The prisoner swap that saw Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held by the Taliban for five years, released in exchange for five Taliban leaders who had been held for over a decade at Guantanamo, has touched off a predictable array of complaints. Congress wasn't consulted, President Obama had negotiated with terrorists, that US soldiers will be at greater risk in future because of the precedent.
Among the most strident of the critics has been Senator Ted Cruz, who said in response to the deal: "What does this tell terrorists, that if you capture a US soldier, you can trade that soldier for five terrorists we've gone after?... The reason why the US has had the policy for decades of not negotiating with terrorists is because once you start doing it, every other terrorist has an incentive to capture more soldiers."
But dealing with people you find odious - your enemies - is how most wars end. And with the US set for full withdrawal from Afghanistan at the end of 2016, the prospect of a crushing defeat for the Taliban is pretty much nil. Getting POWs back, whatever the circumstances of their capture, a crucial goal.
Did Obama just swap five dangerous "terrorists" for Bergdahl, as Sen. Cruz alleges? It depends on your definition of "terrorism."
Four of the five men released into Qatar's custody, where they are supposed to remain for at least a year before being allowed to return home, were indeed senior members of the Taliban movement. The Taliban have been seeking the release of the five in exchange for Bergdahl since 2011, and there had been fitful progress in that regard, with Qatar acting as a mediator, since at least 2013.
Outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai has sought in recent years to find a reconciliation deal with the Taliban, and the release of the "Guantanamo Five" has been a part of those efforts.
Who are they? Khairullah Khairkhwa was governor of Herat during Taliban rule and is a founder of the group. Fazl Mazlum was head of their army. Nurullah Nuri was the Taliban's governor of Balkh province, and Abdul Haq Wasiq was the deputy head of Taliban intelligence. Mohammad Nabi Omeri is the most junior of the five, alleged by the US to have been the Taliban governments head of communications and has claimed that he had assisted the US in efforts to track down Mullah Omar, the titular head of the Taliban.
As best as can be made out, none of the released men were ever directly involved in efforts to mount terrorist attacks on the US or any other foreign country. Kate Clark, writing about the group for the Afghan Analysts Network in 2013, said that while accusations of war crimes against the men have been common in US press reports, evidence is scant.
Objections to their release appear based less on practical considerations, than on political ones, especially fears in the White House of being accused of dealing with the enemy during an election year
It seems important, therefore, to be honest about the allegations made about the five. All or some of the five have been labelled in press reports as war criminals, but without giving details of where, when and against whom the crimes supposedly took place. There is only real evidence against Mullah Fazl Mazlum and the allegations against him were known about at the time – that he had command responsibility when civilians were massacred and civilian property willfully destroyed. Many figures in government today have similar records. As will be looked at in depth in a second blog, claims made in the Guantanamo Bay tribunals and in press reports sourced to unnamed US officials, frequently do not stand up to close inspection.
There's also the concern that the arrest of some of these men actually contributed to the raging insurgency in Afghanistan. Clark writes: "At least one of the five, the former deputy intelligence chief, Abdul Haq Wasiq, was arrested in 2001 by the US army in a sting operation after he had handed himself in to the new Afghan government in good faith. This was one of many such detentions of major Taleban figures involving deception or duplicity in the early months of the US intervention... It was a tactic which helped sow the seeds of insurgency, in that it showed that Taleban would not be allowed to live in peace after the fall of their regime."
Anand Gopal dealt with this problem at length in a 2010 report for the New America Foundation, in which he argued that overtures from a group of senior Taliban commanders to surrender in exchange for freedom and getting out of politics were spurned as a combination of hubris, revenge-seeking by Afghan enemies, and US insistence that the Taliban should not be dealt with.
Karzai and other government officials ignored the overtures—largely due to pressures from the United States and the Northern Alliance, the Taliban’s erstwhile enemy. Moreover, some Pashtun commanders who had been ousted by the Taliban seven years earlier were eager for revenge and were opposed to allowing former Taliban officials to go unpunished.
Widespread intimidation and harassment of these former Taliban ensued. Sympathetic figures in the government told Haqqani and others in the group that they should flee the country, for they would not be safe in Afghanistan. So the men eventually vanished across the border into Pakistan’s Baluchistan province. Many of the signatories of the letter were to become leading figures in the insurgency.
Clark wrote of Khairkhwa that "during the Emirate, he was considered one of the more moderate Taleban in leadership circles" and she recounted meeting the man in September 2000. "Unlike many Taleban, he was comfortable speaking to a foreigner and, very unusually, happy to be interviewed in Persian (most Taleban would only speak Pashto at the time). Herat, where he was the governor, was noticeably more relaxed than Kabul, Mazar or Kandahar: I filmed openly in the city (then an illegal act), the economy was reasonably buoyant and women came up to chat – a very rare occurrence."
Fazl is probably the pick of the bunch when it comes to nastiness. In 1999 he was in charge of Taliban forces who participated in a scorched earth campaign in Shomali, with vast destruction of homes and orchards and the execution of civilians and captured Northern Alliance combatants. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans were displaced in that campaign.
Others in the group have been accused, without evidence, of having participated in massacres during the Afghan civil war that ended in Taliban victory. It seems a safe bet that these are not nice men.
But neither are many of the warlords the US and NATO helped bring to power in Afghanistan. Consider Abdul Rashid Dostum, who has served as army chief of staff under President Karzai. In 2001, as the US helped the Northern Alliance defeat the Taliban government, Dostum was credibly alleged to have been in command of troops that killed 2,000 Taliban detainees, some shot, most suffocated to death in shipping containers. That is not his only alleged crime, nor is he alone amongst the US and NATO's allies in the country. Human Rights Watch wrote in 2006:
Several of the worst perpetrators from Afghanistan's recent past are still active and engaging in widespread human rights abuses. Several highly placed members of the current Afghan government and legislature were implicated in war crimes during brutal fighting that killed or displaced hundreds of thousands of Afghans in the early 1990s and precipitated the rise of the Taliban. Most prominent among this group are parliamentarians Abdul Rabb al Rasul Sayyaf, Mohammed Qasim Fahim and Burhanuddin Rabbani, Minister of Energy Ismail Khan, Army Chief of Staff Abdul Rashid Dostum, and current Vice President Karim Khalili, all of whom continue to misuse positions of power.
If allegations of war crimes during Afghanistan's civil war amounts to being a terrorist, then the US has been treating with terrorists in Afghanistan for 13 years now.
Has the US damaged its own security by these releases? It's hard to see how. The Taliban have long been motivated to capture US soldiers - they will remain so as long as US soldiers remain on the battlefield to be possibly caught. Are the fellows released nasty characters, with brutal methods, harsh and unsparing interpretations of their faith, with horrible views about the role of women and minorities in society? Yes.
But they are not alone in these views within the Afghan political landscape. And Karzai's successor's best chance of holding things together in the country after the US withdrawal will be finding an accommodation with the enemies of the central government.
Partisan point scoring in the US over Obama being "weak on terrorism" in this regard misses the point. The US has gotten a soldier home. The Taliban have gotten something they wanted in exchange. And this just might - might - be part of a process of Afghan's negotiating an end to the war in their homeland.
Dealing with the Taliban ugly and uncomfortable? Yes. Uglier than finding a way to end a war that threatens to rage on for years yet?