Obama struck a good deal with the Taleban

opinion June 04, 2014 00:00

By Foreign Policy

Critics of the decision to swap Taleban captive Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl for five Taleban commanders held at Guantanamo Bay accuse President Barack Obama and his officials of violating the long-standing US policy of never negotiating with terrorists. The ad

The critics are missing the point. On balance, the exchange made sense. It isn’t just that a US soldier has been recovered at little net cost to US security interests: The release is part of a broader effort to serve those interests. The administration has long been trying to engage with the Taleban as the US war effort winds down, and rightly so.
It isn’t an easy policy to set before the US public, but it’s a necessary one. If the US’s exit from Afghanistan is not to end in disaster for the people of that country, there must be some kind of accommodation between their government and the Taleban. By releasing the five Taleban commanders, the administration hoped not just to get Bergdahl back, but also to move that larger process along.
To be sure, the five Taleban are still enemies of the US They’re bad men: Two of them have been implicated in massacres of Shi’ites, for instance. Also, it’s an awkward complication that some of Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers apparently suspect him of desertion – hardly the ideal case for ensuring “no man is left behind”. Nonetheless, since the Taleban isn’t going to be crushed, it will have to be talked to. Scruples about good and bad negotiating partners must yield to that reality.
Republican claims that the swap will encourage terrorists to kidnap Americans are unconvincing. Fighters on the battlefield need no additional incentive to kill or capture the enemy. There’s little prospect of this swap serving as a model for hostage taking in other situations.
To drive home that point, the administration is right to insist that no precedent is being set. It helps that it hasn’t designated the Afghan Taleban as a terrorist group. The Taleban sheltered Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda but has not itself attacked US targets outside the theatre of war. According to their Defence Department dossiers, all five Taleban were captured and held for their roles in fighting coalition forces.
The timing of the swap is admittedly questionable. Prisoner exchanges generally come when hostilities have ceased. The five Taleban were released to Qatar, which agreed to ensure they would not pose a threat to the US and banned them from travelling for a year, but that isn’t reassuring. There’s a chance the men will take up arms again, as others released from Gitmo have done.
However, with the US preparing to withdraw, other considerations loomed larger. The opportunity to strike a deal for Bergdahl’s release was closing; his health was a growing concern; and widening a channel of communication with the Taleban was good policy. The deal was no great cause for jubilation, but it would have been a mistake not to strike it.