In the days and hours since the tragic death of Afghan journalist Ajmal Naqshbandi at the hands of his Taliban captors, there has been a flurry of reactions and condemnations from various corners. Most of these came from within Afghanistan and from a few vanguards of the journalistic guild in the outside world. The only other ‘outside world’ reaction that I am aware of came in the form of a long and anguished series of emails from the Afghan Fulbright students in the US who were also intent, as of this writing, to raise their concerns to officials in the Afghan government. For much of the rest of the world, the hostage saga was over with the safe return of Italian journalist Daniel Mastrogiacomo and the story’s newsworthiness receded abruptly.
Most of the condemnations are justly directed against the Taliban and their heinous murder of an innocent human being, a recently married young man expecting to be a father soon, and an enterprising Afghan journalist. The criticisms, however, do not stop at the Taliban.
The Afghan government has also received an unusual amount of criticism for its alleged mishandling of the situation. Many have taken it for granted that the government of Afghanistan had the capability and wherewithal to handle the situation better, and to bring about the desired outcome, i.e. the hostage’s safety and release. They see it as a sign of the government’s lack of political will, or its outright carelessness with the lives of its own citizens that Ajmal was murdered. Most of such vituperations do not fail to point out that the government went to extraordinary lengths to arrange the safe release of Ajmal’s colleague the Italian journalist Daniel Mastrogiacomo in return for the release from captivity of five high ranking Taliban.
This blog has not shied away from pointing out some of the Afghan government’s serious shortcomings. However, in keeping with the blog’s longstanding tradition of going against the grain and the prevalent mob mentality, we will try to dissect some of the criticisms hurled at the government and try to follow that old mantra in journalism (that I hope also applies to the pseudojournalism that is blogging) to “Follow the Money.” In other words, let’s try to figure out who benefits from Ajmal’s death the most, and maybe we can see that the government is not to blame so much for Ajmal’s death on the political will and caring-for-Afghan-lives grounds as it is on grounds of competency.
Following the Money Trail
Two groups benefit the most from the fallout from Ajmal’s death. The first are those who perpetrated the action with the precise calculation and expectation that such a fallout will ensue. For some time now the Taliban have shown that they are not the brash and blunt Taliban of yesteryear. They understand well from their experience at the helm of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan that bad PR can be a costly thing, and that images of people hanging from posts and women beaten by black-clad bearded youth can invigorate pressure groups and lead to big changes. They are a media-savvy group with a keen understanding of the power of images, sound bites, pictures, YouTube, in short, the power of perceptions. They understand that a democratic government, or even one that purports to democracy and safeguarding civil liberties, is beholden to certain constraints and vulnerabilities when it comes to dealing with these perceptions.
It is against this background that the Mastrogiacomo/Naqshbandi hostage crisis was staged by the Taliban. Their release of the Italian journalist not only secured them five of the highest ranking Taliban prisoners held by the Afghan government (including the brother of Mullah Dadullah, the de facto face of the Taliban to the world in recent times), but also set the stage for the gruesome sequel. The government of Afghanistan maintains to this day that Ajmal’s release was part of the exchange deal and that the Taliban broke their word and made new demands. Even so, the Ministry of Information and Culture has stated that it was surprised by the news of Ajmal’s death because at the time negotiations were underway to secure another deadline and buy more time. While none of this should be taken at face value, it is easy to see the Taliban’s motive for defaulting. This was evident from the Taliban spokesperson’s framing of their action as a response to the government’s not heeding the deadline and the demands made by the Taliban. One wonders whether even after the government had buckled under their demands for a second time and released more prisoners the Taliban would have stood by their words. After all, the Taliban had already secured the objective of portraying the government as weak and kowtowing – why not also show that it does not care about the lives of its own citizens as much as it does about foreigners. In retrospect, with accusations of “Khud Kush-i Bigana Parast” (self-hating, foreign-worshiping) coming from all corners, it seems the Taliban have succeeded in this objective as well.
Another group that could potentially exploit and benefit from the situation is the political opposition to the government that has in recent times crystallized in the form of an alliance so surreal that can only take shape in the context of Afghanistan (see here and here). In the days after Mastrogiacomo’s release and shortly before Ajmal’s murder by the Taliban, leaders of the newly formed UNF exploited the situation to fullest extent by stating that they would do more to secure Ajmal’s release and safe return, and that they would be willing to go to lengths that this government has not been able to in order to negotiate with the Taliban and curb violence. Employing demagoguery and the rhetoric of nationalism that so permeates the political discourse in Afghanistan, the new group harped on familiar strings citing the value of Afghan lives and its precedence over those of foreigners. It is clear that this tragic outcome, and the political fallout from it are open to spin and interpretation by some of the same people as signs of this government’s failure and the need for change.
The one constituency that stands to lose a great deal from Ajmal’s death, second in line of course to Ajmal himself and his family and circle of friends, is the government of Afghanistan. Even seen from the most cynical of points of view, the Afghan government would have done anything in its power, including another prisoner swap, to secure Ajmal’s release. This is why allegations of lack of political well and carelessness with Afghan lives simply do not stick in this case. Lack of competency, however, is another story. Hostage negotiations are notoriously difficult in all circumstances, including circumstances where the adversary is far more human and far less bloodthirsty than the Taliban. There are no shortage of incidents around the world where capable hostage negotiation teams have failed and many a hostage crisis has ended up ugly. It should come as no surprise then that with lack of capacity so endemic across all sectors of the Afghan government, their hostage negotiation team was not better prepared to deal with this situation.
Amjal’s death was a tragic loss of life and a major setback for the press in Afghanistan. He will be sorely missed by his young family, his many friends, and so many other people whose lives he had touched and was yet to touch in his young career. Out of reverence to him and the profession that he devoted his life to, and to its highest standards for truth, it only behoves the the rest of us to cultivate within ourselves more skepticism instead of cynicism.
Further evidence of the political fallout from Ajmal Naqshbandi’s death: the New York Times reports that the Italian government of Romano Prodi has come under fresh attacks from the opposition accusing it of not doing enough to secure the release of Daniel Mastrogiacomo’s Afghan translator (Ajmal Naqshbandi) and calling on him to resign. Prodi in turn has accused the opposition of using Ajmal’s death for political gain.