As the Obama administration’s case for the Bowe Bergdahl-Taliban prisoner exchange further unraveled last week, the geo-political implications of the deal became clearer. They’re not pretty.
In the hours before Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel clicked on the microphone to testify about the swap on June 11, Obama administration officials told reporters to expect a forceful defense of the exchange and an aggressive refutation of the criticism that has attended it.
That didn’t happen. Instead, Hagel walked members of the House Armed Services Committee through the administration’s well-worn talking points, which had already failed to satisfy many members of Congress. And on several occasions he contradicted explanations administration officials had offered over the previous 10 days—including some arguments that Hagel himself had made.
In the early stages of the controversy, the administration defended the decision, and its choice not to inform Congress as required by law, by pointing to the failing health of Bowe Bergdahl. The captive soldier’s “health was deteriorating,” Hagel said during a June 1 interview on Meet the Press. “This was essentially an operation to save the life of Sgt. Bergdahl.”
Administration officials had pressed this case aggressively in the days following the swap, culminating in a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal reporting that the final proof-of-life video provided by the Taliban showed Bergdahl looking frail. “Rapiddeterioration of soldier’s health persuaded leaders to back exchange,” the paper reported. A spokesman for Director of National Intelligence James Clapper pointed to Bergdahl’s conditionas a key reason for the urgency of the exchange, telling the Journal that the intelligence community had“evidence that Sgt. Bergdahl’s health was failing and that he was in desperate need of medical attention.”
But 10 days later, after several news outlets noted that the video was shot in December and that intelligence officials had privately disclaimed any such evidence, the administration backed off. In his June 11 testimony, Hagel sounded almost like an administration critic. “We didn’t know what kind of health Bergdahl was in,” he said. “All we had was a six-month [old] video.”
Another problem for the administration is its insistence, simultaneously, that the war in Afghanistan is just like other wars that the United States has engaged in, and that it is unlike any other war we’ve ever fought.
Hagel spent much of his testimony insisting that the Obama administration had not, technically, negotiated with terrorists. The United States negotiated this deal with the Qataris, he argued, who merely served as an intermediary for the Taliban, who merely spoke on behalf of the actual terrorists of the Haqqani network, who had held Bergdahl for much of his captivity in Pakistan. Despite the fact that he was held by terrorists, who were represented by the Taliban, a nongoverning nonstate actor, Hagel insisted that Bergdahl was “not a hostage; he was a prisoner of war.”
And yet, when Republicans pressed Stephen Preston, the Pentagon’s top lawyer, on whether members of the Taliban could be held legally after the conflict ended, he acknowledged that the “Taliban [could be] held as associates of al Qaeda.”
Hagel also continued to insist that the U.S. government had “substantially mitigated” the threat that the freed Taliban commanders would pose to the United States despite two additional reports confirming that senior U.S. intelligence officials believe they will return to the fight.
While much of the focus at home remained on the Obama administration’s shifting justifications for the swap, the potential damage the deal has done overseas is significant. The Afghan government publicly embraced the exchange, but it had little choice. With the dramatic drawdown of U.S. troops well underway and a full departure of combat troops scheduled to take place by 2016, Hamid Karzai and other Afghan leaders are racing to find some reconciliation with the Taliban—or at least with segments of the Taliban, however small, that may be reconcilable.
Administration officials have gone out of their way to say that they hope this deal revives those efforts. The opposite seems more likely. Hamid Karzai has been a challenging and uneven ally. But by cutting his government out of these talks and dealing directly with the Taliban (and later indirectly through the Qataris), the Obama administration has badly undermined the government in Kabul.
Transferring five commanders sought by the Taliban was a bad idea—particularly these five commanders. But if the administration was going to get into the business of prisoner swaps, the elected government in Afghanistan needed to be involved. Excluding them sent a clear message—to Afghans, to the Taliban, and to potential troublemakers in the region: The Kabul government is weak.
To do this at all was unwise. To do it immediately after announcing the departure of all U.S. troops in 2016 was counterproductive. And to do it in the midst of the Afghan presidential campaign was malpractice.
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.