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Foreign hostages: 'Taliban are counting on Trump's unpredictability'

In a DW interview, analyst Wahid Muzhdah says the Afghan Taliban are trying to gauge US President-elect Donald Trump's approach towards Afghanistan by releasing a hostage video just days before his inauguration.

The Afghan Taliban released a video on Wednesday, January 11, showing two foreign hostages – US citizen Kevin King and his Australian colleague Timothy Weeks – who requested that US President-elect Donald Trump negotiate their release with the militants.

The video is the first apparent proof that the two hostages are still alive after being kidnapped on August 7 last year.

Weeks and King were abducted by gunmen dressed as police near the American University of Afghanistan, where both men were working as professors.

In the video, Weeks said the Taliban are demanding that the US release prisoners at Bagram airfield and at Pul-e-Charkhi prison in Kabul in exchange for his and King's freedom.

"They are being held there illegally, and the Taliban has asked for them to be released in our exchange. If they are not exchanged for us then we will be killed," Weeks said.

"Donald Trump, sir, please, I ask you, please, this is in your hands. I ask you please to negotiate with the Taliban. If you do not negotiate with them, we will be killed," he added.

In a DW interview, Wahid Muzhdah, a Kabul-based analyst, said that the Taliban actually want the release of Anas Haqqani, son of the Haqqani Network's founder Jalaluddin Haqqani. Anas Haqqani is currently in the custody of the Afghan government.

DW: The Taliban video makes a special reference to Donald Trump, the US president-elect, who will be inaugurated on January 20. What is the significance of this reference, and why did the insurgent group release the video at this point?

Wahid Muzhdah: King and Weeks were abducted at a time when some Afghan activists were demanding that the authorities hang Taliban commanders, including Anas Haqqani, who they said were responsible for many deadly attacks in Afghanistan. At the time, the government executed some Taliban members to ease pressure. In an attempt to protect Haqqani, the Taliban kidnapped these two American University professors.

Wahid Muzhda Afghanistan-Experte aus Kabul (DW/Farahmand)

Wahid Muzhdah: 'The Taliban actually want the release of Anas Haqqani'

The militants have long called for the release of their commanders in return for the freedom of King and Weeks. US President Barack Obama never paid heed to their demands. Now that Donald Trump is set to take charge in Washington, the group hopes to reach an agreement on a prisoner swap with him. I think they also want to gauge what kind of approach Trump would take on this matter.

What makes the Taliban hopeful that the president-elect would agree to a deal?

Trump is known for being very unpredictable. The Taliban seem to have noticed that Trump is revisiting a lot of decisions made by Obama. The Afghan militants want to see how the president-elect will react to their offer.

But it is unclear how Trump would react to the hostages' plea. He can agree on a prisoner exchange deal but can also do what Obama has been doing in this case - ignore calls from the Taliban.

And if Trump did not agree to the demands, what do you think could be the fate of the hostages?

I think the abductees will continue to remain in captivity. I don't think they will be killed. What is certain is that the Taliban will not release them unless they get something substantial in return. Another possibility is that US forces locate Weeks and King and try to rescue them. But this scenario presents the risk of them being harmed or killed during a military operation.

What are the chances that the Afghan government would unilaterally release the Taliban commanders?

It has to be a bilateral decision involving the US. The Afghan government depends immensely on US aid and will not risk offending Washington over the Taliban prisoners.

The interview was conducted by Masood Saifullah.

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