Taliban commander says Bergdahl swap encourages more abductions

Fear of this outcome came up as the strongest reaction in last night’s Fox News poll, where a clear majority was “very concerned” that we encouraged more hostage-taking with the 5-for-1 deal to get Bowe Bergdahl back. One Taliban commander tells Time Magazine today that we should be concerned. The huge payoff for five years of holding Bergdahl has the Taliban incentivized to look for more targets to use as bargaining chips:

A Taliban commander close to the negotiations over the release of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl told TIME by telephone Thursday that the deal made to secure Bergdahl’s release has made it more appealing for fighters to capture American soldiers and other high-value targets.

“It’s better to kidnap one person like Bergdahl than kidnapping hundreds of useless people,” the commander said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media. “It has encouraged our people. Now everybody will work hard to capture such an important bird.”

Don’t rush to take the bait on this, though. There are a couple of very good reasons to be skeptical of this claim. First, Bergdahl was an anomaly from the start, because as a rule Taliban and al-Qaeda personnel don’t take soldiers as prisoners — they torture and kill them for being infidels on supposedly holy land. For that reason, US and NATO take care not to leave personnel in position to be taken alone. It seems doubtful that they would take prisoners — and feed and house them, and provide security to contain them — on the off chance that they may get someone out of Gitmo or Bagram or any of the other detention facilities.  (They’ve had success breaking their people out of those facilities when they really want to do so anyway.)

This might very well be a way for the Taliban to troll American opinion. They certainly must be keeping track of the reaction in the US to the deal that sent five of their top commanders to Qatar in exchange for a PFC suspected of desertion. This sounds like a way to goad outrage on our end.

Susan Page reviews the main criticisms of the deal, including the danger of encouraging more abductions. Page focuses on another important point that flows from the prisoner swap. Did Barack Obama undermine the incoming elected government of Afghanistan by dealing with the Taliban for the five detainees rather than Kabul?

 Could the decision to release the Taliban commanders encourage terrorist groups elsewhere to try to capture American soldiers, diplomats or citizens in hopes of winning a valuable reward for their release? And will these five particular commanders return to wage war against the United States and its allies?

While prisoner exchanges are a standard part of the conduct of war, political scientist Christopher Gelpi of Ohio State University cites as potentially problematic the administration’s equivalent treatment of an American POW and Gitmo detainees, who have not been granted POW status by the U.S. government. What’s more, the administration negotiated the swap with the Taliban, not the Afghan government.

“Once again, the U.S. may appear to be granting the Taliban some legitimacy as an international actor, and in doing so may undermine the legitimacy of the Afghan government,” says Gelpi, chairman of OSU’s Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution program.

It’s no secret that the Obama administration has had its differences with the Karzai government, and have been happy to see it pass from the scene. The newly-elected government was supposed to give us an opportunity to provide a fresh spark to the US-Afghanistan relationship. Instead, Afghanistan has filed a protest that we dealt its nationals through the Taliban rather than the recognized legitimate government in Kabul.

With 32,000 troops in the country and the US looking to the Afghan security forces for an exit strategy, that’s a real problem.