Of Hostages and Candidates: Taliban Time Demands with French Elections

April 20, 2007

Royale Sarkozy - Candidates
Socialist Ségolène Royal and conservative Nicolas Sarkozy – Front runners in Sunday’s French presidential elections
Celine Eric - Hostages
Celine and Eric – French aid workers held hostage by the Taliban since April 3, 2007 (along with three Afghan colleagues)

In a rare show of prescience, we had suggested earlier on Safrang that the Taliban will time their hostage demands to coincide with domestic political excitement in France. (Alright, everyone had a similar feeling.)

AFP reports today that the group has demanded the withdrawal of the 1000-strong French contingent within the week and the release of more Taliban prisoners by the Afghan government. The demands come just two days ahead of the presidential elections in France. Although it is not clear how the news will figure into the French elections now that all the campaigning and debates are over, the French have predictably kicked into action, sending an envoy to Kabul to do everything it can to bring the hostages home including, presumably, an Italian-style prisoner swap with the Taliban.

The Afghan government, for its part, is in dire straits. After the Mastrogiacomo-Naqshbandi fiasco that ended in the death of the Afghan journalist, the government’s legitimacy in the eyes of Afghans cannot withstand a similar blow. In the aftermath of that episode, president Karzai made it clear that the quid-pro-quo was an exception, and ruled out all future such deals.

At the time, however, the Afghan government was only trying to cover its political rear and did not know that soon it will have to deal with an even richer, more powerful Western European nation with its own history of cohabitational politics and whose presence and friendship it badly needs.

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Earliest Islamic Building in Afghanistan

April 20, 2007

Haji Payindi / No Gunbad Mosque
Haji Payinda Mosque (also known as Masjid-i Nou Gunbad), Balkh, Afghanistan.

(Photo courtesy of Dr. Volker Thewalt. For more of Dr. Thewalt’s photos of Afghanistan’s historic monuments -taken during the years 1969 thru 1974- visit http://www.bamiyan.de)

The World Monuments Watch recently added Haji Payinda mosque to its list of 100 most endangered sites around the world. Following is a brief description given on WMW’s website about the historic and architectural significance the site, and what is being done to preserve it:

Thought to be the earliest Islamic building in Afghanistan—and one of the earliest structures in the eastern Islamic world—the Mosque of Haji Piyada at Balkh was built in the ninth century, only 200 years after the birth of Islam and shortly after its introduction into Central Asia.

A square mosque measuring 20 by 20 meters, Haji Piyada is also known as the Mosque of Noh Gumbad, for the nine cupolas that once covered its sanctuary. Although the cupolas have long since collapsed, the arches that once supported them still stand, albeit precariously. The arches, like much of the remaining interior surfaces if the mosque, are covered with exquisite, deeply carved stucco designs that exhibit a unique blend of imported Abbasid artistic elements and local traditional styles.

Of unmatched art historical value, the Mosque of Haji Piyada is threatened by looting, high humidity, and erosion, which are taking their toll what has survived. Urgently needed measures to safeguard the site against further damage include the construction of a fence around its perimeter to prevent illicit excavations and the consolidation of surrounding walls to protect against harsh weather conditions.

Decades of war and civil unrest in Afghanistan have made maintenance of the site all but impossible and have stripped the country of the capacity to carry out even basic conservation projects. It is hoped that Watch listing will not only highlight the need to preserve this extraordinary building, but also provide a laboratory for training a new generation of Afghan conservators.


“A Tale of Two Journalists”

April 20, 2007

Gregory Warner writes for Slate explaining how the release of Daniele Mastrogiacomo and the subsequent death of Ajmal Naqshbandi played into the Taliban’s hands.
Earlier I had made a similar point here on Safrang with Fallout from Ajmal Naqshbandi’s Death, but Greg’s piece is far less speculative and more based on interviews (including with Afghan MPs and a Taliban spokesperson) -which is probably why it is published on Slate and not on some little known personal blog.

Here is an excerpt:

Inside Afghanistan, Naqshbandi’s death is seen as more than the unfortunate result of a poorly managed hostage crisis. It’s viewed as emblematic of an imbalanced system that freed one journalist but left his two Afghan staff—without the weight of a European government behind them—to die in the desert. “Why was the Afghan journalist forgotten?” asked Sayed Sancharaky, head of the Afghan National Journalists Union, which had organized protests for Naqshbandi’s release. “Are we firewood? Are only the foreign journalists human beings?”

The cry had resonance in a country increasingly frustrated by the international presence. “It’s crystal clear for everyone that the government has a two-faced policy,” said parliamentarian Habiba Danish. “Five Taliban are exchanged for one Italian journalist, and nothing is done to help an Afghan boy.”

Even Naqshbandi’s murderers joined the chorus. After Mastrogiacomo’s release, kidnapper Mullah Dadullah taunted Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Italian television, saying the fact that he still had Naqshbandi showed that the Afghan government was only interested in saving foreigners. “We want to prove that Karzai’s regime doesn’t care about Afghans,” added Mullah Ibrahim Hanifi, a Taliban commander and spokesman, explaining why they were holding onto Naqshbandi. He spoke to me just before Naqshbandi’s murder was announced, while his fate was still undecided. “Whatever happens to Ajmal, the government and the foreigners will take the blame, because they’re the ones in power now.”

Click to continue reading Gregory Warner’s piece on Slate