During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama famously said that the U.S. should negotiate with Iran without any preconditions. Obama’s notion of diplomacy with the mullahs was widely ridiculed at the time, including by his then rival for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton. More than three years into the Obama administration, multiple attempts at negotiations with the Iranians over their nuclear program have not led to any progress.
Attempts at negotiations with the Taliban have not gone any better. But Obama administration officials are so desperate to move the talks forward (as part of a planned drawdown in Afghanistan) that they are not only willing to negotiate without any preconditions, they are also willing to make concessions in advance of the hoped-for talks.
As Reuters reports, the Obama administration is willing to transfer the five most dangerous Taliban commanders in U.S. custody to Qatar before the Taliban does anything. The Taliban Five are held at Guantanamo and would be exchanged for Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier who “is believed to be being held by Taliban militants in northwestern Pakistan.”
Here is how Reuters describes the new proposal:
The revised proposal would send all five Taliban prisoners to Qatar first, said sources who spoke on condition of anonymity. Only then would the Taliban be required to release Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, the only U.S. prisoner of war.
Previously, U.S. officials had proposed dividing the Taliban prisoners into two groups, and requiring Bergdahl's release as a good-faith gesture to come before the second group of prisoners would be moved out of Guantanamo.
The Obama administration has been dangling the Taliban Five as a lure to negotiations for a while now, but the Taliban hasn’t taken the bait. So, the administration keeps watering down what it expects the Taliban to do in return.
At first, the Obama administration had outlined several preconditions before the two parties could come to the table. The Taliban was supposed to lay down its arms, respect the Afghan constitution, and disavow al Qaeda. Those preconditions were removed long ago, as the Taliban has sworn to keep fighting, disregarded the Afghan government’s legitimacy, and refused to break with Ayman al Zawahiri’s terror empire. Therefore, as the New York Times has reported, Secretary of State Clinton, who once scoffed at the idea of negotiating without preconditions with Iran, rebranded these preconditions as “necessary outcomes” for talks with the Taliban.
On that last one-time precondition, the Taliban’s relationship with al Qaeda, there is an added twist to this story that is often missed. The Taliban commander who has taken credit for Bowe Bergdahl’s capture is Mullah Sangeen Zadran, who is actually a top military commander in the Haqqani network. In August 2011, Clinton’s State Department added Sangeen to its list of specially designated global terrorists. According to State, Sangeen “helps lead fighters in attacks across Southeastern Afghanistan, and is believed to have planned and coordinated the movement of hundreds of foreign fighters into Afghanistan.” As my colleague Bill Roggio has pointed out, “foreign fighters” includes al Qaeda fighters. There is simply no question that the Haqqani Network is closely allied with al Qaeda.
Moreover, Sangeen has not hidden his loyalty to al Qaeda. During an interview released by al Qaeda’s propaganda wing, As Sahab, Sangeen was asked: “How is your relation [sic] with your brothers in Al-Qaeda and what is the level of cooperation between you?”
Sangeen responded, “All praise is for Allah, Al-Qaeda and Taliban all are Muslims and we are united by the brotherhood of Islam. We do not see any difference between Taliban and Al- Qaeda, for we all belong to the religion of Islam.” The full text of Sangeen’s response to that question can be found here.
You can see why the State Department dropped its preconditions for talks with the Taliban. There is no evidence that Sangeen and his ilk are about to separate from al Qaeda or give up the fight any time soon.
The Obama administration’s attempt at diplomacy with the Taliban has degenerated to such a point that the U.S. is willing to free men suspected of mass murder (two of the Taliban five are wanted by the UN for war crimes), while simply hoping that an al Qaeda-linked Taliban and Haqqani commander will free one American soldier in return.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.