The recent abduction of two French aid workers and their three Afghan staff in Nimroz has surely vindicated the forecasters of doom who announced that the Mastrogiacomo deal marks the beginning of Taliban’s “open season” for foreigners. One can imagine all the gleeful “toldjya!” being thrown left and right.
The question now remains whether the French will resort to quid pro quo too. It seems like they would have to. The truth is that after the Mastrogiacomo case they are not left with many options. Entering a deal however will certainly deteriorate the situation and further steepen this slippery slope.
The Mastrogiacomo deal came under rather exceptional circumstances. With the Italian government just recovering from the collapse it had suffered largely because of its Afghan policy, it could ill afford to let Mastrogiacomo be held any longer with the Italian public holding its breath, or for that matter, be murdered at the hands of the Taliban. This is why it mustered all the pressure and influence it could bear on the Karzai administration to work out a negotiated release.
While French domestic politics are nothing like that of Italy’s, one can see how a protracted hostage situation could figure into the country’s upcoming presidential elections. Although the elections are still some time off, the candidates are already posturing on crucial issues of domestic and foreign policy. It is easy to see how in a frenzy to appeal to the electorate, candidates will embark on a race to the bottom where the release of the hostages at any price comes to be seen as the prized position to argue from. This can only spell further doom for expatriate aid workers and foreign journalists in Afghanistan.
For some time now the Taliban have shown that they are abandoning the brashness of their heyday and are becoming a media-savvy group with a keen eye to the evolving international environment. Mullah Dadullah and others have regularly cited happenings in international politics as evidence of their victories or as justification for their actions. It is likely that the selective targeting of foreign nationals from countries with rocky domestic politics is yet another such smart tactic.
On a related note, the fate of Mastrogiacomo’s Afghan fixer Ajmal Naqshbandi remains unknown. The “double-standarding” has provoked much anger and debate across Afghanistan, especially as the Italian journalist’s Afghan driver suffered a gruesome death. It is possible that the Taliban are holding Naqshbandi hoping for another, albeit less lucrative exchange of prisoners. With the new detainees, however, one fears that the Taliban may use the killing of one or two of the Afghan staff as a tool to coerce the French and Afghan governments into entering a deal. Let’s hope that will not be the case.