By killing two South Korean hostages and refusing to release the remaining 21, including 18 women, the Taliban is taking a new path that suggests it is becoming an Afghan branch of Al Qaeda.
In the past 18 months, the Taliban has adopted more aggressive tactics – such as kidnappings and suicide bombings – imported directly from the Al Qaeda-led global jihad.
It marks a departure from the Taliban of the recent past. Indeed, experts say that the Taliban's original reason for being – an intensely tribal brand of religious fundamentalism – has all but evaporated, as Muslims of all sects participate in a movement based less and less on traditional tribal values and increasingly on anti-Americanism and terrorism.
As a result, Pashtun tribal elders, long the best hope to negotiate the release of foreign hostages, including the Koreans, are increasingly being marginalized as the Taliban moves beyond its Afghan roots.
"This is a new strategy," says Ahmed Rashid, author of "Taliban." "There has been a progressive Al Qaeda-ization of tactics."
On July 31, Afghan police recovered the body of a second Korean aid worker killed since the group was taken hostage on a dangerous road in the insurgency-plagued south two weeks ago. The Taliban set a new deadline of 3:30 a.m. Eastern Time Aug. 1, saying it would kill more hostages if eight Taliban prisoners were not freed.
The Afghan government has insisted that it will not meet the Taliban's demands, despite pressure from the South Korean government to do so.
During the crisis, Afghan leaders have repeatedly taken issue with the Taliban's shift in tactics. On Sunday, President Hamid Karzai denounced the kidnapping of women and "foreign guests" as unIslamic, and added: "This will have a shameful effect on the dignity of the Afghan people."
For Hajji Spandagul, a tribal elder from eastern Afghanistan, it is abhorrent. "This is not the culture of Afghanistan – to take women hostage, especially in the tribal culture," he says, waving his large, weathered hands forcefully.
Here in a guesthouse for tribal elders visiting Kabul, he sits with several of his colleagues from around the country. In the past, elders like Mr. Spandagul have been able to intervene in hostage situations. They often live in areas beyond the government's control, meaning they must remain neutral, carving out whatever level of peace they can between the Taliban and the Kabul.
"We are threatened on both sides," says Jamaluddin Alizai, an elder from Kandahar Province, where the Taliban resistance is centered. "During the night, the Taliban come to my area, and I have to give them food or they will kill us, then the government comes in the morning and says, 'Why did you give them food?' "
Negotiating for the release of hostages has always been a natural means of maintaining calm in elders' districts. "We are being killed by both sides: How long should it last?" says Khair Mohammed, an elder from Nangahar Province who speaks in measured tones as he leans forward on one of the guesthouse's brown couches. "But the way forward is that we should get these people [hostages] out peacefully or else it will cause more problems."
This is becoming increasingly difficult, however. In Ghazni, talks with tribal elders to free the Koreans have reportedly broken down. Whatever progress was made at first, with elders securing several deadline extensions, has dissolved. The hard-line Taliban leadership is far more aligned with Al Qaeda than the local foot soldiers, and they have taken control of the situation.
"First, these [kidnappings] happen with the local Taliban who are easy to talk to," says an Afghan government security official who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. "But the longer these incidents last, the worse it becomes."
For example, when a German journalist was kidnapped in Kunar Province last week, tribal elders were able to secure his release within hours. But now, the Korean hostage situation is being coordinated by Taliban with connections to Pakistan's intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), say the government security official and the governor of Ghazni, Mirajuddin Patan.
Pakistan officials deny any involvement in the kidnapping, and say that the ISI is a favorite Afghan scapegoat.
"Intentionally, Al Qaeda exploits these things to make it difficult for the international community," says the Afghan official.
The goal is to spread fear among Afghanistan's international coalition, and the Taliban – like Al Qaeda in Iraq – has recognized the effectiveness of hostage-taking. "NATO has said there has been no spring offensive," says Pakistani author Mr. Ahmed. "This is the offensive."
As with Al Qaeda's Madrid bombings, "the goal is to create opposition at home for some of these very fragile foreign governments that are facing opposition to their presence in Afghanistan," says Ahmed.
But it could also create problems for the Taliban in Afghanistan, where tribal leaders are still deeply respected. "It was surprising to me that the Taliban did not accept the reasoning of the elders and important people of Ghazni," says Abdul Salam Raketi, a former member of the Taliban who is now a lawmaker, and was part of one of the government’s negotiating teams.
"It is really dangerous for the future of the Taliban," he says. "If people are supporting the Taliban a little, they won’t support them at all anymore because the Taliban did not listen to their elders in negotiations."
Elder Spandagul calls this the work of Chechens and Pakistanis who have come here to wage global jihad – and Afghan elders are powerless to stop them. In times past, tribes had their own militia, but these were disbanded with the establishment of the Western-backed government, and nothing has risen in their place. Many police patrols are unable to venture a mile from their posts.
Mr. Alizai of Kandahar recalls the day that a group of French soldiers came and asked why the Taliban were attacking from his district. "Because I have empty hands," he says. "If we don't have weapons how can we defend ourselves? They come and cut our necks."
It is the waning of a tribal culture that has governed the remotest corners of Afghanistan for generations, say elders. In areas so unconnected to the broader world, tribes still have a role to play in keeping order. But they are increasingly ground between a government seeking the trappings of a modern, centralized power structure and an insurgency seeking to further its own global ends.
"Both the Taliban and the government give us respect because they need us," says Spandagul. "If they didn't need us they would kick us out."