A few days ago this blog asked whether the French government will follow suit and try to pressure the Karzai government -like the Italian government did earlier- into arranging a prisoner exchange deal. That deal led to the release of Italian journalist Daniel Mastrogiacomo, but only after the death of his Afghan driver, the release of five ranking T-word commanders (bear with me for a few more days), and was followed by the tragic death of his Afghan colleague Ajmal Naqshbandi, the imprisonment of the person who arranged the deal -Rahmatullah Henefi, an Afghan staff of the Italian aid group Emergency-, and the pulling out of Emergency from Afghanistan.
So far, France’s answer the the question above seems to be an unqualified Oui.
All jokes about French and their penchant for quick surrender aside, French president Jacques Chirac has reportedly appealed to president Karzai over a telephone conversation to “demand his support” for the release of two French aid workers held hostage for some two weeks now (the French aid workers are identified as Celine and Eric.) After the flak that the Afghan and Italian governments caught for negotiating with terrorists the first time around, and especially after the political fallout from Ajmal Naqshbandi’s death, president Karzai ruled out any future such deals. Against this backdrop, the “demand his support” clause from the French president can only mean one thing: just this one more time, please!
Who are you betting on?
Regardless of whether the deal goes through or not, the fact that both the Italian and French governments have so readily contemplated negotiating with the enemy and releasing dangerous prisoners begs one question: between the beleaguered government of Hamid Karzai and the resurgent terrorists in the south of Afghanistan, on whom are NATO’s European members placing their bets? If the answer is -as it seems to be on the surface- that they are standing by the government in Kabul, then the costs are clear. It may entail the deaths of even more hostages, and more troops on the ground. If, on the other hand, their faith in the Karzai government is faltering –as it seems to be in the case of the German Social Democrat leader Kurt Beck, for instance- then the doors are thrown open for negotiating with leaders of the extremist group that ruled Afghanistan until October 2001, embracing them, and bringing them into the fold of the Afghan government -an outcome that will mark the height of cynicism on part of the Afghan government and its international allies, and at the expense of the people of Afghanistan. This is the reality of the choice that faces the Afghan government and all its international allies in Afghanistan, and it is no easy choice. It is a choice about the life and deaths of the hostages currently held, and many more who will undoubtedly follow.
Domestic Political Vulnerabilities
Meanwhile, an Op-Ed in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal pointed to the political costs of “negotiating with extremists” for both the Italian and the British governments (and here you have to forgive WSJ for its stretched version of how the Brits “negotiated” with the “extremists” that are the Iranian government.) It is clear that many European governments who were persuaded one way or another by the Bush administration to join the fight in Afghanistan are politically vulnerable at home, and the extremists in Afghanistan, well cognizant of this vulnerability, are doing everything to exploit it.
Diverging Attitudes Within Afghan Government
Evidence also suggests rifts within the Afghan government over this issue, between those who deem the extremists as oh-not-so-terrible-after-all, and those who adopt a more uncompromising stance, ruling out all negotiations and opposing bringing them into the fold. While in a recent press briefly president Karzai openly admitted having spoken with leaders of the extremists (and there are still those in the government who think that Karzai is not being flexible enough on the subject), Foreign Minister Spanta reflected a different line of thinking in his complete rejection of talks with the extremists (saying that there are no “moderate” and “non-moderate” extremists, and that such distinction reveals ignorance about the reality in Afghanistan), and pledged an end to all hostage negotiations.