- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 19, 2019

The U.S. secured the release of two college professors who were kidnapped at gunpoint in August 2016 and held by Taliban forces in Afghanistan, the White House said Tuesday, a move that could help revive moribund peace talks with the militant Islamist group.

Professors Kevin King, an American, and Timothy Weeks, an Australian, were recovered on Tuesday and are receiving medical care, President Trump’s press secretary Stephanie Grisham confirmed.

Both men were employed at the American University in Afghanistan at the time of their kidnapping.

“The Trump administration continues to work tirelessly to secure the freedom of Americans, and citizens of our allies, held in captivity,” Ms. Grisham said. “As we work for peace, the Trump administration will continue to work to ensure that Afghanistan is never again used to launch terrorist attacks against the United States and our allies.”

The men were released as part of a swap for three top Taliban figures — a move that the insurgent group asserted could help rekindle talks to end Afghanistan’s 18-year war. President Trump abruptly called off a tentative Camp David summit with the Taliban and the U.S.-backed Kabul government in September, citing continued Taliban attacks on U.S. forces.

Mr. King and Mr. Weeks were released in an area of southern Afghanistan heavily controlled by the Taliban, ending more than three years of captivity since they were abducted outside their university in Kabul.

A Taliban statement that followed the swap, which freed the younger brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, the head of the fearsome Haqqani network, called the exchange a “confidence-building measure” that could help bring an end to the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan.

Anas Haqqani, along with an uncle, Hajji Malik Khan, and a Haqqani lieutenant, Hafiz Rashid Khan, were released by the Afghan government on Monday and flown to Qatar, where the extremist group has a political office.

While the White House thanked Afghan President Ashraf Ghani for his “many courageous steps in the cause of peace,” officials in the Kabul government have expressed unease that direct U.S.-Taliban talks over the past year have largely excluded them.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison expressed gratitude for the hostages’ release, tweeting that Mr. Weeks’ family had “asked the Australian government to convey their relief that their long ordeal is over, and their gratitude to all those who have contributed to Tim’s safe return.”

Mr. King’s family noted the “behind-the-scenes” efforts made by U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser Robert C. O’Brien to get the Ghani government on board with the prisoner swap.

Mr. Pompeo and Mr. O’Brien made separate calls to Mr. Ghani on Monday, the Afghan government said.

Mr. Trump has taken a special interest in securing the release of American hostages who’ve been held abroad. He highlighted Mr. O’Brien’s achievements as chief hostage negotiator before naming him national security adviser earlier this year.

Yet the long-running war in Afghanistan is a thorny issue for the president, who has pushed unsuccessfully for a peace deal to draw down the roughly 12,000 American troops still in the country.

“As we work for peace, the Trump administration will continue to work to ensure that Afghanistan is never again used to launch terrorist attacks against the United States and our allies,” Ms. Grisham said Tuesday.

In a statement on Tuesday, Mr. Pompeo called the prisoner exchange that led to the men’s release a “hopeful sign” that Afghanistan’s relentless war can soon come to an end.

— This report is based in part on wire services.

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