The two men’s fates were inextricably linked last year when they were released as part of a prisoner swap that freed Haqqani and two other high-level commanders in exchange for Weeks and U.S. citizen Kevin King. Weeks and King, both formerly lecturers at the American University of Afghanistan, were kidnapped at the same time when gunmen ambushed their SUV in central Kabul.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted an unexpected photo — one that would have been hard to imagine even a few months ago — of Weeks and Haqqani together at the airport in Qatar on Thursday, and said Weeks was there to attend the expected signing of a deal between the Taliban and the United States. Weeks wore a scarf and a hat commonly worn in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province.
In a phone call with The Washington Post, Weeks said he requested an invitation from the Taliban to attend the gathering in Doha and is paying for his transportation and accommodations himself. Mujahid confirmed that Weeks was in Qatar at the invitation of the Taliban.
Weeks said he is there to support civilians who have suffered through decades of conflict as well as “the Taliban and all of those that are willing to look at peaceful resolution to this long-running war.”
He said it was particularly meaningful to visit Qatar, which has hosted several rounds of peace talks between U.S. and Taliban negotiators, because he credits the Qatari government with advancing the peace process and helping to secure his freedom.
“I wanted to show my support for the state of Qatar who have done such incredible work and kudos for them because without them I would not be free and without them this peace process would not have continued forward,” he said.
Weeks described meeting the man for whom he was exchanged as a surreal experience. Haqqani presented him with a hat and scarf as gifts, he said, and Weeks plans to gift him an Australian aboriginal painting and a special perfume he purchased in Oman.
“I was quite humbled that he actually turned up at the airport himself personally to greet me and I spent two hours with him in the morning,” he said.
The two talked at length about their separate experiences in prison, noting the similarities in their difficulties returning to normal sleep schedules, coping with large crowds and getting used to new technology once they were released. “It was like that sort of connection made it very easy to talk to him,” Weeks said.
The Taliban and U.S.-backed Afghan forces are nearing the end of an agreed-upon seven-day period of reduced violence ahead of an expected peace deal between the United States and the Taliban.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced the planned release of the Taliban prisoners in exchange for Weeks and King in November, saying he hoped the move would jump-start “direct talks” with the Taliban. The three prisoners in Afghan custody all belonged to the Haqqani network, a violent group responsible for several high-profile kidnappings in recent years. U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad had long sought the release of the two lecturers as he negotiated during peace talks with the Taliban.
The Afghan government’s release of Haqqani was a concession after earlier declarations that freeing him would be to cross a “red line.”
After Weeks’s release last year he spoke highly of his captors, noting that they were soldiers following orders and treated him with respect.
“I don’t hate them at all,” he said in a news conference when he returned to Australia. “And some of them I have great respect for and, and great love for almost.”
Weeks said Thursday that he learned how to speak some Pashto while being held by the group and that he holds no resentment against the Taliban for keeping him in captivity. He said his experience ultimately inspired him to advocate for peace for all Afghans.
“We have to move forward, and that was something I learned slowly while I was incarcerated because when you have no control over your life and no control over whether you live or die, you just have to learn to let go of things,” he said. “It’s changed me so intrinsically that … at times it’s difficult to remember what life was like before this.”
Weeks, who was 50 at the time of his release, has made public appearances since he was freed in November, but King, who was 63, has kept a lower profile. While in captivity, the Taliban warned that King’s health was rapidly deteriorating and he was suffering from a serious kidney condition. The two men appeared in videos together pleading to be released and appeared unwell.
But on Thursday, Weeks and Haqqani were both all smiles, standing next to each other with the knowledge neither would be free if not for the other.
Sharif Hassan in Kabul contributed to this report.