WASHINGTON — The Afghan government said on Tuesday that it would release three imprisoned commanders of the Taliban, in what is expected to be an exchange for American and Australian professors who were abducted by the insurgents more than three years ago.
The apparent exchange — officials did not immediately confirm that anyone had been released yet — is a possible first step toward a new round of peace talks between the United States and the insurgents, officials said.
President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan said Tuesday that the government would be “conditionally” releasing the Taliban figures, including Anas Haqqani, the younger brother of the Taliban’s military operations leader. He did not say what those conditions were, but American and Afghan officials say that negotiators have been working for weeks on an exchange for the professors.
In a nationally televised address, Mr. Ghani said the exchange was intended to “facilitate direct peace negotiations.” But the Taliban have refused to negotiate with the Afghan government, which announced in October that it would not take part in negotiations with the Taliban unless a cease-fire had held for at least a month.
The American, Kevin C. King, 63, and the Australian, Timothy J. Weeks, 50, both professors at the American University of Afghanistan, apparently were to be released after intensive efforts by the American special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, officials said. Mr. Khalilzad, an Afghan-born American diplomat, once served on the board of the university where the men taught.
Mr. Ghani did not discuss the whereabouts of the two professors, who were abducted in Kabul in 2016, except to say that their health had deteriorated while being held. But it is unlikely that he would publicly commit to releasing Taliban prisoners unless the Taliban had provided evidence that professors were alive and had agreed to release them.
Mr. Ghani said the decision had been “very hard but necessary.”
His administration made it clear to the Taliban that any continued negotiations required the release of the hostages as a show of good faith as both sides look to end at least one chapter of the 18-year-old conflict.
As part of negotiations, militants with the Haqqani network of the Taliban had been demanding the release of Anas Haqqani, a young but prominent commander captured in a Persian Gulf country in 2014 and turned over to the Afghan government, which sentenced him to death.
Mr. Haqqani is the brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, who leads the Haqqani network of the Taliban, which is known for conducting suicide bombings, and is also deputy leader of the Taliban’s leadership council.
Though the Taliban and American negotiators had finalized a peace deal “in principle” in September, the insurgent group continued attacks across the country. This schism — between diplomatic assurances and what was happening on the ground — raised serious questions among American officials, who soon believed that Taliban leadership was either divided over the deal or could not control their lower-ranking fighters and commanders.
While some have said those divisions are overplayed, and that not just the Taliban but both sides of the war were intensifying the violence, there remains an underlying uncertainty about the Haqqani network’s support of the negotiations.
Some officials who have argued in favor of trading Anas Haqqani hope the move would be seen as a dramatic enough demonstration that the Haqqani wing would fully consent to scaling back their attacks across Afghanistan.
The two professors were abducted in August 2016 by gunmen while they were traveling in their car. Shortly after they were kidnapped, Navy SEAL team members tried to rescue them from a remote compound in eastern Afghanistan. But the commandos missed the hostages by hours, officials said. In April, the military made another rescue attempt along Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan but narrowly missed them again, officials said.
In a 2017 statement, the Taliban said Mr. King had heart and kidney problems. In a video, one of two that the militants released, Mr. Weeks pleaded with President Trump to save him: “If we stay here for much longer, we will be killed. I don’t want to die here.”
Mr. King’s illness was worsening, and he sometimes lost consciousness, according to the Taliban. “We have tried to treat from him time to time, but we do not have medical facilities as we are in a war situation,” the statement said.
Mr. Trump has made freeing American hostages a priority. The administration has managed to free about 10 hostages held in captivity overseas, using diplomatic leverage or relying on countries such as France and the United Arab Emirates to carry out high-risk military raids in Africa and Yemen. Robert C. O’Brien, Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, continues to ensure these cases receive a high level of attention. Mr. O’Brien was previously the State Department’s special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.
But other high-profile hostages remain intractable problems for this administration, as they were in previous ones. The White House has been unable to win the freedom of Robert Levinson, the former F.B.I. agent and C.I.A. analyst who was abducted in Iran in 2007, or Austin Tice, an American journalist who disappeared in Syria in 2012.
Another American held hostage, Caitlan Coleman, and her family were rescued by the Pakistani military in October 2017. She and her Canadian husband, Joshua Boyle, had been held for five years. The two were abducted by the Haqqani network while backpacking in Afghanistan. Ms. Coleman had three children while in captivity, but a fourth apparently died.
Another American, Paul E. Overby Jr., who disappeared in Afghanistan, is believed to be dead. Mr. Overby, who was 76 at the time and from Massachusetts, disappeared in Khost Province in May 2014 while trying to interview the leader of the Haqqani network. Mr. Overby had traveled repeatedly to Afghanistan and had written a book, “Holy Blood,” about the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Last year, the F.B.I. offered a $1 million reward for information about Mr. King and Mr. Overby.
Officials are also hoping as part of the peace talks that the Taliban might be able to provide information about Cydney Mizell, an aid worker. She was abducted in Kandahar in 2008 as she drove to work, and was later killed. Her body was never recovered.
Mr. King was born in Norristown, Pa., and grew up in suburban Philadelphia, a family member said. He attended the University of Miami, where he wrote for the school newspaper and studied communications. He later taught in Cambodia, Libya and Iraq. He first worked at the American University in Kabul in 2008, spending two years teaching English and returned to the country in 2014.
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