The Kidnappers of Kabul

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Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

Afghan police search a section of Kabul after a German woman was kidnapped from a restaurant on August 18, 2007 in Kabul, Afghanistan.

A German woman was kidnapped in broad daylight today in Kabul, a month after two German engineers and their five Afghan colleagues were abducted in nearby Wardak province, and 23 South Korean Christian volunteers were seized from a bus by the Taliban in Ghazni, just 3 hours from the Afghan capital. This spate of kidnappings in and around the capital heralds an alarming trend for foreign nationals working in Afghanistan.

Christina Meier, who is said to be five months pregnant, was abducted in front of a bakery popular with foreigners; witnesses say they heard gunshots and saw the woman bundled into a blue Toyota Corolla by unidentified armed men. She is the first foreigner to be abducted in Kabul since Italian aid worker Clementina Cantoni was seized in front of her compound in May of 2005. Cantoni was eventually released unharmed 24 days later; it is still unknown if a ransom was paid. Meier may not be so lucky. One of the German engineers was shot within a few days of his abduction, and while two of the South Korean volunteers have been released as a sign of good will, two were killed and negotiations for the remaining 19 have stalled. In exchange for the Korean hostages, the Taliban is demanding the release of 8 insurgent captives — a concession the Afghan government, with the support of the U.S., has refused to consider. While the assault on the Koreans is clearly related to the insurgency, it appears that the German engineers were initially abducted by a criminal gang who may have passed them into Taliban hands.

While the abduction of foreigners is a new trend, criminal kidnappings of Afghans have been going on in the capital for several years. But the past year has seen a dramatic rise in such abductions, few of which are ever reported in the media. "This is going to make news because it's a foreign woman who was kidnapped, but the reality is that it's a daily occurrence — not weekly, not monthly — for local nationals," says a Kabul-based businesswoman who asks to remain anonymous due to security fears. "Everyone who works in this town will have it happen one way or another, be it a kidnapping, a threat of kidnapping or a holdup," she adds, saying that in the past month there have been two kidnappings on her street, despite a police presence. "Security in this town is a joke. The Taliban are talked about incessantly, but no one talks about this stuff — this is the real reason Afghanistan can't catch its breath, not the insurgency, but the relentless and unanswered spate of criminal activity and corruption."

Analyst and radio talk-show host Dad Noorani blames a failing and corrupt security force for the increased violence. "People don't tell the police because they are sure the security forces are involved and have a hand in the kidnapping. They are worried that if they report something they will have more problems in the future." The son of a friend, he says, was kidnapped and taken across the border to Peshawar, where he was held for a $30,000 ransom. It was eventually negotiated down to $16,000, which was all that the man could scrape together.

The victims of these crimes, says the Kabul-based businesswoman, are the very people who are essential to Afghanistan's success. "These are the people who are driving Afghanistan's economy: the entrepreneurs, the business owners. Once they are under attack, what hope does Afghanistan have?" Local entrepreneur Nasrullah Rahmati was assaulted by a kidnapping gang last year while driving with his brother in an affluent part of town. They both managed to escape but his brother was wounded, and the would-be kidnappers made off with $3,000 in cash. Rahmati reported the incident to the police, but nothing came of their investigation. "My every moment is at risk," says Rahmati. "I hate it, to carry weapons, but now I have to, because of my security. To every wedding I go, people hate me because I have bodyguards and guns, but I have to have them."

This spring, when Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo was kidnapped in the southern province of Helmand, the Afghan government, going against U.S. wishes, exchanged the hostage for five Taliban prisoners. It is also alleged that another Italian, photographer Gabriele Torsello, was ransomed for $2 million last October, fueling speculation that these more recent kidnappings may be motivated by financial as much as political gain. "Rumors are going around that the Koreans are worth $1 million a head," says Parliamentarian Khalid Pashtun. "So of course this is going to encourage more kidnappings." At this point it's unclear if Meier's abductors are insurgents or simply a criminal gang going for a more lucrative target. But unlike cases of kidnapped locals, Afghan security forces have already launched a massive operation to retrieve the missing German. With 3,000 German troops in the country, Afghanistan can't afford to lose favor with one of its strongest supporters.