President Ashraf Ghani at a press conference on Tuesday confirmed that Anas Haqqani, Haji Mali Khan and Hafiz Rashid, three Haqqani Network commanders, have been “conditionally released” in exchange for the release of two Haqqani-held professors who were abducted while working for the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF).
Ghani said that the negotiation was made in close cooperation with the US with the “aim of facilitating face-to-face talks with the Taliban” for a peace settlement.
It was a “tough but important decision,” Ghani said, which was influenced by the “critical” poor health of the two hostages from the American University. “In our indirect talks with the Taliban, we asked for their release,” Ghani said.
Kevin King, 63, from the US, and Timothy Weeks, 50, from Australia, were professors at AUAF who were abducted by the Haqqani Network in Kabul in August 2016.
“We searched for these two professors unsuccessfully,” Ghani said.
Ghani said the decision to release the three Haqqani prisoners was made after “consulting fully with our international allies, especially the United States of America, with the aim of facilitating face-to-face negotiations directly with the Taliban.”
“The prisoners were arrested outside the country with the cooperation of our international allies and they were in custody at Bagram (US military base) under the government of Afghanistan,” he said.
“We have said that to reach a peace with dignity we have to pay this bitter price, but we will not sacrifice the rights of the people, our democratic principles, or women’s rights and achievements,” Ghani said.
Anas Haqqani, Hafiz Rashid and Haji Mali Khan, leaders of the Haqqani Network, were captured outside of Afghanistan in 2014.
After Ghani’s announcement, the AUAF in a statement said it “is encouraged to hear reports of the possible release of our two colleagues, Kevin King and Timothy Weeks.”
“While AUAF is not part of these discussions, we continue to urge the immediate and safe return of our faculty members who have been held in captivity, away from their friends and families, for more than three years,” it said.
About two weeks ago, the National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib confirmed that recent meetings between President Ghani and Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation had concerned the release of the two AUAF professors.
“Khalilzad’s aim in traveling to Kabul was to discuss the two US professors who are in the custody of the Haqqani group; nothing was discussed about peace during his visit with President Ghani,” Mohib had said.
“The US is seeking our cooperation regarding the release of the professors, and we are ready to cooperate,” he added.