Peter Jouvenal was visiting a western-style house that he was considering to rent in Kabul when he was seized on Saturday morning, 11 December 2021 by a group of armed Taliban. The kidnappers were reportedly operating under the orders of Maulavi Abdul Wasiq, the Taliban’s director of intelligence. Peter has dual British and German nationality. The abduction made him one of up to a dozen westerners believed to be currently held by the Taliban without explanation. (Register for Frontline Peter Jouvenal event London Feb 24, 2022 – 19:00-20.30 GMT)
Peter first came to Afghanistan to cover the Soviet-Afghan war as a photographer more than four decades ago travelling by bus from London to Peshawar, Pakistan. Over the years, he had converted to Islam, met and married his Afghan wife, Hassina Syed, and now lives in England with their three daughters. During this time, he opened a guest house, Gandamack Lodge, and developed several business ventures.
With the new Talib government keen on rebooting the country’s collapsed economy and attracting foreign investment, Peter had returned to Kabul to take care of family business and explore new investment possibilities, particularly mining. Geological surveys indicate that Afghanistan potentially has non-fuel mineral resources that, if developed, could be worth nearly a trillion dollars and are already attracting considerable interest from both China and India.
Peter was completely open about what he was doing having fully informed the Talib authorities. He was also concerned about the country’s humanitarian situation given that millions of ordinary Afghans now face destitution, even starvation.
For Peter’s family, his incarceration may have been in error. He has always retained a strong interest in Afghanistan and has worked there for many years. Ever since he began covering Afghanistan in early 1980, he has probably done than any other cameraman-producer in focusing world attention on the plight of Afghans, whether it was documenting armed resistance against the Soviets or efforts to help civilians caught up in the NATO-Taliban conflict.
In May, 2021, Peter and I co-wrote an essay for the Geneva-based Oslo Forum outlining how a UN-administered interim government consisting of respected Afghans from all walks of life might be able to bring about a genuine peace. (See NATO’s Afghanistan disaster – still a possible solution) The plan we proposed would have been a more equitable agreement than the totally inappropriate one agreed to by the administration of Donald Trump in February 2020. Not only would it have recognized the rights of the majority of Afghans, including women, but it would have enabled the country’s economy to continue operating. The West’s disastrous withdrawal in mid-August 2021 virtually guaranteed the takeover of Kabul by armed factions of the Taliban. It also left the country in ruins. (See the Trump-Biden Afghanistan Debacle)
Ever since Peter’s incarceration more than two months ago, Wasiq’s Office of Intelligence has maintained silence, refusing to comment on his arbitrary detention or explain why he is being held prisoner. The absence of any information from the Taliban has led to speculation about possible motives. Peter worked as a cameraman on the CNN television news team that managed to get an interview with Osama bin Laden in the 1990s. Photographs from the reporting assignment are still circulating on Google. The Taliban may have drawn the wrong impression from seeing the decades’ old pictures. (Peter Bergen’s CCN piece on westerners being held)
Another issue is that Sirajuddin Haqqani, who heads the Taliban’s Ministry of Interior and is one of three deputy heads of the movement, is a hardliner. He has so far refused to comment on Peter’s incarceration. The irony is that as a reporter, Peter had frequently interviewed Sirajuddin’s father, Jalalludin Haqanni, who founded the Haqqani Network. Jalalludin was directly supported by the CIA during the Soviet war. Peter had good relations with guerrilla commanders, such as Jalalludin, who respected him as a courageous cameraman willing to risk his life to report the Afghan story.
Several weeks ago, the Qatari ambassador to Kabul reported erroneously that he had seen Peter and other western prisoners (up to a dozen of different nationalities are believed to be held). The diplomat insisted that all the foreign prisoners were being well-treated. Reportedly, the ambassador had only been allowed to see two westerners, but we do not know their identities. He also knew nothing about the others or the conditions in which they were being held as he did not visit their cells. Since then British diplomats have been able to visit Peter and other prisoners for less than 15 minutes. The next day Peter was allowed to talk briefly with his wife on a mobile phone, but only with the Taliban present and listening.
Sources have reported that Peter and other western prisoners, along with some Afghans, are being confined to small prison cells. The cells are artificially lit, and given constant power outages, they are subject to long days of total darkness. The only food they are allowed to receive is boiled white rice mixed with occasional beans, hardly a nutritious diet. His sole contact with other people is when they are allowed out for ablutions. Peter, who noted to his wife that he has not been able to shave and now sports a long beard, is also suffering from health problems, although his spirits are said to be high.
Not yet seen by the ICRC
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which has always enjoyed respect in Afghanistan, including among many Taliban, normally has the right to visit prisoners and even provide assistance such as food and medication. However, despite the urging of his family and friends, it has not yet managed to see Peter. According to the ICRC, its ability to operate has been severely curtailed by last month’s cyberhacking of over half a million people on its worldwide databases. Nevertheless, the ICRC did talk to a visiting delegation of Taliban earlier this month in Geneva where the question of detainees was reportedly raised.
Global Insights, in conjunction with Professor Charles Norchi of the University of Maine Law School in Portland, has filed a complaint with the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions, which reports to the UN Human Rights Council. The hope is that this will be taken into account with all forms of negotiation between the UN and the Talib regime in Kabul. Peter is a contributing editor and advisor to the magazine.
The Taliban would naturally like to see the return of over 7 billion dollars in Afghan funds held in the United States. For its part, the US insists that the Taliban must first demonstrate that they respect human rights, particularly those of women.
According to human rights groups, hundreds if not thousands of Afghans, including journalists, NGO workers and former police, have been arrested, beaten and even killed by the Taliban. Peter’s detention constitutes another impediment to the Taliban receiving desperately needed foreign aid.
Both Washington and Islamabad are also responsible
US president Joe Biden recently announced that half the funding held in American banks would be used for humanitarian purposes in Afghanistan but that the other half would go to the families of the victims of 9/11 who have filed class action cases. Since the Taliban had nothing to do with the Al Qaeda terror attacks, the Biden decision to divert funds is seen in Kabul as fundamentally misdirected. Numerous international aid organizations have also protested this decision.
A major concern is that Peter and other detainees may be caught up in internal squabbling among the Taliban. Not unlike the mujahideen, or holy warriors of the 1980s and early 90s, the Taliban represent a movement consisting of different factions and tribal influences. It is difficult for the Talib leadership in Kabul to present a united front, particularly if it does not control all its commanders and factions in the field.
Both Wasiq and Haqqani have personal reasons to be bitter against the West. Wasiq, as former deputy head of Intelligence during the Taliban I regime (1996-2001), spent 12 harsh years at Guantánamo. He was released with four others on 31 May 2014 in exchange for American soldier Bowe Bergdahl. For his part, Sirajuddin, who has a $10-million US State Department bounty on his head plus another $5 million offered by the FBI, lost his brother Mohammad to a NATO drone attack in the northwestern Pakistani tribal agency of North Waziristan in 2010.
Peter Jouvenal: A man of Afghanistan ready to talk with everyone
Unfortunately, the Taliban have picked the wrong person to vent their frustrations on. Peter is not only a bona fide Muslim, but he has done more than most of his contemporaries to help Afghans. He is also widely known within the international community for his largely unparalleled knowledge of the country and its people. Since its establishment in early 2002, Gandamack Lodge became a key gathering place for journalists, international aid workers and diplomats working in Afghanistan. Many sought him out for advice. His observations were often blunt and not what some liked to hear, but they were informed and usually realistic.
Peter has always had a reputation for being willing to help. Many Afghans, including members of the Taliban, often quietly sat down with him to solicit his thoughts. Despite the ousting of the Taliban in late 2001, for example, Peter always made the point of cultivating contacts on all sides. This included various Talib factions in Peshawar and Quetta as well as in tribal areas.
Peter has always emphasized the need to embrace a more realistic approach toward Afghanistan by developing contacts with the Islamic militant movement. It was imperative to engage with the Taliban whether you like them or not. “The Taliban legitimately represent a significant part of the Afghan population,” he frequently said, referring to the mainly Pushtun tribal groups in the eastern and southern part of the country where the Taliban have the bulk of their support. “Unless you bring them into the process, you will never have peace or a political settlement in Afghanistan.”
The Americans chose to ignore this. As Peter had warned, they soon discovered that the Taliban were never defeated. In good Afghan fashion, they had simply faded away into the mountains or across the border in Pakistan’s tribal agencies, where they were supported by Pakistan’s powerful military intelligence agency, ISI. They began returning as insurgents from 2003 onwards and with steadily growing vehemence.
Peter has also demonstrated personal consideration for those caught up in Afghanistan’s quagmire. During the Soviet-Afghan war, Peter assisted the ICRC in tracking down Soviet POWs held by the mujahideen. Plus he provided names of Afghan Islamists, including future Taliban, believed to be held by the communist KHAD (the Afghan version of the KGB) in places like the dreaded Pul-e-Charkhi in Kabul or detention centres in the city itself, possibly similar to one where Peter is being currently held.
Once the Soviets left, Peter reported the locations of the remains of over 20 Red Army soldiers buried in the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan so that their families could have closure. He did this with the willing help of former mujahideen, some of them now with the Taliban.
While on one of our many road trips between Afghanistan and Pakistan, Peter asked to swing by the German Club in Kabul to pick up two metal trunks. I had no idea what was in them, but we left them at my house in Islamabad. Months later, Peter came by to pick them up. The trunks contained the remains of two Ukranian soldiers. We needed to drop them off at the former Soviet (now Russian) embassy. But the Russian diplomats refused to accept them as Moscow no longer represented Ukraine. It was only much later that Peter eventually managed to arrange for their repatriation to Kiev.
In another typical example, while travelling with Peter in January 2002, we stopped off at the Khyber Political Agent’s office in Peshawar. He wanted to drop off some food and blankets for a group of Talib prisoners being held by the Pakistanis. Peter also sought to ensure that they were being treated well. He would have done this for anyone.
One of the captives was a young British man, barely out of his teens, who had come to Pakistan in early 2001 well before the Talib collapse, naively thinking that it would be a good idea to visit war-torn Afghanistan. The Americans were keen on taking him into custody. Peter was trying to convince the Pakistanis to let him go so that he could return to his family. Several weeks later, the boy was back in the UK.
The irony of the whole Peter Jouvenal affair is that without realizing it, the Taliban have acted to silence the one person who might have been a powerful advocate for including them in international discussions and finally providing them a seat at the table.
Edward Girardet is a foreign correspondent, author and editor of the Geneva-based Global Insights Magazine. He has covered wars and humanitarian crises worldwide for The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report and the PBS Newshour. His books include: “Afghanistan: The Soviet War”; “Killing the Cranes – A reporter’s journey through three decades of war in Afghanistan”; “The Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan”. (4 fully-revised editions) and “Somalia, Rwanda and Beyond.”
He is working with author and former BBC correspondent David Loyn and Peter’s wife, Hassina Syed, to secure Peter’s release. For further information, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
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