Video appeal by professors abducted by armed group

Two professors of the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul who were abducted last year, have called on the United States government to free Taliban fighters in exchange for their release, in a video released on Wednesday.

In the video message released by the Taliban, American Kevin King and Australian Tim Weeks, abducted on 7 August 2016 near the university, can be seen appealing to the United States government to engage in talks with the Taliban for their release. The video is the first confirmation that the professors are in the custody of the Taliban, and also the first confirmation that they are still alive.

In the footage, the men, wearing traditional Afghan long shirts or kameez, having grown beards, were visibly shaken, in fact crying as they made their appeal.

“We have been here for five months; the people who promised to take care of us have forsaken their promise; we are here with no help or hope. The American University of Afghanistan and the US government have sent representatives to talk to the Taliban, but they could not reach an agreement,” Weeks says in the video, while requesting the US government to ensure the release of Taliban fighters from the Bagram Base and the Pul-e-Charkhi prison in Kabul.

“I ask you please to raise your voice for me when I have no voice to help me,” he pleads.

Weeks says the recording was made on 1 January and confirmed that four heavily armed Taliban soldiers kidnapped them in August. He appeals directly to US President-elect Donald Trump saying: “This is in your hands.”

The American University of Afghanistan or AUAF said in a statement all students, staff, trustees and fellow faculty were “saddened and pained” by the video.

“We call on the Taliban to release immediately and safely Kevin and Tim and all other hostages. Kevin and Tim came to Afghanistan as teachers, to help Afghanistan. These innocent people have done nothing to harm anyone and need to be reunited with their family, friends and colleagues,” AUAF Acting President David Sedney said.

No response to talks appeal

The Afghan government and the US Embassy in Kabul, however, have so far not responded to the appeal for talks with the Taliban.

The Australian government said it “has been working with other governments to secure the release of an Australian man kidnapped in Afghanistan in August 2016”.

Dawa Khan Menapal, deputy spokesman for the Kabul government, acknowledged the government was aware of the development, but declined to comment further. Afghan government sources told University World News that efforts to liberate the two men were underway, but the timing of the release of this video was “very odd” for the government to comment on it.

Reports emerged from the US Pentagon in October that US forces and Navy SEALs had conducted an operation close to a Taliban stronghold in the mountains in the East of Afghanistan to rescue the two professors, but the action was unsuccessful. Details were not released.

Officials believed the professors were being held by the Haqqani network, linked to the Taliban.

Sedney, an independent analyst on national security and foreign policy, was hired to the post of acting university president last year after the Taliban stormed the campus on 24 August, leaving at least 13 people dead, including 7 young students. The university was closed after the attack, ostensibly to improve security on campus, and has still not reopened.

It was hoped the university would reopen in January, but that has been delayed until March. Sedney announced in late December that after much careful consideration of the security situation, senior administration at AUAF had decided to postpone the reopening of AUAF until March 2017.

In an indication of the tense security situation, two car bombs exploded on 10 January outside the parliament offices close to the university, leaving 31 dead and 45 others injured. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the blasts. AUAF confirmed all university personnel “are safe and accounted for”.

On Tuesday, three major Afghan cities were rocked by deadly terrorist attacks that killed as many as 56 people, including five diplomats from the United Arab Emirates who died when a planted bomb exploded inside the governor’s compound in Kandahar province on Tuesday night.

Sedney said in a statement issued on 27 December 2016: “Our number one priority is security. We must take all necessary steps to provide a safe and secure environment for the entire AUAF community. When we reopen, we will be operating under a very different security structure, with major improvements in security infrastructure and new, stricter security policies for students and staff.

“Some of these changes are in place, others are taking longer than we would like. Some key security improvements will not be complete by our hoped-for reopening in late January. Our current plan is to begin the spring semester in March and to complete the full 16-week semester in July."

He added: "It has been great to see our student clubs excelling nationally and internationally, to see students taking exams, and to hear the message to more than 500 students, faculty and staff last month from President [Ashraf] Ghani and CEO [Abdullah] Abdullah about their support for AUAF and the key role they see for AUAF in the present and future of Afghanistan.”