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Taliban release Turkish prisoners

May 20, 2013

By Tim Foxley

Summary: The Taliban release 8 Turkish prisoners.  Their intention is unclear – short-term hearts and minds effort, incoherent command and control or longer-term confidence building for talks?

Photos of Afghan maps 006The Taliban announced last week that they had released four of the eight Turkish civilians that they captured on 22 April when  a Turkish transport helicopter crash landed in a Taliban area.  This was the Taliban statement:

Taliban flagThe Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan released 4 out of the 8 Turkish prisoners showing its good will, human and Islamic sympathy and regard for the Muslim Turkish Nation who were apprehended sometime ago by Mujahidin of the Islamic Emirate. The remaining 4 persons will also be released in the near future.  The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan anticipates that the Turkish government will reciprocally express its good will and will take such measures which will consequently result in bringing the Afghan and Turkish Muslim masses close to each other and amplification of the devout brotherhood between them.

On Wednesday the 15th the Taliban apparently released the other four Turks.  The Russian, Kyrgyz and Afghan who were captured at the same time appear to remain in Taliban hands.

In March this year, the Taliban released a Turkish engineer:

Afghan Taliban on Saturday released Turkish technician Sertac Dikilitas thanks to efforts made by the Turkish Intelligence Organization (MIT).  30-year-old Sertac Dikilitas was abducted by Taliban on January 9, 2011 while on his way to Kabul from Jalalabad.  Sources said that Dikilitas was brought safely to the Turkish Embassy in Kabul on Saturday and he was expected to arrive in Turkey on Sunday.  Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday phoned Sertac Dikilitas’ mother Nursel Dikilitas and gave the Dikilitas Family the good news on the release of Sertac Dikilitas.

Analysis and Outlook

Prisoner treatment and exchange can form the base of some major confidence building measures.  But it is always a little difficult to understand what messages the Talban are trying to send out in their deeds and words, perhaps betraying uncertainty or dispute within the Pakistan-based Taliban leadership and its command and control over constituent groups inside Afghanistan.  It is clearly of some encouragement to the international community that the Taliban understand, at some level at least, the value of humane treatment for at least some of their prisoners.  But their approach is erratic and inconsistent.  In 2007 they executed two captive South Korean missionaries.  Captured Afghan soldiers and police cannot be assured of the more humane treatment often accorded to western captives.  In December 2011 a British soldier was captured, tortured and executed.

In the broader picture, the Taliban take the treatment and fate of their own prisoners very seriously – whether in US bases such as Guantanamo or Bagram, or Afghan sites such as Pol-e Charki prison.  They regularly appeal to international humanitarian organisations.

They have made numerous statements to this effect:

Taliban flag16 April 2013

“The Islamic Emirate channeled the voice of the oppressed prisoners in Guantanamo to the world and the media two months earlier who had taken up a hunger strike to protest the desecration of the Holy Quran by the American barbaric guards…”

24 March 2013

“It has now been forty days since inmates in the notorious Guantanamo prison commenced their strikes. The strikes started in protest of desecration of the Holy Quran and abuse of prisoners by the American wardens. The demands of the inmates have not been yet been answered and neither has the media or the humanitarian organizations inquired about their plight despite the continuation of barbaric and inhumane treatment of the prisoners.  The Islamic Emirate strongly urges all human right organizations and media outlets spread awareness about the plight of the destitute inmates in accordance with their due obligation. Inhumane treatment of prisoners is crime against humanity which should never be overlooked and neither should its perpetrators be helped in its cover up.”

21 November 2012

“Officials of Kabul administration have sentenced to death a number of inmates from Pul-e-Charkhi prison and have been carrying executions for the past two days now. We have obtained credible reports that some political prisoners of Islamic Emirate have also been added to the mentioned list, who in reality are not criminal prisoners but prisoners of war.

Since executing war prisoners is an action contradicting every civil law therefore the Islamic Emirate is gravely disturbed and regarding it urges the United Nations, Islamic Conference, International Red Cross and every other international human right organization to prevent this action of the Kabul administration because, may Allah forbid, if such a plan was in the works then as representatives of human rights, they should not remain neutral and immediately assist in its prevention.

If the mentioned plan was to materialize where our war prisoners are executed then it will surely carry with it a heavy repercussion for the lawmakers, courts and other related circles of the Kabul administration whereby no side will have the right to object and point fingers at us. To end, we call on all the media outlets to also fulfill their roles and dissipate the call of the innocence of the oppressed prisoners from the country’s prisons.”

They have also launched numerous military assaults against prison establishments to secure the release of fellow Taliban:

3 April 2013

Suicide bombers disguised as Afghan soldiers stormed a courthouse Wednesday in a failed bid to free more than a dozen Taliban prisoners in western Afghanistan, officials said. At least 44 civilians and nine attackers were reported killed in the fighting.

8 June 2012

Many escape from Afghan prison after Taliban attack.  At least 14 prisoners, including insurgents, are still at large after militants attacked a jail in the Afghan province of Sar-e Pol, officials say.  Three inmates were killed and 28 injured in gun battles between prison guards and Taliban fighters late on Thursday night.  About 30 prisoners fled but officials say they have recaptured 16.  There have been several high-profile Afghan jail-breaks in recent years, raising questions about security.

24 April 2011

Taliban fighters escape in mass Afghan prison break

Taliban insurgents dug a 1,050-foot (320-metre) tunnel underground and into the main jail in Kandahar city and whisked out more than 450 prisoners, most of whom were Taliban fighters, officials and insurgents have claimed.

My sense is that this could well be an attempt by the Taliban to reach out in some way as part of a building of confidence in the context of talks.  If so, the message is, as ever, significantly obscured by their continual official language (and actions) of violence.  A more limited goal might be to alleviate the recent negative publicity the Taliban are acquiring – IED strikes against civilians remain a problem for the Taliban “hearts and minds” efforts and a recent attack by the Taliban against a courthouse in Farah which killed 50 and injured 100, mostly civilians.

The Taliban appear to recognise that they are struggling with some aspects of their PR campaign – as demonstrated by the vitriol they direct via their website to those who report upon their violations – the UN, Human Rights Watch and the world in general.  There may even be a deeper, unspoken, recognition that they are clearly not attracting the levels of support that the anti-Soviet Jihad could lay claim to.  Official statements frequently rail against “media trickeries” of the Western press.  They may calculate that a prisoner release is an easy “quick win”, a little dose of positive press for a change.  Releasing Turkish fellow Muslims makes sense if the goal is a limited publicity push (a Russian, Kyrgyz and Afghan remain unreleased).  The Turkish engagement in Afghanistan since 2001 has been relatively uncontroversial: neither provocative, bloody or pushy.  This makes it easier than dealing with, say, the UK or US.  But if their ambitions were broader, they could perhaps rapidly seize the media initiative – and even some high ground for talks into the bargain – by unilaterally releasing the US military prisoner, Bowe Bergdahl, captured by the Taliban in June 2009.  But it works both ways – if confidence building is to be achieved, the Afghan government would need to demonstrate that it is genuinely trying to improve what, by most accounts, are some pretty brutal regimes and conditions in its prisons.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 20, 2013 7:03 pm

    Excellent piece Tim! Just a few observations: releasing Bergdahl would put significan moral pressure on the US to address the issues behind the Guantanamo hunger strike. If the the Taliban was not experiencing some internal fragmentation, they might be able to see the PR victory that this would offer them. Sadly, I do think that the killing of the S.Korean missionaries, Scott Mclaren, and attacks on the (deeply hated) ALP are not surprising. Christian missonary efforts in Afghanistan are madness, and the torture and killing of Scott Mclaren occurred of course, in Helmand, probably the worst place to be captured by the Taliban. This is NOT any apologetic for brutality, but there is the seemingly eternal questions of insugents acting in violation of Quetta Shura decrees, rogue commanders, and the absence of a monolitic Taliban that can be accurately “read” by the West.

  2. May 21, 2013 9:25 am

    Hi Suzanne and thanks. Well, yes, I think “incoherence” is the key descriptor for the Taliban deeds and words. This is partly due to the command and control difficulties experienced by an insurgency commanded from a different country, wary of using high tech commmunications methods and controlling a wide range of diversely motivated groups. I might also suggest it is due to a power struggle within the Quetta shura – political wing versus military wing – if I had enough information to substantiate the claim…

  3. May 21, 2013 6:50 pm

    Do you think there is any realization on the Taliban’s part of the damage that is done to their cause, by this “incoherence”? Of course, tensions between political and military wings is nothing new…US experience in Iraq? Btw, have you read “Delivering Osama” by M. Kabir Mohabbat? It’s a fascinating look into dealings with the IEA, pre-2001?

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