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Taliban Release 2 Hostages In Exchange With Afghan Government For 3 Prisoners

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Two teachers from the American University in Kabul were freed by the Taliban today. Kevin King and Timothy Weeks were abducted more than three years ago. The Afghan government freed three high-profile Taliban members in exchange for their release. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us now. Hey, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So can you first just tell us a little more about who Kevin King and Tim Weeks are?

BOWMAN: Well, Kevin King is an American. He's 63. And Timothy Weeks is Australian, 50 years old. The Taliban released pictures of the two. King has a long beard and had been reportedly ill with kidney and heart disease. Weeks looks thin and pale. They were taken to Bagram Air Base north of Kabul. The King family released a statement, saying they were thankful and said Kevin King is now receiving medical treatment at Bagram.

CHANG: And what do we know about the Taliban members who were exchanged for King and Weeks?

BOWMAN: Right. The three Taliban include a senior Taliban leader who equipped suicide bombers and also a senior commander. But, Ailsa, the most notable is the third one - Anas Haqqani is the brother of the Taliban's military leader and the son of the founder of the Haqqani network. It's a brutal militant group aligned with the Taliban and based next door in Pakistan. They've been responsible for a number of suicide attacks, high-profile attacks in Kabul and elsewhere.

CHANG: Now, am I right? There was talk about this exchange happening, like, a week ago or more than a week ago. Why didn't it happen earlier then?

BOWMAN: Well, we believe because it was an attack - a deadly car bomb attack in Kabul. And the Afghan government apparently pulled the plug on the release, saying, in essence, unless violence decreases, they will stay put in prison.

CHANG: That does raise the whole question about how overall reduction in violence may be necessary in order for peace talks to resume. That has been part of the ongoing conversation. Do we even know when these U.S.-Taliban-Afghan peace talks might pick up again?

BOWMAN: You know, we really don't. Both the U.S. and Afghan governments say there must be a reduction in violence for peace talks to go forward, and this exchange of the Westerners for the Taliban is seen as a kind of sweetener to get talks going again. The three Taliban were flown to Doha, Qatar, where the Taliban has a political office and where peace talks were taking place with American envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who, by the way, helped broker this prisoner exchange. And, of course, Khalilzad came up with a preliminary peace deal with the Taliban. That deal came to an end in September when President Trump scrapped it, again, because of increased violence, including the death of an American soldier.

CHANG: And any reaction to the release of - or the exchange of these prisoners?

BOWMAN: The reaction, actually, in Afghanistan is pretty grim. Most people polled by TOLOnews, one of the big networks there, said more than 80% were against this. They didn't think it was a good idea to release these three Taliban Haqqani members. So it's going to be tough for Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president, if peace talks don't resume and if the Taliban don't eventually start talking to the Afghan government, which they've refused to do because they see the Afghans as just mere puppets of the American military. So there's a long way to go here.

CHANG: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thank you very much, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.

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