In pursuit of obtaining recognition, Afghanistan’s seat in the U.N., and access to Afghanistan’s frozen funds, the Taliban have been taking a hostage diplomacy approach vis-à-vis the international community in addition to projecting their Taliban 2.0 version. Hostage diplomacy conventionally involves a situation in which a bad actor takes individuals or properties as hostages and uses them as a leverage against a state to gain some concessions.
Since their first takeover of Afghanistan, the Taliban have used hostage diplomacy to gain credit in the form of money, the release of their elite commanders, and recently in hopes of getting international recognition. While the Taliban have shown a track record of success and achievement in hostage negotiations and diplomacy, the pressure is on the international community to turn the tables. As such, the best approach would be insisting on the very basic elements of good governance, such as inclusion, participation, and accountability. Otherwise, the result would be the same as the last 20 years.
A Hostage Nation?
The hostage situation involves at least three parties: a hostage, a hostage taker, and a third party, in many cases a state. The perception of the hostage takers about hostages and the third party, as well as the relationship between all three, is the most determinant factor in hostage diplomacy. Hostage takers normally perceive hostages at best as aliens and at worst as enemies and therefore, expendable. Additionally, hostage takers believe that by using the hostages they can compel the third party to make concessions.
To understand how the Taliban perceive the Afghan people, it is imperative that one understands the Taliban’s philosophy of governance. The Taliban do not embrace the concept of “governing for people.” To them, the role of a state is to serve Allah, which in the case of Afghanistan is to re-Islamize a population that has lost its way to the true path of God and make them believe and practice in certain ways. This notion of governance was made clear in a decree from Mullah Omar (who was emir of the Taliban’s first effort at governing Afghanistan from 1996-2001) stating that due to the disinterest of past rulers, the society had turned into a “less informed nation” and “[t]herefore, it is to order all governors and authorized officials to instruct all sermon readers and Mullahs of the provinces and villages, to discharge their vice-and-virtue responsibilities with intensity…. Also, a delegation of Ulama will be tasked to investigate and pursue any violations [of not attending Mosques] and to treat the offenders based on the sharia law.” In another decree, Mullah Omar emphasized that “[t]he purpose of the [Islamic Emirate] movement has been to restore the religion of Allah.”
In this notion of governance, “subjects” are to be brought into the fold of “true Islam” rather than to be protected or served. On the contrary, the state may very well harm them until their absolute faith is restored. Not surprisingly, the Taliban created religious police to lash women without male companions, beat men who do not pray, and jail those who shave or even trim their beards. Whereas in 1996, the group implemented these rules from day one, this time, the group appears to be enforcing them gradually to avoid international scrutiny. For instance, the group has already begun banning shaving beards in Ghor, Badakhshan, Helmand, Urozgan, and other provinces that do not get international media attention. During their previous rule and insurgency, the group killed thousands of civilians by direct shooting, car bombs, and suicide attacks at schools, mosques, weddings, streets, and their homes because the killing of these “impure Muslims” was Mubah (permitted).
As to providing public services, the deputy prime minister of the Taliban, Mawlavi Abdul Kabir, very recently stated that the group is providing service opportunities to the Afghanan Ahl (the “righteous Afghans”).
Their distinctions between the “righteous Afghans” and “wrong Afghans” becomes clear once one examines other statements, laws, and practices of the Taliban. For instance, the Taliban’s minister of higher education famously stated that the school graduates of the past 20 years are useless and the Taliban would not recognize them. Their minister of justice has issued an order to its directorates in provinces that only those who fought alongside the Taliban should be employed. He previously has stated that those who worked with the former government are infidels and intolerable.
These statements explain how the group has justified killing civilians in the past 25 years and why they treat civilians with disdain and even hate. Their discontent with the population grew even further when many in rural areas picked up arms against the Taliban and joined the Afghan Local Police. Recently, the Taliban’s prime minister, in his very first speech, while arguing that they came to restore the religion of Allah, reminded the public that they made “no promise of providing food [to the people]” and the people must “pray to Allah” to overcome poverty. To the Taliban, the objective is to serve Allah; and, if they can use the “less informed” and “useless” “wrong Afghan” population as a pawn against an infidel international community to entrench their power and to reach their objective, why not do that?
History of the Taliban’s Hostage Taking and Negotiating
Taliban have engaged in hostage taking and negotiating since their emergence and, with more time, they mastered the art and came to believe that they may bargain the whole country or population of Afghanistan. Between 1996 and 2001, when they were at war with the Northern Alliance, the Taliban would round up civilians on streets in Kabul and other provinces to use them for prisoner exchanges with the Northern Alliance. In August 2021, just before their seizure of Panjshir, they pursued the same strategy when the Panjshir resistance forces captured several members of Taliban in their stronghold.
During their insurgency, the group evolved into a foreign national hostage taker. They kidnapped countless foreign nationals only to swap them for Taliban prisoners or money. In 2009, they kidnapped two French journalists and three Afghan associates while reporting on a road construction in Kabul. In 2012, they kidnapped an American family and held them captive for five years, during which they raped the wife, Caitlan Coleman, and beat their children. Although the circumstances of their release and return remained secret, the Taliban had asked for the release of some Taliban prisoners in exchange for their return. In 2016, just before attacking the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) and killing 14 people, the Taliban kidnapped two AUAF professors. After three years, the professors were swapped with some elite Taliban commanders, including Anas Haqqani, Haji Maali Khan, and Hafiz Rasheed Omari.
Soon the group’s hostage diplomacy evolved into pawning a whole community and village. Initially, the Taliban would burn schools, hospitals, and other government installations upon seizing most areas. In some places, the group learned that they could ensure their permanent control of the regions if they conditioned the destruction of the establishments to the attempt of the government to retake those regions. This way, the group used schools and hospitals as surety against a government that could not bear the cost of rebuilding them after every retake of the region.
The deals were sweetened by the government and international organizations’ willingness to pay for maintenance and staff of these institutions operating under the Taliban. In fact, in some cases the Taliban would play the role of intermediaries where they, for example, get money from the government and pay teachers. But the Taliban would enforce their own beliefs and rules in the region, including banning women from going to school or work, setting their own school curriculum for boys, as well as cutting hands, stoning, and lashing those who commit Shariah crimes.
The negotiation between the Taliban and the U.S. was indeed another hostage negotiation that led to the embarrassing Doha agreement. The negotiation concluded with the Taliban agreeing to not target or kill U.S. soldiers, and in exchange the Afghan government (which was not a party to the agreement) would release over 5,000 Taliban prisoners and the U.S. would not use airstrikes against the Taliban. The Taliban’s win in Doha set the stage for even larger scale bargaining: negotiating a hostaged-nation and the security of the world.
Since the Taliban regained power in Kabul, the group has repeatedly warned the international community via diplomatic channels — in Doha and elsewhere — and international media that unless they are recognized, endorsed, and relieved of economic sanctions they will basically kill Afghans who worked with foreign governments, hunt former government associates, form an exclusive government, violate women and minority rights, and harbor terrorists who might target their countries. They conditioned women’s rights to education and work, freedom of media, and inclusive government to international recognition and support. More importantly, at least three times, the Taliban have threatened that unless they are recognized and endorsed to entrench their rule across Afghanistan, the Islamic State and other terrorist organization were going to target the international community. In a news conference, Zabihullah Mujahid, the spokesperson of the Taliban, stated that “the recognition of the [Taliban] is a mutual need” since “if the world does not want to be threatened from Afghanistan, they must recognize us.” The Taliban’s minister of finance threatened that “if Afghanistan does not get access to its [frozen] cash, Europe will bear the severe consequence of that.”
Taliban are of the opinion that they can leverage Afghan allies of the international community who are stuck in Afghanistan for some gain. They also believe that the international community has made enough investment in Afghans and particularly women that they will not easily let all that go in vain. Grave humanitarian crises such as poverty and mass evictions of minorities also raise sufficient international concern to engage with the Taliban. The gravest concern of the international community is their own security that can be threatened by al-Qaida, ISK, and similar organizations.
The international community also seems to approach Afghanistan as a hostage situation. Just after the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, the U.S. and Taliban delegations came to a mutual agreement that the Taliban would allow free passage of foreigners and their Afghan allies from Afghanistan and the U.S. in return would continue to provide humanitarian aid to Afghans. Additionally, U.K. Chief of Defense Gen. Sir Nick Carter once suggested that they needed to engage with the Taliban to primarily help their Afghan allies “find a way out of Afghanistan” and to pressure them to form an inclusive government and respect women rights and those of minorities. Otherwise, he said “we have failed.” The EU conditioned its non-humanitarian aid to freedom of movement, respect for human rights, including women’s rights, respect for humanitarian norms, support for counterterrorism efforts, and inclusion of women and ethnic minorities in government.
There are indications that the Taliban may well amend their treatment of the nation. However, these changes cannot be out of the good of their hearts and/or change of beliefs, but rather due to international bargaining and pressure. In other words, quite like any state and non-state actors, the Taliban may respond to leverage, not to persuasion, which is what some woefully optimistic and naive diplomats and intellectuals propose.
However, to put such a pressure on the Taliban, the international community must act purposefully and strategically, and this has not been the case in the face of the Taliban’s takeover. The international community has remained in disarray as to how to deal with the group. They have yet to form a well-planned, coordinated, and more successful approach of engaging the Taliban. The best approach would be emphasizing the very basic elements of good governance such as inclusion, participation, and accountability. Giving up on these would only replace the previous corrupt regime with a new one with additional extremism, led by the Taliban.