In Afghanistan's long-running conflict, prisoners of war are often little more than pawns in a chess match - to be swapped, sacrificed, or paraded as evidence of the enemy's perfidy.
A foreign diplomat involved in prisoner exchanges under the auspices of the Organization of the Islamic Conference estimates that the dominant Taliban is holding more than 400 POWs, while the forces of Ahmad Shah Masood have captured some 1,000 men. More precise estimates are difficult to make, as POWs are often sold back at the front - or simply executed.
After an upsurge in fighting this month, "a lot of prisoners were killed right on the front line," confesses Daoud Panjshiri, a lieutenant to Commander Masood who oversees two POW camps in the Panjshir Valley. "We couldn't control our soldiers. They had lost their houses and women."
The Taliban POWs that Mr. Panjshiri can produce are a motley assembly of young Islamic fighters with scraggly beards and embroidered skullcaps. Most come from Pakistan. Others hail from China and Burma. While there were reports that Chechens and Arabs loyal to indicted terrorist Osama bin Laden took part in recent fighting, evidently none were taken prisoner.
"We want to help Muslims everywhere. We want to turn Afghanistan into our base and bring Islam to the whole world," says Salahuddin Khalib, a Taliban fighter whose bright eyes shine through his oversized glasses. "We know that many Muslims will die. But if 10,000 are killed in the process, we'll make 5 billion new ones."
Mr. Khalib, originally from Pakistan, was captured four years ago. Before that, he spent two years at the Khost military training camp - target of a US missile attack in 1998 for its link to Mr. bin Laden. Khalib fought in the disputed Kashmir region between India and Pakistan and in Tajikistan's civil war. He rejects charges that the Taliban is turning Afghanistan into a terrorist training ground. "You call it terrorism. We call it guerrilla warfare," he says. "The people on the street are not our targets. We don't want to fight the American population, but the US government."
Other foreign prisoners share his motivation. Abdul Jilil, an ethnic Uighur from western China's restless Xinjiang province, says that when he is released, he will return home to fight the Beijing government. A young Burmese Muslim, Sali Muhammad, says he one day wants to start a jihad, or holy war, against the "infidels" in Rangoon.
None of the foreign POWs, says Panjshiri, will be released until an international peace conference is concluded. At indirect talks in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in May, both sides approached the issue of prisoner exchange. Yet with the renewed fighting this month, even this tentative process has stalled.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society