While Obama administration officials and their media allies are furiously attempting to spin the swap of U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl for five high-level Taliban terrorists in their favor, the other side of the equation is weighing in as well. Taliban leaders are expressing jubilation over the trade, hailing it as a major recognition of their status and boon to their cause. The Taliban is seeking to solidify legitimacy as a political force in Afghanistan in the face of the imminent U.S. drawdown, after which less than 10,000 soldiers will remain in the country. With the Bergdahl exchange, the Taliban has achieved a major propaganda victory that will further aid its ascendancy in the country — on top of the benefit the return of several of its top operatives will offer as a consequence of the deal.
Details of the internal assessment of the Bergdahl swap come from a TIME magazine interview with two Taliban commanders. “This is a historic moment for us. Today our enemy for the first time officially recognized our status,” one commander said. “[T]hese five men are more important than millions of dollars to us.” When asked if this exchange would inspire the Taliban to capture other Americans, he responded succinctly. “Definitely,” he said. “It’s better to kidnap one person like Bergdahl than kidnapping hundreds of useless people,” the commander added, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. “It has encouraged our people. Now everybody will work hard to capture such an important bird.”
According to the magazine, the Taliban was well-prepared to engage in a media campaign of their own with regard to the swap. Those who were selected to hand Bergdahl over rehearsed messages they wished to deliver to the American public, and a videographer was assigned to cover the exchange to help shape the narrative. The white tunic and trousers that Bergdahl wore were also part of the equation, as a tailor was commissioned to create the clothes for the event as a “gesture of respect.”
TIME allowed a second Taliban commander affiliated with the Haqqani network that was holding Bergdahl captive to humanize the terrorist organization. “You know we are also human beings and have hearts in our bodies,” the commander said. “We are fighting a war against each other, in which [the Americans] kill us and we kill them. But we did whatever we could to make [Bergdahl] happy.”
The resulting propaganda video documenting the exchange also shows a woven scarf draped across Bergdahl’s shoulders. The commander says it was a parting gift, further explaining that Bergdahl had made several friends among his captors. “We wanted him to return home with good memories,” the commander said. Shortly thereafter, the video also shows something else that accrues mightily to the interests of the Taliban: the hero’s welcome the five released detainees received when they landed in Qatar, followed by a jubilant raising of the Taliban flag.
Despite its negotiations with the Taliban to free Bergdahl, the White House initially refused to define the group’s status. When asked Monday if the Taliban was a terrorist group, outgoing White House Press Secretary Jay Carney dodged the question. “We don’t get to choose our enemies when we go to war,” Carney responded. “We regard the Taliban as an enemy combatant in a conflict that has been going on, in which the United States has been involved for more than a decade. In this case–as you know we dealt with the Qataris in order to secure [Bergdahl’s] release–it was absolutely the right thing to do.”
The semantical gymnastics continued on Tuesday, when White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden explained that a 2002 executive order added the Taliban to the list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGT), while its designation as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) is omitted from the list compiled by the State Department. Why remains a mystery, considering the fact that both the Pakistani Taliban and the Haqqani Network thought to be holding Bergdahl are on the list.
Unsurprisingly, the administration chose to sidestep the issue, choosing to push the narrative that Bergdahl was a prisoner of war (POW), rather than a hostage. “Sgt. Bergdahl was not a hostage, he was a member of the military who was detained during the course of an armed conflict,” Hayden continued. “The United States does not leave a soldier behind based on the identity of the party to the conflict… It was a prisoner exchange. We’ve always done that across many wars. With the Germans. The Japanese. The North Koreans.”
Such an effort is at odds with reality. In the five years Bergdahl was missing, the Pentagon never listed him as a POW. When he first disappeared, he was listed as “duty status whereabouts unknown.” Two days later it was changed to “missing/captured,” where it remained until his release. Detainees at Guantanamo Bay have never been referred to as POWS either, largely reflecting the reality that terrorists are international gangsters rather than soldiers of a nation state.
The five released Taliban leaders were initially reported to be under house arrest in Qatar, but this was later discovered to be untrue. “All five men received medical checks and they now live with their families in an accommodation facility in Doha,” a Gulf source, who declined to be identified, told Reuters Tuesday. “They can move around freely within the country.” Moreover, officials in the U.S. intelligence community note that Qatar has a long track record of turning a blind eye to terror financing taking place in the emirate, and that they failed to keep track of a Gitmo detainee sent there at end of the Bush administration. “We know that many wealthy individuals in Qatar are raising money for jihadists in Syria every day,” a senior U.S. intelligence official told The Daily Beast. “We also know that we have sent detainees to them before, and their security services have magically lost track of them.”
In other words, while the Obama administration continues to tout the merits of the deal, the deal itself has unraveled—a reality that further enhances the status of the Taliban, which poses greater danger to Americans in the process.
The Weekly Standard’s Thomas Joscelyn outlines exactly why, noting that Berghdal was swapped for “five of the most dangerous Taliban commanders in U.S. custody.” Former Bush administration Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey explains the perilous implications of releasing such men, noting that even as the president is withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in a way that will purportedly not jeopardize the safety of those left behind until 2016, he has provided the Taliban with skilled strategic planners. He further notes that, despite the administration’s stated objective of separating the Taliban from al Qaeda, he has freed men with close ties to that organization — dating back prior to 9/11.
The Diplomat’s Zachary Keck attempts to save the Obama administration, insisting that the details of swap itself are only tangential to the bigger picture. He contends the larger strategy behind the deal is the Obama administration’s attempt to implement a “new, more unilateral tone to its Afghan policy,” brought about in large part by the lame duck presidency of Hamid Karzai. Thus, it is necessary to build trust and goodwill with the Taliban. “With the prisoner swap agreement out of the way, the U.S. and the Taliban are likely beginning to pursue these more substantive talks. The U.S. side is undoubtedly hoping to persuade the Taliban to end the insurgency and join the Afghan government in some capacity.”
Keck goes further, insisting the U.S. has won the war in Afghanistan, with “victory” consisting of eliminating the nation as a safe haven for al Qaeda. He believes the Obama administration will eventually allow the Taliban to resume power in that nation, as long as they deny al-Qaeda and other transnational terrorist groups a safe haven there. “This is an example of what President Obama meant when he discussed trying to hit singles and doubles rather than swinging for the fences,” Keck concludes.
Sadly, he is probably right. Last Sunday Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel admitted as much, characterizing the prisoner swap as a vehicle “that can produce an agreement,” with the Taliban. Much like Obama’s affinity for the Muslim Brotherhood, or his administration’s latest decision to work with a Palestinian “unity” government that includes Hamas, this appalling level of indifference regarding the true nature of the Taliban will undoubtedly be portrayed as “21st century” diplomacy. Furthermore, allowing all the hard-won gains in Afghanistan to be squandered exactly as they have been in Iraq will undoubtedly be hailed as a “breakthrough,” despite the reality that the Obama administration is on the verge of doing something no administration in history has ever done before: withdraw from two different wars on schedule.
Angry Republicans have rightly wondered what message freeing five high-level Taliban thugs for one possible deserter tells the terrorists. They would be far better served wondering what the mockery of over ten years of American blood and treasure in exchange for “singles and doubles” that include a possible re-instatement of the Taliban tells them.
We know what it told Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taliban’s spiritual leader. “I extend my heartfelt congratulations to the entire Afghan Muslim nation, all the mujahedeen and to the families and relatives of the prisoners for this big victory,” he said.
Apparently one side in the war on terror still believes in victory. Sadly, as the Obama administration has so amply indicated, it’s not America.
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