[Outlook]Discretion needed in Afghanistan

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[Outlook]Discretion needed in Afghanistan

Refusing to negotiate with terrorist groups is a universal principle that the United States has abided by for more than 20 years.
The crisis of 21 young Koreans being held by Taliban militants is a matter of life and death.
Korea, the United States and Afghanistan have been trying to balance the non-negotiation principle and the lives of the hostages for more than two weeks.
Korea is breaking free of this three-way alliance.
There is no choice for Korea. We cannot leave the 21 youths in mortal danger just because of an abstract, universal principle that hardly bears any sense of reality to the Koreans.
It is inevitable that negotiators dispatched by the Korean government have become more interested in direct negotiations with the Taliban than in indirect ones.
The Taliban distrusts the Afghan government so much that negotiations were limited as long as those two parties were the ones at the table.
In the meantime, two captives have been killed.
It is hard to negotiate with Taliban militants because their leaders are armed with Islamic fundamentalism and they are nihilists ― uninterested in status, authority or the universal values of a secular world.
They struggle to survive in a terrible environment where life and death are not far from each other.
Thus, it is meaningless to try to persuade them through talk about humanitarianism, the dignity of human life or international public opinion.
If the Taliban releases the hostages, it will not be because they acknowledge the dignity of life or they are pressured by international public opinion. It will be strictly in return for Taliban prisoners or ransom money for the Korean captives.
The hostage crisis is being prolonged because we missed the chance in the earlier stages to pay ransom and get the hostages back.
It seems that at that time, a moderate faction in the Taliban intended to release the hostages in return for money.
But as time passed, hard-line Taliban factions are demanding a prisoners-for-hostages swap more and more insistently.
The U.S. and Afghan governments openly stressed the principle of not dealing with terrorist groups, leaving Korea in a helpless and desperate position.
The unwritten law that showing flexibility in negotiating principles and making exceptions must be done in secret was not abided by.
The calls for and incorrect news reports about military rescue of the hostages took place in this context.
The Koreans are experiencing unmitigated frustration and despair because we feel we cannot do anything to respond to the hostages’ cries for help, not to mention the cries of their families.
However, the option of using military force is more likely to fail than succeed, considering the geographic conditions in southern Afghanistan.
Taliban militias are ready to fight without fear of dying and have little respect for the lives of others. The hostages are also being held in small, separate groups in a number of different places. Now is not the time to feel frustrated or resort to the final option of military force.
We have two options open:
One is to have direct contact with the Taliban and keep prolonging deadlines in order to buy time.
The Taliban want their prisoners back, but we do not have the prisoners. So we need cooperation from the Afghan government.
But we don’t have the cards to persuade Afghanistan. The United States, however, does.
The other option is a summit meeting between U.S. President George W. Bush and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, scheduled for Aug. 5 and 6 in Camp David. It is very fortunate that the Bush-Karzai summit meeting had already been planned.
This is what we need to do:
We must maintain direct contact with the Taliban and prevent more killings from happening.
We exert our best diplomatic efforts toward the United States and Afghanistan and persuade Presidents Bush and Karzai at the same time.
President Bush must make it appear as if he did nothing to encourage President Karzai to release Taliban prisoners in return for Korean hostages.
We need to have diplomatic negotiations with Washington in secret.
Floor leaders at the Korean National Assembly plan to visit Washington as if they were setting out on a parade.
But their visit might instead give Washington little room to move. They should cancel their visit to the United States’ capital.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Young-hie

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