Two professors from the American University of Afghanistan, one of whom is a U.S. citizen, were released from Taliban captivity Tuesday as part of a prisoner exchange with the militant group previously announced by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
The two men – American Kevin King, 63, and Australian Timothy Weeks, 50 – were ambushed at gunpoint while leaving the university in 2016. They last appeared in a video released in 2017 appealing to President Donald Trump to secure their release. In the video, they appear pale and gaunt.
The Taliban prisoners were flown to Qatar for the expected swap for the American and Australian hostages, Taliban officials said Tuesday. It wasn’t immediately known if the two hostages were handed over to the Afghan government or U.S. forces.
There was no immediate White House reaction.
Ghani confirmed the deal in a televised speech last week and said he hoped the move would “pave the way for face-to-face” peace talks with the Taliban. He said the decision was made in coordination with the United States and international community.
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Three Taliban commanders – Anas Haqqani, Haji Maali Khan and Abdul Rasheed Haqani – were released as part of the agreement, the president said. He did not specify where King and Weeks were held or to whom they would be released.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien made separate calls to Ghani on Monday to discuss the prisoners’ release, Ghani’s spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said.
The American University of Afghanistan previously said in a statement that it welcomed the development and was “encouraged to hear reports of the possible release of our two colleagues.”
In September, Trump ended months of U.S. peace negotiations with Taliban leaders, who control large parts of Afghanistan, after the group admitted killing a U.S. soldier in a suicide bombing that killed 12 people in total.
The canceled peace talks were to be held with the Taliban and the Afghan president at the U.S. president’s country retreat at Camp David. The talks, complicated by the Taliban and Afghan government’s unruly relationship, were aimed at securing a peace deal to end nearly 20 years of war in Afghanistan, a conflict that has killed at least 2,400 U.S. soldiers, according to the Pentagon.
In 2014, President Barack Obama announced the formal end of the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan – an invasion that took place after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks because the Taliban provided refuge to the perpetrators, al-Qaida. About 14,000 U.S. forces remain in the country under a NATO mission that has dragged on with no clear conditions for walking away. Withdrawing the majority of them is one of Trump’s signature campaign promises.
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U.S. Navy SEAL commandos attempted to rescue King and Weeks in a suspected Taliban hideout in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan shortly after they were kidnapped, The Guardian reported in 2017. They may have missed the men by only a few hours. The Taliban said King suffered from heart disease and had a kidney problem. “If we stay here for much longer, we will be killed. I don’t want to die here,” Weeks said in the video released in 2017, addressing Trump.
The three Taliban commanders who were released as part of the agreement are members of the Haqqani network, which is the same Taliban affiliate that held U.S. soldier Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl captive in brutal conditions for five years after he walked off his post in Afghanistan in 2009. Bergdahl was released in 2014 in a prisoner exchange with the Taliban brokered by Qatar.
A U.S. military judge sentenced Bergdahl in 2017 to a dishonorable discharge and a reduction in rank but no time behind bars. Bergdahl pleaded guilty to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, and his case drew an especially strong reaction from Trump, who branded Bergdahl a “dirty rotten traitor.”
Trump has shown an active interest in freeing American hostages detained in Iran, Russia, Yemen and other global hot spots. He has talked about these cases on Twitter and leveraged the support of allies such as the United Arab Emirates and France to conduct raids aimed at freeing Americans. In September, Trump appointed Robert O’Brien, the State Department’s special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, to the more high-profile national security adviser role vacated by John Bolton.
Sunday, Trump tweeted that it would be “a very positive” step for U.S.-Iranian relations if Tehran returned Robert Levinson. Levinson, 71, worked for the FBI before his disappearance from Kish Island, off the southern coast of Iran, in 2007. An Associated Press investigation revealed Levinson was on an unsanctioned mission for the CIA in Iran. Levinson was last seen alive in a hostage video in 2011 and is the longest-held American hostage in U.S. history. Iran has long denied that it abducted Levinson or knows his whereabouts or even whether he is still alive.
Trump raised the issue again after Iran’s Revolutionary Court filed a missing persons case connected to Levinson with the United Nations.
“The hard part is seeing one of our grandchildren doing something that’s he’s missing. I know how much he loves children and doted on our own,” Levinson’s wife, Christine, told USA TODAY in an interview. “Bob’s missed it all. High school years, college years. He’s missed walking two daughters down the aisle.”
Contributing: Associated Press