The Italian Lived; the Afghan Died
How ransoming a foreign journalist played into the Taliban's hands.
The beheading of Afghan journalist Ajmal Naqshbandi Sunday afternoon may well be remembered as the first casualty in a new wave of violence against journalists in Afghanistan. Naqshbandi was the translator working with Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo when they were kidnapped by Taliban forces last month; Mastrogiacomo was later freed in exchange for the release of five Taliban prisoners. The Taliban then demanded further prisoner releases in exchange for his translator. The Afghan government refused to negotiate, so the Taliban chopped off his head.
Within the last two weeks, at least 13 more Afghans and two French aid workers have been kidnapped, and the Taliban warn of more to come. Many in Washington and Kabul blame the abduction spree on the prisoner-exchange deal arranged by the Afghan and Italian governments. "These kind of deals are Pandora's boxes," Afghan parliamentarian Daoud Sultanzoy told me. "Once we open them, anything can happen."
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."
The diverging tales of Daniele Mastrogiacomo and Ajmal Naqshbandi began together: Mastrogiacomo, a 52-year-old writer for the left-leaning Italian newspaper La Repubblica, hired Naqshbandi to be his translator on a dangerous trip south to meet with Taliban leaders. Naqshbandi's friends advised him not to go. But the 26-year-old reporter, recently married and the sole breadwinner in his family, said the money was good and that they'd been promised safe passage by Taliban commanders.
It turned out to be a trap. Mastrogiacomo, Naqshbandi, and their driver, 25-year-old Sayed Agha, were nabbed March 5 on an open stretch of road in the southern province of Helmand. Agha, a father of four, was killed soon after. "I can still see it now," Mastrogiacomo wrote in his paper. "Four young men grab the driver and shove his face into the sand. They cut his throat and continue until they have cut his whole head. He is not able to make a gasp. They clean the knife on his tunic. They tie his severed head to his body. They bring it to the river and let it go."
If the killers' aim was to push the Italians to negotiate, it worked. The fragile Italian government briefly collapsed in February, in part because of a lack of support for Italy's military presence in Afghanistan. A bill on extending that mission is now headed for a vote. Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi pressured Karzai to make a deal with the Taliban. Karzai said he agreed to a swap for Mastrogiacomo out of gratitude for Italy's 1,800 troops and to prevent the Italian government from collapsing. He added that Prodi had called him "several times to ask for cooperation." "It was an exceptional measure taken because we value our relations and friendship with Italy," added a Karzai spokesman. "It won't be repeated."
The deal was also exceptional for its openness. Prisoner exchanges are usually whispered affairs. This seems to be the first time prisoners were openly exchanged for ransom in either Afghanistan or Iraq. Five Taliban prisoners—including kidnapper Mullah Dadullah's brother—were released for Mastrogiacomo's freedom.
Gregory Warner is an independent public radio and print reporter. He traveled to Afghanistan last month on an International Reporting Project fellowship from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Photograph of Ajmal Naqshbandi by Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images.