The Italian Lived; the Afghan Died

How ransoming a foreign journalist played into the Taliban's hands.

Fellows Spring 2007

By Gregory Warner

June 02, 2009

Appeared in Slate

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.

The Afghan government claims Naqshbandi's freedom was supposed to be part of that deal. But on March 19, when the exchange was made and weary but elated Mastrogiacomo was released to media fanfare, Naqshbandi was nowhere to be seen. Days later, the Taliban admitted they still had the Afghan journalist and wanted three more prisoners freed in exchange for his release.

Then the Taliban allowed Naqshbandi to call a Pakistani journalist, Rahimullah Yousafzai, with a prepared statement. "You have forgotten the Afghan journalist," Naqshbandi told Yousafzai. "You are worried only for the foreigners, and you are not worried for Afghans."

Yousafzai called the statement a "clever move" by Naqshbandi's captors. "They put Karzai on the defensive," he told me. Yousafzai said that the Afghan and Italian governments had set themselves up for the accusation by failing to secure Naqshbandi's release. "It played right into the Taliban's hands."

Well before the Taliban stoked the coals, anger had been building on the streets of Afghanistan. The day Mastrogiacomo was released, a mob blocked the hospital where he was recuperating. They protested the government's "double standards" and demanded to know why the slain driver's body had not been returned along with the Italian journalist. (It wasn't yet known that Naqshbandi was still being held by the Taliban.)

Rahimullah Samander, head of the Afghan Independent Journalists Association, says he's been fielding distress calls from members, especially in the south. "Afghan journalists should not work with internationals, that's what people are saying," Samander said. "They put us at risk, then they go back to their countries, leaving us in the same situation. … Daniele was very happy to work with Ajmal, until they were at risk."

Of course, local journalists always face extra risks in war zones. In Iraq, 30 of the 32 journalists killed so far have been Iraqi, according to a study by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Foreign journalists simply have more resources, more visibility, and more places to turn to for help.

In Afghanistan, the flourishing press is recognized as one of the few bright spots in the country's democratic experiment. But those press freedoms are increasingly under attack. Journalists in Afghanistan have become targets, not just of the Taliban, but also of warlords-turned-government-officials trying to avoid scrutiny. Today, the Afghan parliament started to debate sweeping legislation that would make censorship of the press a lot easier. Under the new law, journalists could be jailed for publishing work deemed "humiliating and offensive." The fight for Naqshbandi, say many Afghan journalists, was also a fight for the rights of a free press.

"We told [our government], please learn from the Italians, how the Italian government campaigned to protect and save their journalist," Samander said. He claims they were ignored. "There's this feeling that if we risk ourselves to find the good stories, there's going to be no one to protect us."

Najib Sharifi in Kabul contributed to this report.