WSJ: Kinder, gentler Taliban seizing Westerners — including one American

What a shock, said no one at all. The Wall Street Journal has learned that the new Taliban government has detained at least nine Westerners in recent weeks, including at least one American. Two of them are journalists, but others worked for the previous American-supported government in “the security sector”:

Taliban authorities are holding at least nine foreigners in custody in Kabul—including one American and several British citizens—according to relatives and other people familiar with their situation, inflaming tensions with the West at a time when Afghanistan desperately needs international aid.

Among those arrested are two journalists: a British reporter and an Irish photographer who were in Kabul on assignment for the United Nations’ refugee agency, UNHCR. They were detained this week in Kabul, along with an Afghan journalist and an Afghan driver with whom they were working.

Those two arrests got plenty of media attention this morning, and for good and understandable reasons. The Washington Post reported their seizure initially as a “kidnap,” as the URL makes clear, but later changed it to “detains.” Nothing in the article notes any Americans among the others captured, although the report does note that the Taliban appears to have charged them with espionage on behalf of “Western intelligence agencies.”

The WSJ report is both more detailed on the arrests and less so on the charges, although it doesn’t take a genius to connect these dots:

Seven other Westerners have been detained in Kabul since December. One of them is American, and the remaining six are British citizens, including one U.S. permanent resident. They were taken into custody separately, and face unspecified accusations.

Most of them had worked in the security sector, according to people with knowledge of their activities in Afghanistan. Before their arrests, most were working openly in Afghanistan, with frequent official contact with the Taliban leadership, these people said. Some were helping facilitate the evacuation of at-risk Afghans from the country.

It sounds as though the Taliban are now equating exfiltration efforts with intelligence operations. That may be true with some of those efforts, but just how much is arguable, considering the lack of effort from the State Department and Joe Biden’s administration on getting Americans out of Afghanistan. (Private exfil operators complained not long ago that State has been “actively impeding” their operations.) This looks more like an attempt to close off any escape routes for tens of thousands of Afghans who worked for the US and NATO, and perhaps abandoned Americans along with them.

Why would the Taliban want to cut off these exfil routes? They want to wreak their revenge on their enemies, for one thing. However, just as we have predicted for months, they probably figure on using hostages to negotiate for cash. The latest move from the Biden administration might push them into seeking as much of that kind of leverage as possible, in fact:

President Joe Biden is expected to issue an executive order on Friday to move some $7 billion of the Afghan central bank’s assets frozen in the U.S. banking system to fund humanitarian relief in Afghanistan and compensate victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, according to a U.S. official familiar with the decision.

The order will require U.S. financial institutions to facilitate access to $3.5 billion of assets for the Afghan relief and basic needs. The other $3.5 billion would remain in the United States and be used to fund ongoing litigation by U.S. victims of terrorism, the official said. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the decision had not been formally announced.

Theoretically speaking, the previous Taliban government’s support for al-Qaeda before 9/11 makes this an entirely legitimate choice now that they have returned to power. Practically speaking, this escalates matters with the Taliban, who face a humanitarian food and medical catastrophe after their sacking of the country. Their grip on Afghanistan may well falter if a massive famine produces a popular revolt. While that also sounds pretty good in theory, such a revolt could put an even more radical and dangerous group in power, ISIS-K, especially in light of a lack of alternatives from ethnic minorities in the northern regions. The Northern Alliance-turned-Kabul government doesn’t show many signs of getting the band back together, and certainly won’t risk their lives on the basis of promised US support in the future.

If the Taliban get desperate enough, they’ll redouble efforts to get hostages to force the return of the money. It at least appears that they have begun to capture Westerners already for that purpose, and Biden left thousands of Americans behind for them to find, too.

For more on exfil efforts and Joe Biden’s focus on getting Americans out, be sure to watch John Ondrasik’s latest episode of “Meet the Heroes.” It’s an ongoing disgrace, and it’s only going to get worse.

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