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Hostage Release Highlights Negotiations with Taliban

August 29, 2007 at 6:40 PM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The 12 South Korean Christian aid workers were released in several groups this afternoon outside the southern Afghan city of Ghazni after a nearly six-week ordeal. Dressed in Afghan tribal wear, this group of four women and one man were taken into the care of the International Red Cross. Earlier, a trio of women had been freed.

Outside Seoul, the brother of one former hostage rejoiced upon seeing his sister.

LEE JUNG-HOON, Relative of Kidnapped South Korean (through translator): The release of the first three people include my sister. I talked to our parents on the phone, and they cried and said their daughter is coming back alive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The initial group of 23 South Koreans was captured on July 19th en route from the capital, Kabul, to the southern city of Kandahar. The group’s leader and another man were executed at the end of July. Two female captives were released earlier this month.

The release of the remaining 19 captives was secured yesterday, after extensive negotiations mediated by the Red Cross between South Korean diplomats and the Taliban, which controls large swaths of southern Afghanistan. The Afghan government had no role in the talks.

The Taliban had demanded after the abduction that the Afghan government release one Taliban prisoner for every South Korean; that demand was later rescinded. The final deal included a reaffirmation of the South Korean government’s previously announced pledge to pull its contingent of 200 troops out of Afghanistan.

The Taliban also gained assurances from the South Korean government that it would ban Christian missionaries from traveling to Afghanistan. The hostages and their families had long insisted they were aid workers, not missionaries.

At the United Nations today, the secretary general, Ban Ki-Moon, himself a former South Korean foreign minister, praised the release.

BAN KI-MOON, United Nations Secretary-General: I am pleased to hear the news, and I welcome the news that both the Korean government and Taliban representatives have agreed to release the remaining 19 hostages. It must have been a very difficult ordeal for those hostages, as well as the people of the Republic of Korea.

Lending the Taliban legitimacy

Donald Gregg
Korea Society
I think we learned something about the Taliban in this process. I think hardliners captured them; hardliners killed two of them. They got nothing for that. The world held firm.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Afghan government, however, criticized the deal, saying it might lend the Taliban undeserved legitimacy, embolden the deposed regime, and ultimately lead to more hostage-taking.

For more on all of this, we get two views. Seth Jones is a political scientist at the Rand Corporation and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. He frequently travels to Afghanistan. And Donald Gregg, a former CIA official and ambassador to South Korea during the first Bush administration, he is now chairman of the Korea society.

Gentlemen, thank you both for being with us.

Seth Jones, to you first, what do you make of this deal? What do you think of it?

SETH JONES, Rand Corporation: Well, I think there are at least two questions. One is, why did the South Korean government agree to a deal where they stated as part of the agreement to commit to downsizing their forces? Even if they were already going to downsize forces in the future anyway, why did they make this part of their negotiations? Why did they publicly state this?

And, second, my conversations recently with Afghan government officials this morning and United States and other NATO officials indicated that there's a high likelihood that the South Korean government paid for the release of these hostages or there was money that was transferred to the Taliban. That would set a dangerous precedent.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, the South Korean government has denied that. What information did you get or did you hear that made you -- I mean, is it credible information?

SETH JONES: It is credible information which poses a strong likelihood that there was money transferred to the Taliban from the South Koreans directly or through intermediaries, but it's a deep concern.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Donald Gregg, Ambassador Gregg, you know the South Koreans well. You served as ambassador from the United States to South Korea. Does that surprise you? Do you think it's true?

DONALD GREGG, Chairman, Korea Society: Well, I know that the South Koreans care very deeply for their people. Two young Korean girls were killed accidentally in 2002 by American troops, and that was a matter of immense concern.

I take seriously the South Korean denial that money was paid. I think if money was paid, that casts a very different light on this. But if you can rule out that, I think that, apart from the original kidnapping and the deaths of the two hostages, the results have been better than almost anyone might have expected.

And I think we learned something about the Taliban in this process. I think hardliners captured them; hardliners killed two of them. They got nothing for that. The world held firm. But then later on, they released two ill women, and I think that set a very clear signal that negotiations were possible. And I think that the Koreans carried out the negotiations very well, and I very much hope that ransom was not paid.

Taliban's strength in rural areas

Seth Jones
Rand Corporation
It's a very strong indication that the Taliban and, frankly, other insurgent groups are able to control significant parts of the east, the south, and now the west of Afghanistan outside of major cities.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you're saying you think one should think more highly of the Taliban as a result of this?

DONALD GREGG: That's the danger here, because remember that the Taliban kidnapped these people without provocation and killed two of them. I think what we have learned is that, within the Taliban, there are those who realize that they had bitten off more than they could chew and that, if they were not going to just absolutely paint themselves into a corner, sanity had to prevail, which I think in the end it has. So I think that we've learned that there is not monolithic leadership within the Taliban, and I think that's a very important bit of intelligence.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Seth Jones, you study Afghanistan, you study the Taliban. Is that what you're gleaning from this?

SETH JONES: Well, I think one important note here is that the South Korean hostages were taken on the major road between Kabul and Kandahar, the major highway. It's a very strong indication that the Taliban and, frankly, other insurgent groups are able to control significant parts of the east, the south, and now the west of Afghanistan outside of major cities.

What this does show is that the central government, its police, army and auxiliary police forces do not have the ability to establish security in much of the country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you're saying, what, that the Taliban is stronger than we've been led to believe?

SETH JONES: I think the Taliban in rural areas of eastern, southern and western Afghanistan is much stronger than most people who have not been to these areas recognize.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you're saying that's a bad thing?

SETH JONES: That's a terrible thing.

Possible precedent for the Taliban

Donald Gregg
Korea Society
I think the Kabul government is very fearful of the increased strength that the Taliban is manifesting, and I regret to say I think they were rather indifferent to the fate of the South Korean citizens.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And if that's the case, Ambassador Gregg, then is it such -- should it be seen as a sanguine, as a good development that the South Koreans were able to cut this deal?

DONALD GREGG: Well, put yourself in the position of the South Koreans. You have 23 of your citizens held in hostile hands. The United States will give no help; the Afghan government will give no help. There is immense political pressure put on the South Korean president to gain their release. He has now gained their release by saying he will continue a troop withdrawal that was already planned and by stopping proselytizing by religious groups, which I think is a very sensible move.

If that is all there was to it, my hat's off to the Koreans. If they have to pay money along the way, I think that casts a very different light on it. But I think the Kabul government is very fearful of the increased strength that the Taliban is manifesting, and I regret to say I think they were rather indifferent to the fate of the South Korean citizens, preferring that nothing be done which in any way would legitimize the Taliban.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Coming back to the Taliban, Seth Jones, when you have this Afghan official, the commerce minister of Afghanistan, saying, "We fear this decision could become a precedent, that the Taliban will continue now to try to take hostages to attain their aims," is this something that one should be concerned about?

SETH JONES: It should unquestionably be a deep concern for Canadians, British, Germans, Americans, other NGO workers in key parts of Afghanistan where the insurgency is being fought. This sets a very dangerous precedent. There have been multiple kidnappings. It is very clear that the Taliban and other insurgent groups are willing to do this. And by cutting a deal, and especially if there was money that was transferred, this sets a terrible precedent for the continuation of this activity.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you're laying the responsibility on the shoulders of the South Korean government?

SETH JONES: I think part of the responsibility is the South Korean government. Let's also not forget that these were also -- these appear to have been Christian missionaries in an area, Ghazni province, which is a dangerous province, in an insurgency that is a Muslim, a Sunni Muslim extremist insurgency. Why there were there, it was irresponsible for them to have been there anyway. So it was partly the responsibility of the Korean government, I think, to have not allowed them to have gone.

Preventing deaths of 23 Koreans

Seth Jones
Rand Corporation
The Afghan government, frankly, is already weak in rural areas of the country. So how much this actually weakens the Afghan government over the long run is an open question.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So to come back to this point, Ambassador Gregg, if this strengthens the Taliban, the Taliban being a more dangerous force in Afghanistan, was it, in that respect, the right thing for the South Korean government to do?

DONALD GREGG: Well, it's a very difficult question to answer. If nothing had been done, probably eventually you would have 23 Koreans, dead Koreans on your hand. Now we have concerns that perhaps by this there may be future accidents or kidnappings that will be undertaken. That may happen. Or on the other hand, as a former intelligence officer, I think that the way the Taliban conducted themselves during this is very revealing of their own inner workings.

And I think we ought to learn from that, and try to deal with it, and try to see if there are people within the Taliban who are less fanatical than the people who originally seized the hostages.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, the killed two...

DONALD GREGG: So I rejoice in the fact that the people are still alive, but I certainly agree that a difficult precedent may have been set if money was involved.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Forgive me for interrupting, I was just saying, and they did kill two of the hostages they originally...

DONALD GREGG: Absolutely, and that should not be forgotten. And the Taliban should not be given any additional legitimacy by what they have done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Seth Jones, to you, finally, so does this leave the Afghan government, if it strengthens the Taliban, then does it naturally then weaken the Afghan government?

SETH JONES: Well, it strengthens the Taliban probably to some degree. The Afghan government, frankly, is already weak in rural areas of the country. So how much this actually weakens the Afghan government over the long run is an open question.

But I think there are already clear problems with the provision of essential services and the establishment of law and order in rural areas of Afghanistan. This just highlights those deficiencies.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we should point out that the Taliban still holds several other hostages, two Germans, I believe, and an Afghan.

Well, gentlemen, we're going to leave it there. Seth Jones, Rand Corporation, Ambassador Donald Gregg, thank you both.

SETH JONES: Thank you.

DONALD GREGG: Thank you.