By William Beecher
The Obama Administration’s trade of five of the most senior Taliban commanders at Guantanamo Bay for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is a national disgrace for a number of reasons.
First of all, he was not a prisoner of war by any normal definition of the term. Disenchanted with the course of the war in Afghanistan, he snuck away from his post in the middle of the night, armed only with a compass to direct him toward enemy lines. He was not captured in combat, quite the contrary. But instead of treating him as a possible sympathizer, the Taliban decided to hold him as potential trade bait.
It took several years, but the Taliban’s patience has been borne out. Actual negotiations, on-and-off again, reportedly began three years ago, before finally coming to fruition. One of the six detainees the Taliban originally demanded in exchange for died during negotiations. But the other five have now been freed, with apparently the only limitation being that they must stay in Qatar for one year. Presumably in a hotel with room service. After that? Guess.
The last time a senior Taliban commander was released from Gitmo, Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, he soon showed up back in Afghanistan as director of military operations.
Secondly, there is a reason American presidents have consistently refused to negotiate with terrorists. Now terrorists around the world may believe that if they capture or kidnap a U.S. citizen, military member, or civilian, they can hope to trade for high value prisoners. And at least during the current administration, they may have a decent chance of success.
Commented National Security Adviser Susan Rice: “When we are in battles with terrorists and the terrorists take an American prisoner, that prisoner is still a U.S. serviceman or woman. We still have a sacred obligation to bring that person home.”
Was she not aware of the circumstances of Berghdal falling into the Taliban’s hands? He reportedly deserted his buddies at 3:30 in the morning, leaving his weapons behind. Or was Rice just trying to convince public opinion of the merits of the case, the facts notwithstanding?
Third, what signal does this grossly uneven swap send to Taliban leadership on the eve of the United States pulling the bulk of its troops out of Afghanistan this year, regardless of the situation on the ground?
President Obama says he wants to keep a small residual force in the country for another couple of years after that, but it is absolutely clear he wants to wash his hands of the frustrating, costly, bloody struggle. And after American and NATO men and money are no longer an obstacle, the opportunities for the Taliban to return to power, at least over large swaths of the country, appear promising.
Over the weekend, Mullah Mohammad Omar, the supreme leader of the Taliban, broke his normal silence to declare that the prisoner swap brought the insurgents “closer to the harbor of victory.” Without question it was a celebratory statement.
And, finally, what signal is being sent to those who depend on the United States to be steadfast in their defense if the need arises?
Some may conclude that America is in a state of retreat from global commitments—in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Syria, in Ukraine. Does that invite more assertive or even aggressive challenges, from Russia, from China, from others?
Let us hope President Obama does not offer to lead a ticker-tape parade through Times Square to welcome Bergdahl back.
William Beecher is a Pulitzer Prize winning former Washington correspondent for The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. He is also a former Assistant Secretary of Defense.