University hails imminent release of abducted professors

Students at the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) in Kabul say they are delighted that two of their university’s professors, abducted by Taliban militants in 2016, will soon be released after the Kabul government confirmed a deal had been struck for their freedom.

Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani said the critical health of the two foreign faculty members of the university compelled him to enter into the deal to swap them in return for the release of three Taliban militants.

The two senior professors of the only foreign university in Afghanistan, Kevin King, 62, a United States citizen, and Australian Tim Weeks, 50, have been in militants’ captivity for over three years, since they were kidnapped in the Afghan capital while travelling by car.

In a major security development, Ghani on 12 November confirmed in a televised address that the government would conditionally release a key Taliban leader, Anas Haqqani, brother of the leader of the fierce Haqqani network, which is part of the Taliban movement, and two others in exchange for the two AUAF lecturers.

“We have decided to release three Taliban prisoners from Bagram prison including Anas Haqqani,” he said.

"Our joint effort in tracing the two professors gave no result, and information suggests that their health and safety while being held by the kidnapping terrorists have deteriorated," Ghani said.

Anas Haqqani, who is son of the Haqqani network’s founder, Jalaluddin Haqqani, and was seized by the Afghan intelligence agency in 2014, and the other two Taliban figures, Hafiz Rashid and Mali Khan, will be handed over to the Taliban in Qatar, sources told University World News.

The move is seen as pivotal in breaking the deadlock in nascent yet fragile peace talks. The two professors are also likely to be sent to Qatar under US supervision.

Last month, Ghani’s top national security advisor, Hamdullah Mohib, said the top US peace negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, discussed Haqqani’s release with the Afghan president during a recent trip to Kabul and subsequent meetings with the Taliban insurgents in Doha, Qatar.

A number of students said they were delighted. “I am happy for their release because they are my teachers, and teachers are the light of life. I wish them a safe journey to home,” Yosuf Yosufzai, an AUAF English-language student told University World News.

‘Mutual mistrust' leads to glitch

However initial campus euphoria began to fade as the planned exchange had not taken place by Saturday 16 November. Speaking at the US Institute of Peace in Washington DC on 14 November, Rula Ghani, wife of President Ghani, said the swap "did not work".

“I am not quite sure why, but probably some party did not do what they promised they are going to do, so, unfortunately, the two professors may not be released.”

“But this is what we are dealing with, this is the kind of people we have to negotiate with, and it’s really delicate,” she said.

Experts in Afghanistan said the delays were due to "deep mistrust" on both sides.

Saudi Arabia based newspaper Arab News said it had received an audio statement purporting to be from a Taliban spokesman who said "there was an agreement that the Americans will take our prisoners to a location and in return we will release the two professors later. But they have not fulfilled their promise by taking our people to that venue. Under the circumstances we are still holding the American and Australian professors hostage and there is no progress in the deal so far."

Zabihullah Mujahid, chief spokesman for the Afghan Taliban, told Voice of America radio on Friday in a Pashto language audio message that the deal was suspended for now and it was up to US officials to explain why they reneged on their promise. He said the professors were still in Taliban custody and that the Taliban prisoners had never been released, contrary to some reports on 12 November that they had already left for Qatar.

Visibly frail and weak

Visibly shaken, frail and weak, King and Weeks were last seen in a video released by the Taliban in 2017 that confirmed the men were in their custody. A second video emerged in June that year with the two captives appealing to their respective governments to take action for their release.

“My freedom has been taken from me, and I want to spend the rest of my life in the service of American people and in the service of humanity,” King said in the video in which he appealed to US President Donald Trump to offer a prisoner exchange to secure their freedom.

Weeks said the Taliban were treating him well, giving him food, tea and milk, allowing him to exercise and making sure he has enough sleep, and also appealed to Australian authorities to release him from the captive Taliban.

AUAF has on multiple occasions pleaded with the Taliban to unconditionally release King and Weeks, saying they are innocents. The university was quick to welcome the latest development.

“While AUAF is not part of these discussions, we continue to urge the immediate and safe return of our faculty members who have been held in captivity, away from their friends and families, for more than three years,” it said in a brief statement.

On 7 August, the third anniversary of their abduction, the university had made another strong appeal for their release.

The August statement said the two came to Afghanistan “to help educate Afghan students who are striving to build better lives for themselves, their families and their nation”.

It added that “professors and students at universities represent the future of every country and that education should never be a target in any conflict”.

“No purpose is served by holding these teachers,” it said. “We continue our call for the immediate release of our beloved colleagues, teachers and friends, Kevin King and Timothy Weeks,” the statement added.

This story was updated on 16 November 2019.