Memorandum for the Record
September 6, 2007
By: Doug Johnston
- July 19, 2007—23 South Korean Presbyterian missionaries are captured by the Taliban while traveling by public bus from Kabul to Kandahar and are held hostage.
- July 20—the Taliban demands that all South Korean forces withdraw from Afghanistan within 24 hours and that the government of Afghanistan (GOA) release all Taliban prisoners.
- July 21—the Taliban reduces its demand to 23 Taliban prisoners in exchange for the lives of the hostages.
- July 24—the Taliban demands a sum of $100,000 in exchange for the right to contact the hostages via phone.
- July 25—the Taliban kills one of the male hostages.
- July 30—the Taliban kills a second male hostage because of the GOA’s refusal to meet its demands.
- July 31—the President of ICRD is asked by a Christian friend if ICRD can work through religious channels to help secure the release of the hostages.
- August 1—ICRD contacts its Pakistani partner who has been assisting the Center in its work with the Deobandi madrasas of Balochistan, to see if he can do something to help facilitate release of the South Koreans. He, in turn, begins contacting religious leaders who are formerly from Afghanistan but who are now living in Pakistan.
- By this time, it has become known that Mawlavi Nasrullah and Mulla Bashir have been assigned by the Taliban leadership to negotiate for them with the South Koreans and that the Government of Afghanistan (GOA) has provided a security guarantee for both of them.
- Fifteen religious leaders (most of whom know the negotiators) are recruited to constitute a makeshift jirga, a decision-making body of respected elders, that travels to Ghazni and establishes contact with the captors.
- August 3—the jirga engages the captors and challenges their actions on religious grounds, particularly in relation to the female hostages. One of their first questions: “When are you going to let the women go?”
- Over the next six days, the jirga engages in a sustained dialogue with the captors, meeting at least once or twice daily, challenging the captors to provide Islamic justification for the kidnapping of innocent victims.
- In the course of their discussions, the Taliban representatives make it known that (1) no further harm will come to the hostages while the dialogue is taking place, (2) because an international organization is involved, they (the Taliban) don’t have the final say in the matter, and (3) because of a recent nearby bombing (by Coalition forces), the hostages have been divided up and are being held in several different locations.
- Although the jirga originally argued for return of all the hostages, once it becomes known that the hostages have split up, they take a step back and seek to have 4 or 5 released as a sign of “good intent.”
- August 8—ICRD is informed by its team that 4 to 5 female hostages will be released as a “goodwill gesture” to the international community.
- August 9—the jirga encourages the Taliban to meet with the Korean delegation (for the first time) and then its members return to their homes to recover from what has been an exhausting ordeal, made all the more difficult by the fact that most of them are sick from drinking the local water. They leave, assured that 5 female hostages are to be released.
- It is important to note that throughout this process, the jirga never offered the Taliban any concessions. However, because the captors had complained on several occasions that the Government of Afghanistan was holding innocent women captive simply because they were “guilty by association,” (i.e. were married to Taliban fighters who had either been captured or who were being actively pursued), ICRD recommended to the Korean Ambassador to the United States that the GOA be pressured to accelerate its judicial process for these women, with a goal of determining their guilt or innocence within a three week period and then setting free those who are found to be innocent. (In short, a face-saving way for everyone to win). When the Korean Ambassador meets with the Afghan Ambassador to the US to suggest this approach, he receives a favorable response. When he shares it with the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for that region, however, he does not.
- August 10—the Taliban negotiators meet with the Korean delegation. Because of inordinate time delays between actions taking place and reports of those actions reaching ICRD (owing to the absence of a secure communications capability between ICRD personnel), the Korean delegates were unaware of the Taliban’s commitment to the jirga. Accordingly, they asked the captors to release those hostages who were ill. Because only two were ill, only two were released.
- August 10-15—ICRD weighs in on several fronts by sending its madrasa project director to Kabul where he:
- persuades the GOA’s Secretary of Religious Affairs to form a team of religious leaders and local politicians to engage with the captors. The team is formed, and it has one meeting, without any apparent impact.
- prevails upon Sami-ul-Haq (a member of the Pakistani Senate, pioneer of the Taliban movement, and leader of the most influential Deobandi madrasa in Pakistan) to contact the captors and argue for release of the hostages.
- prevails upon selected Taliban leaders to intervene, including three former Ministers of the Taliban government (when it was in power) who asked not to be named but who retain considerable influence, are close to the Taliban Council, and have a personal relationship with the two Taliban negotiators. A new team is formed to intervene consisting of these three gentlemen and four previous members of the jirga.
- August 13—two female hostages are released.
- August 16—the new ICRD team reengages with the captors. Because the South Korean delegation is in active dialogue with the Taliban at the time, this reengagement initially takes place by telephone.
- August 19—following the breakdown of talks with the Koreans, the ICRD team meets face-to-face with the captors and begins its final push to achieve full release.
- August 26—ICRD’s team leader calls to say there will be good news within a few days. He indicates that the Taliban negotiators have agreed to release all of the hostages, with some minor demands for clean drinking water and better teachers for their schools.
- August 27—the team leader calls again to say that the Taliban will meet with the Koreans within 24 hours to announce the release of the remaining hostages.
- August 28—it is formally announced that the Taliban has agreed to release the remaining hostages.
- Postmortem—with the actual return of the hostages, there has been considerable speculation about whether or not the Korean government paid a sizable ransom to facilitate the process. Because one of the Taliban negotiators mentioned to ICRD’s team leader that a very sizable sum had been offered to free the hostages but that it had been turned down as a matter of religious principle, it appears that there may have been competing views on the matter among the captors. This same negotiator also said that had it not been for the religious intervention, they would have never let the hostages go until their full demands had been met. The full truth may never be known, but the strategy of capitalizing on religious principles appears to have been very sound indeed.