Deal With Taliban Will Free American and Australian Professors, Officials Say

 Adam Goldman and 

The New York Times

Kevin C. King, an American professor, was abducted by the Taliban in 2016.
Credit…Al-Emara, via Associated Press

Washington — The Afghan government and the Taliban agreed on a prisoner exchange that would free American and Australian professors who were abducted by the insurgents more than three years ago, officials on both sides said Tuesday.

President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan said Tuesday that in return, the government would release three senior Taliban figures, including Anas Haqqani, the younger brother of the Taliban’s military operations leader.

The exchange — both government and Taliban officials said Tuesday that the transfer was imminent — would be a major step toward reopening peace talks between the United States and the insurgents. And some Afghan officials held out hope that the release would make the Taliban more likely to agree to an eventual truce.

In a nationally televised address, Mr. Ghani said the exchange was intended to “facilitate direct peace negotiations.” But the Taliban have refused to negotiate with the Afghan government, which announced in October that it would not take part in negotiations with the Taliban unless a cease-fire had held for at least a month.

Mr. Ghani did not discuss the whereabouts of the two professors, who were abducted in Kabul in 2016, except to say that their health had deteriorated while being held. But it is unlikely that he would publicly commit to releasing Taliban prisoners unless the Taliban had provided evidence that professors were alive and had agreed to release them.

Mr. Ghani said the decision had been “tough but important decision.”

His administration made it clear to the Taliban that any continued negotiations required the release of the hostages as a show of good faith as both sides look to end at least one chapter of the 18-year-old conflict.

In addition to Anas Haqqani, Mr. Ghani said his government would release Hafiz Rashid, a senior Taliban commander who had equipped suicide bombers, chosen their targets and moved them from safe houses in Pakistan across the border into Afghanistan. Mr. Rashid, a brother of a member of the Taliban negotiating team in Doha, Qatar, was captured along with Mr. Haqqani in 2014.

The third Taliban member to be released was identified by Mr. Ghani as Hajji Mali Khan, a senior commander and an uncle of the deputy leader of the Taliban.

As part of the negotiations, the Haqqani network’s main demand was the release of Mr. Haqqani, a young but prominent operative captured in a Persian Gulf country in 2014 and turned over to the Afghan government, which sentenced him to death.

Mr. Haqqani is the brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is the deputy leader of the Taliban and also heads the Haqqani network, known for conducting suicide bombings.

Though the Taliban and American negotiators had finalized a peace deal “in principle” in September, the insurgent group continued attacks across the country. This schism — between diplomatic assurances and what was happening on the ground — raised serious questions among American officials, who soon believed that Taliban leadership was either divided over the deal or could not control their lower-ranking fighters and commanders.

While some have said those divisions are overplayed, and that not just the Taliban but both sides of the war were intensifying the violence, there remains an underlying uncertainty about the Haqqani network’s support of the negotiations.

Some officials who have argued in favor of trading Anas Haqqani hope the move would be seen as a dramatic enough concession that the Haqqani wing would fully consent to scaling back their attacks across Afghanistan.

The Haqqani network is based in the tribal areas of Pakistan, which may have played a role in the prisoner negotiations. Mr. Ghani’s announcement Tuesday came a day after a visit to Kabul by Faiz Hameed, director general of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, Pakistan’s military intelligence service, and Suhail Mahmood, Pakistan’s deputy foreign secretary.

The two professors were abducted in August 2016 by gunmen while they were traveling in their car. Shortly after they were kidnapped, Navy SEAL team members tried to rescue them from a remote compound in eastern Afghanistan. But the commandos missed the hostages by hours, officials said. In April, the military made another rescue attempt along Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan but narrowly missed them again, officials said.

In a 2017 statement, the Taliban said Mr. King had heart and kidney problems. In a video, one of two that the militants released, Mr. Weeks pleaded with President Trump to save him: “If we stay here for much longer, we will be killed. I don’t want to die here.”

Mr. King’s illness was worsening, and he sometimes lost consciousness, according to the Taliban. “We have tried to treat from him time to time, but we do not have medical facilities as we are in a war situation,” the statement said.

Mr. Trump has made freeing American hostages a priority. The administration has managed to free about 10 hostages held in captivity overseas, using diplomatic leverage or relying on countries such as France and the United Arab Emirates to carry out high-risk military raids in Africa and Yemen. Robert C. O’Brien, Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, continues to ensure these cases receive a high level of attention. Mr. O’Brien was previously the State Department’s special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.

But other high-profile hostages remain intractable problems for this administration, as they were in previous ones. The White House has been unable to win the freedom of Robert Levinson, the former F.B.I. agent and C.I.A. analyst who was abducted in Iran in 2007, or Austin Tice, an American journalist who disappeared in Syria in 2012.

Another American held hostage, Caitlan Coleman, and her family were rescued by the Pakistani military in October 2017. She and her Canadian husband, Joshua Boyle, had been held for five years. The two were abducted by the Haqqani network while backpacking in Afghanistan. Ms. Coleman had three children while in captivity, but a fourth apparently died.

Last year, the F.B.I. offered a $1 million reward for information about Mr. King and Mr. Overby.

Officials are also hoping as part of the peace talks that the Taliban might be able to provide information about Cydney Mizell, an aid worker. She was abducted in Kandahar in 2008 as she drove to work, and was later killed. Her body was never recovered.

Mr. King was born in Norristown, Pa., and grew up in suburban Philadelphia, a family member said. He attended the University of Miami, where he wrote for the school newspaper and studied communications. He later taught in Cambodia, Libya and Iraq. He first worked at the American University in Kabul in 2008, spending two years teaching English and returned to the country in 2014.

Adam Goldman reported from Washington and David Zucchino from Kabul, Afghanistan. Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Fahim Abed and Fatima Faizi contributed reporting from Kabul, and Taimoor Shah from Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Deal With Taliban Will Free American and Australian Professors, Officials Say