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Getting out of the Taliban-fighting business

WASHINGTON — It was only a matter of hours before the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, held by the Taliban for five years, became fodder for partisan controversy, with administration critics, particularly congressional Republicans, raising questions about whether sufficient safeguards have been taken to keep the five Taliban detainees released from Guantanamo from returning to the battlefield, and whether it's proper for the U.S. to be negotiating with terrorists at all.

Sen. John McCain, Ariz., said it is "disturbing that these individuals would have the ability to reenter the fight." Gen. James Jones, Obama's former National Security Adviser, pointed out that previously released detainees have returned to fighting and been involved in attacks against Americans.

The Guantanamo recidivism rate has been a matter of some controversy, with analysts like Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann of the New American Foundation arguing that the Defense Department has significantly exaggerated the number of former Gitmo detainees involved in hostilities against the United States.

But some undoubtedly have, including Said Ali al-Shihri, who was held at Guantanamo from 2001 to 2007 and went on to become the deputy leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula after his released. (He was killed by a drone strike in Yemen last year.)

According to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the confirmed recidivism rate for the 603 Guantanamo detainees released as of July 2013 was 16.6 percent with an additional 12.3 percent "suspected of reengaging." That sounds high, though it's significantly lower than the recidivism rate for the U.S. criminal justice system. Also, the rates are dropping — of the 71 prisoners released between 2009 and 2013, only three are confirmed to have reengaged. That's a 4.2 percent rate compared to 18.2 percent before that year.

Of course, the five being released from Guantanamo are not just low-level fighters or bystanders swept up in the wake of 9/11. They are all former senior Taliban leaders, implicated in attacks against U.S. forces, cooperation with al-Qaida and atrocities against civilians. One, Mohammad Fazl, is the Taliban's former deputy defense minister. Under the deal, the five will be flown to Qatar and placed under a one-year travel ban.

Is the administration simply unconcerned about these five rejoining the fight? More likely the deal is part of a larger push, also on display in last week's troop withdrawal announcement, to disengage the U.S. from the war against the Taliban.

The reason that the detainee recidivism rates have been dropping is probably not because Guantanamo has become so much more effective at rehabilitating detainees. It more likely is that, as the U.S. has drawn down its troop presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are fewer opportunities to engage in hostilities against Americans in these countries.

If all goes according to plan, by the time these five can get back to Afghanistan, they won't pose much of a threat to U.S. troops because there won't be that many U.S. troops there for them to fight.

Despite what some are saying is a fundamental abandonment of the U.S. practice of not negotiating with terrorists, this is not the first time in the global war on terrorism that the U.S. has reached out to groups who have attacked U.S. troops in the past. See Anbar, 2007.

Of course, there are still concerns that, like al-Shihri before them, they could participate in global terrorism. But it seems as if U.S. policymakers have concluded that fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan is no longer a particularly effective way of combating terrorism internationally.

A 2011 report by the Kandahar-based researchers Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, who are about as plugged-in to Taliban sources as any western researchers could ever possibly be, suggested that opportunities were ripe for a break between the Taliban and al-Qaida, but that continued U.S. military activities in Afghanistan were making such a break less likely. The two groups, whose relationship was always a bit fraught, may have drifted even further apart in the wake of Osama bin Laden's death.

Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international news, social science and related topics. He was previously an editor at Foreign Policy magazine.

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