistan.
‘Nothing in it for Afghans’
While the upcoming release of the long-time captive teachers was welcomed by Afghans, many also expressed deep concerns over the release of Haqqani, who is responsible for many attacks across Afghanistan. “Anas Haqqani is a criminal of the Afghan people and he should have been punished for the crimes he committed. This exchange is a deal between the U.S. and Pakistan, and results in two foreign citizens, one of whom is American [being freed]. What do we Afghans get in return?” questioned Idrees Stanikzai, a political activist and leader of the Youth Trend Movement, a grass-roots political organisation. Mr. Stanikzai, who is an Afghan government loyalist and an otherwise strong supporter of Mr. Ghani’s re-election bid, said he was disappointed with the news of Haqqani’s release. “This is an achievement for President Trump ahead of their 2020 election. Not for Afghans,” he pointed out.
The National Directorate of Security, the Afghan intelligence agency, has accused the Haqqani Network of many major attacks, including the May 2017 truck bomb in the heart of the city that claimed over 150 lives. Just last month, a government spokesperson had declared the release of Anas Haqqani as a “red line” for the Afghan government. The recent deal has also raised questions from observers like Mr. Stanikzai on how rigid these ‘red lines’ are. “Deals such as these affect the trust people have in the government and the judiciary. How can people have faith that the other ‘red lines’ drawn by the Afghan government, such as freedom of speech and women’s rights, will be upheld?” he said.
However, some Afghan analysts see this deal as a strategic move on part of the Afghan President to reassert his position as the representative of the Afghans. “There are three messages to this: one, to the Taliban; second, to the Pakistanis; and third, to the West, particularly to the U.S. And to all of them [President Ghani] wants to convey that he is ready for a deal with them,” said Omar Sadr, Afghan analyst. “He is telling the Taliban that I can sit with you and even give you such concessions from my part. Similarly, to the Pakistanis and to the West, the message seeks different consequences; like from the U.S., he might expect support over the election outcome [due in the coming weeks]. But also, to seek inclusion of his government in the ongoing talks,” he explained.
Mr. Sadr, like many Afghan academics, also hoped that there is more to the deal than has been shared publicly. “Haqqani was an important leverage that the government had, and such leverages are very limited. To what extent the government used this in an efficient manner to get maximum gains in exchange needs to be seen,” he added.
The Afghan government hasn’t revealed the entire nature of the deal, nor have the American and Australian governments shared any further details. However, a government spokesperson did clarify to the local media in Kabul that they have sought assurances to ensure that the released terrorists do not return or harm Afghan interest. “International partners have assured us that Anas Haqqani, Haji Mali Khan and Hafiz Rashid will not return to the battlefield and will go to Qatar and remain there,” Firoz Bashar, head of the Government Media and Information Center in Kabul, said on Wednesday.
Mr. Stanikzai also urged the U.S. government to crack down on insurgent forces in Pakistan, where the hostages are believed to be held currently. “Instead of pushing the Afghan government, they could have pressured the Pakistani government, where the Haqqani network is actually based. The Americans are pouring millions of dollars into Pakistan even when these terrorists are being sheltered there,” he accused.
(Ruchi Kumar is a journalist based in Kabul)