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No Confidence

Jun 16, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 38 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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President Barack Obama and his advisers have long sought to release the five most dangerous Taliban commanders held in U.S. custody at Guantánamo. Bipartisan opposition scuttled a possible deal in 2012 because of a consensus that the “Taliban Five,” as they’ve come to be known, posed too great a threat. Even Senate Democrats were unwilling to go along with the administration’s plans then. But last week the president had the Taliban Five transferred to Qatar. Although administration officials stressed that this was primarily a swap to get back an American soldier, Bowe Bergdahl, they have always had an additional motive for letting the Taliban Five go.

Guess Who?

The Obama administration has hoped, based on scant evidence, that returning the Taliban Five to their brethren would be a “confidence-building measure.” It is supposed to coax the Taliban’s leadership into meaningful peace talks. This reconciliation effort would be led by the Afghan government, which opposed releasing the Taliban Five, but would also involve the United States. Obama has wanted to make this concession from the outset to convince the Taliban, an extremist group long allied with al Qaeda, that they can trust us to abide by the terms of whatever imagined deal is struck in the future.

President Obama alluded to this theory of the hoped-for negotiations in his statement heralding Bergdahl’s release. After praising Qatar for its help in brokering the deal, the president said the prisoner swap could “open the door” to more talks.

“The United States also remains committed to supporting an Afghan-led reconciliation process as the surest way to achieve a stable, secure, sovereign, and unified Afghanistan,” Obama said in his statement on May 31. “While we are mindful of the challenges,” he went on, the deal “could potentially open the door for broader discussions among Afghans about the future of their country by building confidence that it is possible for all sides to find common ground.” Other administration officials, including Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, made similar remarks.

The Taliban wasn’t impressed. The day after Obama’s statement, spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid dismissed the idea of future negotiations. The prisoner swap “won’t help the peace process in any way, because we don’t believe in the peace process,” Mujahid said.

The Taliban’s renunciation of the “peace process” was entirely predictable. Mullah Omar’s group has never been serious about reconciliation. National Security Council officials who briefed the press after the Bergdahl deal was finalized even told the press that the Taliban had no interest in broader talks. Omar’s spokesmen have, however, consistently demanded that the Taliban Five be released. And the Taliban has long been willing to exchange Bergdahl for them.

In June 2013, for instance, Taliban representative Suhail Shaheen described the group’s thinking in an interview with the Associated Press. “First,” he said, “has to be the release of detainees”—that is, the Taliban Five—and only after that would the Taliban “want to build bridges of confidence.” This amorphous confidence-building process has been so alluring to the administration, which has desperately sought peace talks, that the president is still talking about it years after it became clear that the Taliban has no intention of agreeing to the U.S. government’s demands.

In fact, while the Taliban stuck to its demands (freedom for the Taliban Five), the Obama administration abandoned all of its preconditions. Originally, the State Department said it would only talk to the Taliban on three conditions: if it laid down its arms, agreed to abide by the Afghan constitution, and renounced al Qaeda. The Taliban repeatedly and openly rejected these demands, and so the State Department abandoned them. As the New York Times reported, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “first signaled the opening for talks by recasting the administration’s longstanding preconditions” as “necessary outcomes” in 2011.

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