Catch and release in Afghanistan?

Yesterday, both Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI) reported back from their trip to Afghanistan that the Taliban are gaining strength rather than falling into disarray.  This revelation from the Washington Post about our detention policy in the theater might explain why, at least in part:


The United States has for several years been secretly releasing high-level detainees from a military prison in Afghanistan as part of negotiations with insurgent groups, a bold effort to quell violence but one that U.S. officials acknowledge poses substantial risks.

As the United States has unsuccessfully pursued a peace deal with the Taliban, the “strategic release” program has quietly served as a live diplomatic channel, allowing American officials to use prisoners as bargaining chips in restive provinces where military power has reached its limits.

But the releases are an inherent gamble: The freed detainees are often notorious fighters who would not be released under the traditional legal system for military prisoners in Afghanistan. They must promise to give up violence — and U.S. officials warn them that if they are caught attacking American troops, they will be detained once again.

There are no absolute guarantees, however, and officials would not say whether those who have been released under the program have later returned to attack U.S. and Afghan forces once again.

And yet they don’t take us seriously.  Go figure.  The program exists outside of the official NATO reintegration process, which requires detainees to renounce their allegiance to the Taliban or affiliated insurgent groups.  In this program, all they have to do is promise not to engage in violence.


The Post explains that Congress may not have been aware of this practice.  Releases from Guantanamo would require some cooperation with the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, but releases from the Parwan detention center in Afghanistan do not.  The program exists to wheedle cooperation from elders by acquiescing to specific release requests and then testing them for their ability to keep to the deal.  However, it doesn’t sound as if the administration is keeping score; if they are, then their reluctance to release that data suggests that the experiments are not meeting with much success.

That’s not to say that it’s all gone badly.  One such prisoner release reportedly resulted in turning a rival jihadi group, Hezb-i-Islami, against the Taliban in the Wardak province, according to the Post, and it resulted in the end of HiI targeting of American troops.  If so, that’s good news in the short run, but the value of lifting one jihadi group over another while trying to establish a democratic republic is certainly debatable.

Meanwhile, the top commander of NATO forces rejects the bipartisan findings of Feinstein and Rogers and proclaims success in the Afghanistan mission:

Gen. John Allen, commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, on Monday rejected statements made by the heads of the House and Senate Intelligence committees that the Taliban has grown stronger since President Obama’s surge of additional U.S. troops, and he suggested that “sound bites” from Washington were not helping.

In an interview from his southern regional command post, Allen indicated he did not fully understand the source of remarks made by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., who heads the House Intelligence Committee. “I’m just interested in understanding the comment in its entirety,” Allen said. “I’ve not seen anything other than what’s been reported in the papers.”

“We have, I think, pretty clear evidence that the momentum has been reversed, that the surge has accomplished a great deal,” Allen said. He added that Taliban reverses on the battlefield “are very easily documented” across most of the country’s 34 provinces, except for those in the east bordering Pakistan’s tribal regions.

But the worst news for the Taliban, Allen said, was that because of the commitment being made to Afghanistan’s long-term future through the recently announced U.S.-Afghanistan strategic partnership, as well as commitments from NATO allies and 22 other countries taking part in the International Security Assistance Force that he heads, “there’s going to be an international military presence here in Afghanistan for a long time, a long time after 2014.”

As a result, many Taliban are rethinking their long-held “narrative,” which is that they can just wait the conflict out and then move into “a very quiet battle space” in a few years, Allen said. “If your narrative is ‘just wait us out,’ [and] you’re going to have to wait now for decades … you’re going to start to lose some enthusiasm.”


That’s only true to the extent that the Taliban perceive the West’s resolve in bolstering those forces if fighting turns widespread after 2014.  Let’s hope Gen. Allen has the better sense of progress in Afghanistan, because otherwise this does not look promising.

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