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U.S. Policy and the Korean Hostage Crisis
Controversy over the role of the American government in Afghanistan?
Ronda Hauben (netizen2)     Print Article 
Published 2007-08-08 15:28 (KST)   
There appears to be a serious debate taking place over how to win the release of the 21 South Korean church group members who are being held by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Family members have appealed to the U.S. Embassy in South Korea to rule out the use of force to try to free their relatives. U.S. officials have promised that force would not be used unless approved by the South Korean government.

The Taliban has demanded the release of prisoners being held by U.S. or Afghan government forces in exchange for the Koreans. In discussions online and in other media, and especially among politicians, there are a range of views about how much responsibility the U.S. government has for the situation and what role the U.S. can be expected to play to gain the release of the church group.

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Some South Korean groups, such as the Democratic Labor Party and various Korean antiwar groups, hold the U.S. responsible, referring to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan as the root cause of the problem. The focus of these groups is on the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan. Other political groups and politicians in South Korea, however, urge caution with regard to the U.S. government. They fear that a hostile attitude toward the U.S. will harm efforts to win the release of the Koreans.

On Aug. 2, eight South Korean legislators from different political parties traveled to the U.S. to meet with U.S. officials. The South Korean lawmakers also expressed a desire to meet with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

At the U.N., the spokesperson for the secretary general has been asked a number of questions about what Ban is doing to help free the church group. When the group was captured, the secretary general was reported to have spoken with the presidents of Pakistan and Afghanistan. More recently, a spokesperson for Ban has said that the situation is a delicate one and nothing further can be said. The spokesperson assured journalists, however, that the secretary general was concerned about the humanitarian issues involved and supported the efforts being made by the South Korean and Afghan governments.

Recently, it appears that a roadblock has developed in the negotiations. A Taliban spokesperson expressed frustration with the lack of progress with Afghan negotiators. The bodies of two of the South Korean hostages were found after deadlines the Taliban set passed with no results.

The Taliban have agreed to direct negotiations with South Korean officials. These would need to be either at a site they consider to be safe territory or at a site where the U.N. guarantees the safety of the Taliban negotiators.

Reviewing U.S. policy on Afghanistan helps to highlight the dilemma facing South Korea. U.S. policy on Afghanistan is based on neoconservative ideology that focuses on the notion of U.S. supremacy in a unipolar world. This requires that the U.S. maintain military superiority, which it will use when it feels it is appropriate.

The U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. is Zalmay Khalilzad. He has extensive experience working in policy issues and practical activity in the U.S. government, particularly in relation to U.S. policy on Afghanistan. Originally from Afghanistan, Khalilzad served as President George W. Bush's envoy in Afghanistan from 2002-2003 and then from 2003-2005 as U.S. Ambassador to Iraq. (1)

Khalilzad is one of neoconservatives who have developed this policy and who are in positions of responsibility in the U.S. government to implement the policy. Unlike the confrontational style used by John Bolton when he was the U.S. Ambassador, Khalilzad maintains a more congenial demeanor. (2)

Among the neoconservative ideas is a concept advocated by Albert Wohlstetter, whose ideas helped to set the intellectual foundations of neoconservative thought. (3) Wohlstetter advocated replacing the cold war policy of "mutual assured destruction" (MAD), where both sides build up their stockpile of weapons and essentially neutralize each other (4). No weapons would actually be used. He advocated replacing MAD with the idea of "gradual deterrence." This is a policy of initially limited wars, even "possibly using tactical nuclear arms, together with 'smart' precision-guided weapons capable of hitting the enemy's military apparatus." He would argue that such a policy is needed to keep the world safe.

Another cornerstone of the neoconservative policy pursued by the Bush administration is made up of the ideas that formed the basis for the Project for the New American Century (PNAC). A letter sent by the supporters of PNAC to President Bill Clinton on Jan. 26, 1998, called for an invasion of Iraq without the approval of the United Nations. (5)

The neoconservative policy of the U.S. government is characterized by a consciously chosen hard-line toward the Taliban. The invasion and occupation of Afghanistan by the U.S. military and its allies, according to its critics, has been marked by a lack of concern for civilian causalities. The continual loss of civilian lives in Afghanistan has grown so great as a result of NATO and U.S. led operations in Afghanistan that even Afghan President Hamid Karzai has warned that the situation cannot continue. (6) There have been similar warnings from other Afghan officials about the potential for serious repercussions if the large number of civilian casualties continues. (7)

The U.S. government position, echoed by Australian Prime Minister John Howard, for example, is that once it relents to a prisoner exchange, hostage taking will be encouraged. The argument is that the fight against terrorism must be kept as primary and that moving from this fixed position can only be a compromise of this primary objective.

The essence of the argument made by the U.S. government is that there is a need to maintain solidarity in the fight against terrorism. Given this perspective, the U.S. government is not likely to treat saving the lives of the captured Korean Christians as its most important objective. The result appears to be an attitude toward civilian casualties that sacrifices the lives of people in the name of some nebulous future purpose.

The family members of the Koreans being held are in favor of negotiations with the Taliban and of finding a peaceful way to win their release. They refer to prior experiences resulting in the safe release of journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. Mastrogiacomo was released when five Taliban prisoners were freed by the Afghan government. (8) Similarly, five Iraqi women prisoners held by the U.S. were released in connection with the release of U.S. journalist Jill Carroll, who had been held in Iraq. (9)

In response to a question about his view of the situation, Ambassador Khalilzad suggested that it was necessary to work "with Pakistan as well on the issue of the Taliban as with various Afghan parties. And of course the coalition also has an important role to play." He added that it was an issue of "identifying also where they are" (presumably, he was referring to the location of the hostages). The problem, he indicated, requires "a multiplicity of angles to be worked on to deal with it."

In a similar situation, the principle of the Italian government in working for the release of Mastrogiacomo was, "We think that the life of a person is very precious. So if there is a chance to save a life we must do all we can do." (10)

Giuliana Sgrena, an Italian journalist who had been a prisoner in Baghdad in 2005, expressed her support for a government doing all it could to free someone being held. Her argument was that it is the occupation and the war that is the problem, not the freeing of prisoners in exchange for hostages. "If there is no war there will be no hostages," she told reporters. (11)
Notes

1. Wikipedia entry on Zalmay Khalilzad.

2. Warren Hoge, "Praise at U.N. for a New U.S. Envoy's Inclusive Tactics and Convivial Style," New York Times, June 6, 2007.

3. Wikipedia entry on Albert Wohlstetter.

4. Wikipedia entry on "mutual assured destruction."

5. Wikipedia entry on Project for a New American Century, letter dated Jan. 26, 1998.

6. Daud Khan, "Mounting Civilian Deaths Angers Karzai," OhmyNews International, June 23, 2007.

7. Daud Khan, "Afghan Official: End Civilian Casualties," OhmyNews International, July 4, 2007.

8. Ian Fisher, "Italian Journalist Was Freed in Taliban Prisoner Swap," International Herald Tribune, March 21, 2007.

9. Wikipedia entry on Jill Carroll.

10. Fisher, op. cit.

11. Ibid.

An earlier version of this article was written for Telepolis.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Ronda Hauben

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