Like any modern fighting force, the Taliban have learned the benefits of emotional warfare.
As the Taliban's spring offensive gets under way, kidnappings have become their new weapon of choice, targeting a growing chink in NATO's armor: Across Europe, the United States, and Canada, public opinion for the war in Afghanistan is sliding.
That disenchantment is proving as devastating as any bomb. Last month, after the Taliban kidnapped Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo, the Italian government nearly collapsed when opposition parties raised a storm of protest. Out of fear that Italy's parliament might decide to withdraw its 1,950 troops – what could have been a hefty blow to NATO's mission – President Hamid Karzai traded five Taliban prisoners for Mr. Mastrogiacomo's release, a stunning and highly criticized victory for the extremists.
And when Mr. Karzai refused to negotiate for Adjmal Naqshbandi, Mastrogiacomo's Afghan translator, the Taliban won again. Mr. Naqshbandi was beheaded on Sunday, prompting expressions of outrage and betrayal for the apparent double standard and further driving a wedge between Karzai and the Afghan public.
Now, buoyed by the "Italian deal," the Taliban say they have kidnapped a total of two French aid workers and 13 Afghans. The Taliban also threatened to kill four Afghan medical personnel this week if a similar deal is not struck for the release of more Taliban prisoners.
An end to catch and release
In the weeks to come, the Taliban's greatest weapon is likely to be its emotional assault on international will.
"I hope the international community, who has forces in Afghanistan and has supported us, knows our position, and they will not insist on dealing with the terrorists," says Sultan Ahmad Baheen, the spokesman for the Afghan foreign ministry, by telephone from Kabul.
To head off the Taliban's offensive, NATO and the International Security Assistance Force launched Operation Achilles in March, a maneuver that will eventually involve 4,500 NATO troops and 1,000 Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in the country's volatile southern province of Helmand, a Taliban stronghold where Mastrogiacomo was kidnapped. It is the largest such combined operation to date, including firefights and air assaults, and resulted this month in NATO's retaking of the key town of Sangin in Helmand.
Kidnappings are nothing new to the war in Afghanistan. In the past, the Taliban showed a willingness to release captives, particularly foreigners, as long as they were proved not to be spies. But since 2005, Taliban militants have kidnapped and killed at least seven foreign hostages. Last month, they also killed Mastrogiacomo's driver, Saeed Nagha.
Just as they have gotten more brutal, so too have the Taliban become more clever: Mastrogiacomo's capture resulted, for the first time, in the public release of Taliban prisoners.
"There seems to be the assumption, which I would say is wrong, that [the Taliban] can speed up the collapse of NATO's resolve if they terrorize foreigners as much as possible," says noted Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid.
Polls show diminished support
It is a timely tactic, suggesting the Taliban's astute read of the political climates in NATO countries. Italy's response etched in the sharpest tones what a liability the war in Afghanistan has become for that government. It also ignited tensions within the NATO community, with the United States, Britain, and other allies condemning the deal as encouraging more kidnappings. Those critiques grew louder this week after Naqshbandi was murdered.
Not that cracks in resolve have actually appeared on the ground. Most NATO members have renewed their commitments to Afghanistan, and on Tuesday Australia announced it would double its troop size to 1,000. The US says it will send an extra 3,200 soldiers, and Britain another 1,400 soldiers.
But with more than 500 foreign troops dead and last year witnessing the highest death toll since the war began in 2001, the Taliban's new spate of kidnappings hopes to capitalize on public dismay throughout many of the states comprising the bulk of NATO's 36,000 troops.
• In Canada, which has 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, 46 percent of respondents agreed that their troops should be withdrawn before 2009, according to a February poll by Vancouver-based polling service Angus-Reid.
• In Germany, which has deployed 3,000 troops, 57 percent of respondents believe their troops should be withdrawn, according to a March poll released by Der Speigel magazine.
• In the Netherlands, which has 2,200 troops in Afghanistan, only 33 percent supported the recent deployment of additional troops, according to a January 2006 poll by market-research firm TNS NIPO.
• The public is also divided in the United States and Britain, the nations with the two largest troop deployments of 15,000 and 5,200 respectively. Fifty-three percent of British respondents to a September BBC poll oppose their government's military operation in Afghanistan. Fifty-two percent of US respondents also oppose it, up four points since September, according to a January poll released by CNN.
If Italy is any indication, the Taliban's lethal cocktail of roadside bombs and kidnappings could place increasing pressure on foreign governments to withdraw troops. But President Karzai's government has insisted that, despite the deal it brokered for Italian journalist Mastrogiacomo, there will be no more negotiations.
"The government of Afghanistan is determined not to deal with the Taliban terrorists," regardless of whatever pressure foreign governments may exert, says Mr. Baheen of the foreign ministry.
At home, the Taliban's kidnapping spree is exploiting divides between the Afghan people and President Karzai.
In a televised statement, Mullah Dadullah, a Taliban leader known for his cruelty, played up the idea of the Karzai government's double standards.
"If Karzai really is Afghanistan's president, he must negotiate [Naqshbandi's] release," said Dadullah. "Karzai has so far negotiated the release of foreigners but never the release of an Afghan citizen. If there is no negotiation, we will kill [Naqshbandi]."