The exchange of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five senior members of the Afghan Taliban marks the anticlimactic end of what the Obama administration once hoped would be a bold diplomatic stroke to help broker peace in Afghanistan.
Bergdahl’s return is not, as originally envisioned, a step toward a larger U.S. bargain with the Taliban and the Afghan government. Instead, Bergdahl’s release represented the last major piece of unfinished Taliban business for the United States, as it winds down 13 years of combat and prepares for the departure of all U.S. fighting forces from Afghanistan by the end of this year.
But the successful handover does prove that deals can be made and that the United States has a channel for negotiation that the next Afghan president might be able to use, said current and former U.S officials and people familiar with a classified briefing to Congress on the Bergdahl swap.
The hope is that either of the two candidates vying to succeed Hamid Karzai as Afghanistan’s leader could build on the established contacts to seek political reconciliation with the Taliban. The United States could play a role in fostering or facilitating talks but would have little or no direct stake, U.S. officials said.
“For a long time, it was hoped that the detainee exchange would be accompanied by several other steps,” including a Taliban break with al-Qaeda and the opening of direct contacts between the Afghan government and the insurgents, a senior State Department official said Friday.
“That proved impossible to arrange for a variety of different reasons and within this time frame, so we didn’t achieve as much as we would have liked,” the official said. “But neither is it nothing. We have created precedent and a basis that might well provide an opening in the future.”
Current and former officials requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the secret talks; elements of the negotiation with the Taliban remain classified.
A presidential runoff vote will be held June 14, and the new Afghan leader is scheduled to take over in August. Both candidates have indicated support for the principle of political talks and eventual reconciliation with the Taliban insurgency, but there are no timelines or specific proposals on the table.
The Taliban is expected to fight as usual during the summer months this year and follow its pattern of retreating from heavy fighting in the coming winter. Next spring, after the election of a new president and the departure of international combat forces, the Taliban will confront a different military and political landscape, the senior State Department official said.
But it’s an open question whether that landscape will be different enough to prompt the Taliban to want to bargain with the government in Kabul.
The U.S. negotiations, dating to 2011, demonstrate that relative moderates within the Taliban movement not only exist but also have sufficient influence to make and execute a complicated deal, several officials said.
Although the Obama administration had been fairly confident that it had what one official called “the right address,” it had never been tested for anything approaching the importance of a prisoner handover.
The Taliban representatives, one official said, had to be able to sell the deal within the organization and then ensure that it did not fall apart.
The terms of the deal represented a leap of faith for the Taliban, because the United States insisted that Bergdahl be returned to U.S. custody before the order was given to release the five prisoners from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“They also had to trust us not to walk away” with Bergdahl and leave the Taliban hanging, the senior State Department official said. Both sides also had to run the risk that the handover was a trap to kill emissaries from the other side.
The U.S. order to release the five came within minutes of Bergdahl’s handover, and it took about three hours to get the men underway to Qatar, one person familiar with the congressional briefing said.
The five issued a statement Friday from the Qatari capital, Doha, where they are living freely but under government supervision. They pledged to remain “loyal” to the conditions Qatar has set for their release.
“We want to assure all stakeholders that we are steadfast and loyal to the agreement between the Islamic Emirate and State of Qatar that was made specifically for our release,” they said, using the name that the Taliban used for Afghanistan when it ruled the country.
Their release has prompted strong criticism of the Obama administration both for negotiating with a terrorist organization and for freeing men deemed dangerous.
The level of cooperation demonstrated on the Taliban-made video documenting the handover is notable, said Seth Jones, an Afghanistan expert at Rand Corp. He said the deal held up from the operational planning of the exchange to the tactical details of the face-to-face handoff a week ago in eastern Afghanistan.
“Regardless of the perceptions in the United States, among the Taliban and, frankly, among the Afghans on whether this was a good deal or bad, it demonstrates at least that the United States and Taliban could talk, could reach an agreement,” Jones said.
But Jones said the deal does not increase the likelihood of a peace settlement among the Afghans. Too many obstacles remain, he said, such as a mutual perception that the insurgents and government forces have fought to a draw. With the withdrawal of international forces, “the Taliban probably feels its situation is getting better” militarily, Jones said.
U.S. and NATO forces that once numbered 140,000 did the bulk of the fighting at the time of Bergdahl’s capture in 2009 and for a long time afterward. Afghan forces, trained and equipped largely by the United States and its allies, now have the lead in a fight against insurgents that retain some backing from Pakistan and al-Qaeda.