- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 9, 2008

A Washington-based group that helped negotiate the release of 21 Korean hostages last summer hopes to build on that experience by promoting reconciliation between Afghanistan’s political and religious leaders.

With roots in the U.S. religious and diplomatic communities, the group thinks it can help prepare the ground for reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, where more traditional government efforts have fallen short.

“It is supremely ironic that the United States, one of the most religious nations on the planet, should find it so difficult to deal with religious differences in hostile settings or to counter demagogues like [Osama] bin Laden, who manipulate religion for their own purposes,” said Douglas Johnston, president and founder of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD).

“U.S. diplomacy suffers from a proclivity to use our separation of church and state as a crutch for not doing our homework to understand how religion informs the worldviews and political aspirations of others,” said Mr. Johnston, a Naval Academy graduate and former executive vice president of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In terms of reconstruction, little has been accomplished in Afghanistan. Militants have killed Western aid workers, and many of the simplest projects — like rebuilding one-room schoolhouses and repaving roads chewed into rubble by Soviet tanks in the 1980s — remain unfinished.

Mr. Johnston, author of “Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft,” has managed to contact and speak with the leaders of some of the most militant madrassas in Pakistan.

His goal, he said, is to encourage these religious schools to expand their curriculum beyond mere memorization of the Koran by emulating the madrassas from the early days of Islam.

Not only did Muslim religious schools keep classical learning alive during Christendom’s Dark Ages, they ultimately served as models for the university system developed later in the West.

“Wherever we go, we always partner with an indigenous institution that has credibility with, and commands the respect of, the people with whom we will be working,” Mr. Johnston said.

“Our project director, who is the point of the spear in our madrassa effort, is a Pakistani-American who grew up in Karachi and who attended a madrassa himself. He is a superb trainer and educator and also one of the more likable gents you will ever meet.” Mr. Johnston asked that the Pakistani partner not be further identified for his own safety.

Growing out of the madrassa effort, Mr. Johnston, an evangelical Christian, met in April with 57 Taliban leaders in the mountains of Pakistan to explain why the U.S.-led war on terrorism is not a war against Islam — an idea widely accepted throughout the Muslim world.

He began by pointing out the obvious: The U.S. went to war to help Muslims in Bosnia, Kosovo and Somalia.

But he also explained U.S. policies in terms typically missing from U.S. statecraft — hospitality, loyalty and revenge — that are integral to Afghanistan and the Taliban’s tribal culture.

“Before certain al Qaeda members were recognized as a threat,” Mr. Johnston said, “the U.S. offered them hospitality by accepting them into the country.”

He was referring to the September 11 hijackers.

“Then, without warning, they struck on 9/11. Because of this violation of hospitality, the United States wanted revenge and asked the Taliban government to turn over al Qaeda’s leadership so they could be brought to justice. When they refused, the U.S. attacked Afghanistan.

“But it did so with a heavy heart,” he added, “because many Americans feel great respect and admiration for the Afghan people, stemming from our common struggle against the former Soviet Union.”

For his work with the madrassas, Mr. Johnston received an award at The Washington Times’ 25th anniversary dinner in May.

What has yet to be publicly reported is his group’s role in winning the release of the Christian missionaries held captive by the Taliban last summer.

Because of his center’s earlier involvement with the Taliban, a Christian friend asked Mr. Johnston whether his group could help resolve the hostage situation.

By then, two of the 23 Christian aid workers from Seoul, who had been captured nearly two weeks earlier, had been executed.

Mr. Johnston provided details for the following narrative, which was confirmed by a U.S. State Department official. The ICRD contacted one of its Pakistani partners who enjoyed considerable influence in the Pakistani border province of Baluchistan to see what he could do. The partner agreed to help and contacted 15 religious leaders who agreed to participate in a makeshift jirga, a decision-making body of elders.

Most of the participants knew the two Afghans, Mawlawi Nasrullah and Mullah Qari Bashir, who had been appointed by the hostage-takers to serve as their spokesmen.

By Aug. 3, the jirga had traveled to Ghazni province in Afghanistan and established contact with the captors. With open Korans in hand, religious discussions began.

During six days of negotiations, the captors agreed that no further harm would come to the hostages while negotiations were under way.

They also agreed to meet with a Korean delegation that had been sent to the area and to release four or five of the female hostages as a “sign of good intent.”

Subsequent negotiations between South Korean officials and the captors led to the release of two women on Aug. 13. But six days later, the negotiations collapsed.

At that point, the ICRD reconstituted the original jirga and added several influential former Cabinet-level officials from the ousted Taliban government.

The new jirga then re-engaged with the captors, and a week later, all the hostages were freed.

In the wake of their release was widespread speculation that the Korean government had paid a ransom.

The full truth may never be made public, but in any case, one key negotiator said that had it not been for the religious intervention, the hostages would never have been released unless their full demands had been met — demands that included a prisoner swap that the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai was unwilling to carry out.

The lessons learned from the whole episode, Mr. Johnson said, were “the wisdom of talking with one’s enemies” and that “policies of isolation and demonization almost never bear the intended fruit.”

The recently released movie “Charlie Wilson’s War” weighed heavily on Mr. Johnston’s mind as he explained the Korean hostage episode, especially the U.S. abandonment of Afghanistan once the Soviets were gone.

In an oblique reference to the rise of al Qaeda and the Taliban and global terrorism that followed, Mr. Johnston said: “As far as I’m concerned, there would be no aftermath to deal with had the Congress supported the proposed endgame of helping the Afghans get back on their feet after the Soviets left.”

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