Will Bergdahl exchange for 5 Taliban detainees embolden militants, or make peace more likely?

Deb Riechmann / The Associated Press
June 16, 2014 01:55 AM

FILE - This Saturday June 14, 2014 file photo shows Afghan men displaying their identification cardsas they wait in line at a polling station in Kabul to vote for the next president of Afghanistan. The peace process is with the Taliban in Afghanistan is virtually on hold until it's clear who that will be. It’s also unclear what role the Obama administration can or is willing to play to coax the Taliban to the negotiating table. (AP Photo/Gulbuddin Elham, File)

WASHINGTON - Despite securing the release of five top detainees from the prison at Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, there are few indications that the Taliban will head into peace talks with the Afghan government any time soon.

The peace process is virtually on hold anyway until it's clear who will succeed Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Results of the second round of the Afghan presidential election Saturday won't be known until July, and it will be months before the winner will be able to set up his administration and lay the groundwork for possible talks. It's also unclear what role the Obama administration can or is willing to play to coax the Taliban to the negotiating table.

The Taliban say exchanging Bergdahl, held by Afghan militants for nearly five years, for the five detainees is a victory for their side. Still, U.S. and former and current Afghan officials say the transfer is evidence that the two sides can come together and deal peacefully. They say they hope the deal will bolster the influence of more moderate members of the Taliban interested in reconciliation talks.

Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel says the swap could provide a "new opening" that can produce a peace agreement.

When Obama appeared in the Rose Garden with Bergdahl's parents after their son was released, he said the U.S. would continue to support an Afghan-led process of reconciliation but didn't offer any specifics.

Obama didn't mention the Taliban or the peace effort in a major foreign policy speech he delivered late last month at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York.

Obama has made "encouraging, if vague" gestures toward helping with Afghan-led peace talks, said Kate Clark of the Kabul-based Afghan Analysts Network, who has tracked events in the country for years. "In reality. though, the U.S. is on its way out and the swap looks like a clearing up of unfinished business before its troops leave at the end of 2014."

"Whether the release of the five men might now aid reconciliation is unknown. They may be useful for negotiations or many years in detention may have hardened them to thoughts of compromise."

Ronald Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, said he's not convinced that the swap will have any impact on prospects for peace talks and he doubts the U.S. has much of a role to play if they ever materialize.

"No talks are imminent," he said. "I don't see anything happening anytime soon and by the time you get there, the Bergdahl swap will be ancient history."

The deal did help mend a fissure in the Taliban ranks, according to a former Afghan government official with close ties to the palace, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the exchange. For years, moderate Taliban leaders willing to engage in peace talks have been under pressure from unrepentant Taliban foot soldiers. Now that those soldiers have witnessed the successful prisoner deal, the former official said they will be less fearful that peace talks are a sellout to the West or the U.S.-backed Afghan government.

Already, Afghan forces have taken the lead in the fight, making it harder for the Taliban to argue that they are waging war against a foreign occupying force. The eventual exit of U.S. and other international forces that have trained Afghan security forces means the insurgents increasingly are fighting other Afghans. Rising fatalities among Afghan policemen, soldiers and civilians only weaken the Taliban's campaign for the hearts and minds of the population — a reason that also could make peace talks more appealing to the militants, the former official said.

On the flip side, both the moderate and hard-line members of the Taliban feel emboldened by the deal. Their leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, called it a significant victory. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the group still has no interest in peace talks with either the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai or his successor.

Because the Afghan government was not party to the negotiations, the Taliban feel they have been given a shot of international stature or recognition, which makes Karzai's government appear impotent.

"This negotiation has legitimized the Taliban, the organization that safeguarded the 9-11 al-Qaida perpetrators and ruled Afghanistan through atrocities," Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a hearing Wednesday on the prisoner exchange.

While he knew the exchange was being discussed, Karzai was angry that he wasn't given prior notice and was under the impression that if the deal happened, it would be part of a more comprehensive deal to start peace talks.

After the Taliban detainees were released to the Qatari government, the Afghan government wrote the U.S. Embassy, claiming that the arrangement with Qatar violates accepted international rules that say no government can hand over the citizen of another country to a third state as a prisoner or as someone whose freedoms are taken or restricted.

Earlier, Karzai had offered to have the five Guantanamo prisoners transferred home to Afghanistan, where the Afghan intelligence agency would make sure they didn't return to the fight. Instead, the U.S. chose to work through interlocutors in Qatar, where the detainees were flown and will be under a one-year travel ban.

In February 2011, Karzai asked the U.S. to release one of the five detainees, Khairullah Khairkhwa, saying he had been a moderate official in the Taliban government before it was toppled and would "positively contribute to the peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan." He was never released into the custody of the Afghan government and now is with the other four detainees in Qatar.

In Afghanistan, violence persists.

Days after the five Taliban leaders were exchanged for Bergdahl, presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah narrowly escaped assassination when two suicide bombers attacked his convoy at a campaign rally in Kabul. The other candidate, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, says that five times during the campaign "people with guns reached within five meters of me to finish me off."

The day after the runoff election, insurgents cut the fingers of nearly a dozen voters and killed 11 others, including four election workers, to punish them for voting. The Taliban had warned people not to participate in Saturday's election.


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