President Obama negotiated with terrorists.
He broke the laws that govern transfers at Guantánamo Bay.
He has strengthened the enemies of the Afghan government that the United States has fought to establish with blood and treasure for a decade.
Mr. Obama has opened himself to all these charges with his decision to transfer five high-level Taliban detainees from Guantánamo to Qatar Saturday in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the only US prisoner of war in Afghanistan.
Yet in the administration’s answers to all these criticisms, it becomes apparent that this weekend’s prisoner swap is about more than Sergeant Bergdahl. It is a statement of Obama’s deeply held views about American foreign policy, which unapologetically see the world in innumerable shades of gray and are willing to challenge how the country has conducted itself internationally in the past.
There is no doubt that the successful return of Bergdahl to the United States will be an emotional and poignant moment. But there is also no doubt it is a risk.
The five Taliban men sent to Qatar, after all, were not naïve foot soldiers caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were precisely the sort of men for whom the Guantánamo detention camp was created: Taliban leaders ranging from provincial governors to government ministers to top military officials.
In the past, even Democrats have questioned the wisdom of transferring these men out of Guantánamo – something that has been discussed within diplomatic circles for years.
“Like a number of other members of the committee, I’ve expressed some real concern about the reports that the administration is considering transferring some Taliban detainees from Guantánamo to Qatar,” said Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in 2012.
Khairullah Khairkhwa, for one, was an original member of the Taliban – someone so senior that Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar apparently trusted him personally. He was, at various times, a defense minister for the Taliban and a governor of Herat Province. Mohammed Fazl, meanwhile, has been accused of war crimes related to the slaughter of Shiites. The others include another Taliban-era governor, an intelligence chief, and a security official.
"It is disturbing that these individuals would have the ability to reenter the fight," Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona said on CBS's "Face the Nation." "And they are big, high-level people, possibly responsible for the deaths of thousands."
But, of course, nothing about Afghanistan is clear. Former warlords of the Northern Alliance have also been accused of war crimes, yet they are now ministers in the Afghan government because they helped the US topple the Taliban in 2001. And the brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Hekmat, told Al Jazeera in 2011 that Mr. Khairkhwa would be helpful in reconciling the Taliban and the Afghan government and “was considered a moderate by those who knew him.”
And here is where Obama’s worldview becomes apparent.
On Wednesday, he gave a major foreign policy address about the limits of US military power. Indeed, the 2009 Afghanistan surge that he ordered has yielded a country in stalemate and still wracked with corruption. If Western governments weren’t funding the Afghan Army, the country could collapse. The Afghan military budget is two times the revenue collected by the entire government annually, Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations told the Monitor.
The Afghan solution must come from within, he suggested, and, like Hekmat Karzai, Obama appears to hope that the “Taliban Five” could be a part of the reconciliation process. A senior Obama administration official told CBS News as much Sunday, saying the Bergdahl swap is part of “a broader reconciliation framework” between the US and the Taliban.
The Afghan High Peace Council, which is tasked with moving the country toward reconciliation, appears to agree. “The council reportedly believes that high-ranking Taliban commanders held at Guantánamo can assist in reconciliation efforts,” according to the Long War Journal.
The Obama administration claims it did not negotiate with terrorists in the prisoner swap. Qatar was an intermediary, and Qatari officials have promised to ban the Taliban leaders from traveling abroad for a year. Yet the Obama administration has in the past shown impatience over what it sees as America’s hard-headed refusal to talk with enemies, whether they are the Taliban or Iran. The Guardian writes:
Administration officials have long rolled their eyes at that contention [of negotiating with terrorists], and rattled off examples of Ronald Reagan trading arms for hostages with hated Iran and the litany of Israeli prisoner swaps with Hamas and Hezbollah, all examples designed to hit a nerve with their conservative opposition. From their perspective, foreclosing on a tangible achievement like Bergdahl's freedom to preserve a rhetorical purity against negotiating with terrorists – which is a white lie – is foreign policy malpractice.
And, of course, Obama has no love for Guantánamo. During his first week in office, he signed an executive order to close the detention facility within a year. That failed. More recently, when he signed a bill that required him to give Congress 30 days notice of any plan to transfer Guantánamo detainees abroad, he added a “signing statement” saying that, in his opinion, the Constitution gave him the power to override the law.
On Saturday, he did it.
On Saturday evening, standing in the White House Rose Garden with Bergdahl’s parents, Obama said: “We’re committed to winding down the war in Afghanistan, and we are committed to closing Gitmo. But we also made an ironclad commitment to bring our prisoners of war home. That's who we are as Americans.”
To critics, perhaps, the swap smelled of concession. But to Obama, it seems, it was a positive assertion of his vision for a more nuanced American foreign policy.