Let’s return to 2011, the last time that the White House formally consulted with Congress on a proposed deal to swap five high-ranking Taliban officials in Gitmo for Bowe Bergdahl. That proposal linked the release to an agreement on the part of the Taliban to stop fighting the elected government in Kabul and integrate themselves politically into the new Afghanistan political environment, as well as much more restrictive conditions on the detainees and a staged release rather than having them all leave American custody at once. The idea was to pre-empt any return to the battlefield by at least giving the Afghan government some space to get the Taliban to act politically rather than through warfare.
Three years later, Barack Obama released them without any conditions from the Taliban. Now the two chairs of the Congressional intelligence committees, the Afghans themselves, and even the New York Times would like to know why:
When the heads of the two major intelligence committees criticized the Obama administration on Sunday for swapping Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five members of the Taliban, they homed in on one part of the deal that the White House has struggled for a week, unsuccessfully, to explain. The question is why the five were released without any commitments to a larger agreement, under which the Taliban would renounce international terrorism, and begin a process of reconciliation with the government of Afghanistan.
That condition had been at the heart of the original discussions with the Taliban about a prisoner swap in 2011 and early 2012. It was abandoned last year, administration officials now say, because the Taliban were no longer interested in a broader deal — probably because the Taliban understood American forces were leaving. Now, both in Afghanistan and in Washington, there are questions about whether the release of the five men gives the Taliban legitimacy, and enhances their power over a weak government in Kabul.
Like the senior members of Congress, Afghan officials said they were caught off guard by the prisoner swap for Sergeant Bergdahl. According to one Afghan security official and another former official who maintains close ties to the presidential palace, many in the Afghan government believed that American officials misled them into thinking that the prisoner swap would not be done unless it was connected to a broader peace effort.
Those questions are especially pointed coming from the Afghans, who didn’t appreciate Obama’s scolding that “this is the way wars end.” One former official told the NYT that this is only the way the war ends for the US while bugging out, not for Afghanistan — which can now expect an even tougher road to peace with these five former commanders in the field. They also questioned why the US did not send them to Kabul to live in a detention facility run by the government and funded by the CIA for just that purpose:
“We would have used them to try to lever another approach to peace,” the former official said. “Could you imagine what it would have done to Taliban morale to see the five come to Kabul and have to live under the Afghan government?”
Instead, the Taliban have five of their leaders back, the United States is bringing its soldier home, and the Afghan government is still grasping for ways to open peace talks with the Taliban, who have shown little interest in talking about a broader resolution to the war.
“What does this say to every Afghan that has spent their entire adult lives fighting violent extremism?” said the former official, who is pro-American. “What does this say to all the Afghans that have already died or that will die next year?
“We find Obama’s language about ‘this is how wars end’ extremely insensitive,” the former official continued. “It ends for Americans. But it’s not ending for Afghans. Their intellectual dishonesty here is astounding,” he said. “If all you want to do is leave, then just say it. We all know it.”
One of the two committee chairs, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), says he’s sure the Taliban 5 will return to Afghanistan, but certainly not under government control. Saying that “we are going to pay for this decision for years,” Rogers says he is convinced that the five will return to the fight just as soon as they are able:
“We have made a serious, serious geopolitical mistake. We’ve empowered the Taliban,” Rogers, R-Mich., told George Stephanopoulos this morning on “This Week.” “The one thing that they wanted more than anything, George, was recognition from the U.S. government so they can use that to propagandize against areas that are unsecure still in Afghanistan. They got all of that.”
Rogers said he is certain the five Taliban members released from Guantanamo to Doha, Qatar, for the next year will use their time to prepare to return to the fight in Afghanistan, as they are free to meet with Taliban political leaders in Doha and can have family members travel to Qatar.
“We believe that’s certainly an opportunity for a courier network, to get them prepared for what’s next,” Rogers said.
“I don’t think you’ll see any operational activity right now by them. They’re smart enough to know better,” Rogers added. “But it allows them to prepare for what’s next. And that’s going to be to join the fight against what Americans are left in Afghanistan in 51 weeks… I am convinced, absolutely convinced of that.”
Rogers said he believes the Obama administration’s willingness to negotiate trading prisoners with the Taliban over Bergdahl’s release may lead to hostage-taking in the Middle East. “We are going to pay for this decision for years,” he said.
Rogers also says that the issue isn’t Bergdahl or Congressional notifications, but the way in which this deal undermines American security and American guarantees to partners in the region. There were other options available, Rogers says, even though the Obama administration keeps insisting there were none. “This administration thinks you’re either with them or for thermonuclear war,” Rogers says derisively about the White House penchant for straw men.