Afghan government angered by Bergdahl, Taliban prisoners swap
By HEATH DRUZIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 2, 2014
KABUL — The Afghan government Monday sharply criticized the prisoner swap where five former Taliban leaders were released from U.S. detention in return for the only American prisoner of war in Afghanistan, saying it violated an agreement with Washington.
“Recently, five Afghan nationals were released in an exchange for Mr. Bowe Bergdahl, and have been transferred to Qatar, which was against a prior understanding with the Afghan government,” said a statement released by the office of President Hamid Karzai.
Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported Monday that a 2010 Pentagon probe found Bergdahl had walked away from his unit, and that after an early search, the DOD decided to rely on negotiations rather than an extraordinary rescue effort. The AP cited a former senior defense official involved in the matter as saying it was "incontrovertible" that he walked away from his unit.
The investigation was broader than a criminal inquiry, the AP reported the official as saying, and it didn't formally accuse Bergdahl of desertion. In interviews, members of his unit portrayed him as a naive, "delusional" person who thought he could help the Afghan people by leaving his army post, the official said.
According to Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmad Shakaib Mustaghni, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had assured Karzai in a recent phone conversation that the Taliban detainees exchanged for U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl would be released to Afghan custody. Instead, they were sent to the Gulf nation of Qatar where their movements will be restricted for a year under an agreement between Washington and the Taliban. This restriction, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement says, “is completely against all accepted international laws on human rights.”
A Karzai spokesman backed up the foreign ministries claims.
Karzai’s administration has in the past released prisoners considered dangerous by its U.S. allies. Just last February, 65 such inmates were freed from Bagram prison despite protests by NATO and the U.S. embassy in Kabul.
There was no immediate response from the State Department to the Afghan claim.
It’s the latest in a long list of grievances that has badly damaged relations between Kabul and Washington. This may change soon, however, because Karzai’s term is ending soon and both of the two candidates seeking to replace him in the coming second round of presidential elections have said mending ties with Washington will be a priority.
“I think (Karzai’s government is) very upset at the way that it has happened, in that they haven’t been consulted,” said Borhan Osman, an analyst with the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban five years ago and was the only U.S. prisoner of war from the nearly 13-year-old American military mission in Afghanistan. Such a prisoner swap had been discussed for years, often as part of long-sought peace negotiations with the Taliban.
What effect the deal may have on crumbling efforts to start the negotiations between Washington, Kabul and the Taliban is yet to be seen. The release of the five Guantanamo prisoners was once seen as a key demand of the Taliban to enter into talks but serious negotiations have yet to happen, despite years of efforts by the Washington.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on Sunday expressed hope that the prisoner swap may lead to renewed peace talks with the Taliban.
“Our primary focus … was getting Sgt. Bergdahl back,” Hagel told reporters accompanying him on a visit to Afghanistan. “Whether that could lead to possible new breakthroughs with the Taliban, I don’t know. Hopefully it might.”
National Security Adviser Susan Rice echoed that statement.
“If this exchange opens that door a little bit (to an Afghan-led reconciliation ) then we would welcome it,” Rice told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on Sunday.
The U.S. had been hoping to make such a prisoner exchange the beginning of a process that would lead to reconciliation between the Taliban and Kabul and the negotiated end to the war in Afghanistan, but in the end it appears Washington ran out of time, said Osman, the Afghanistan Analysts Network analyst.
“The Taliban got it the way they wanted it, not the way the United States wanted it,” he said.
The prisoner swap is “highly unlikely” to lead to any larger political settlement, agreed Ahmad Majidyar, a U.S.-based researcher with the American Enterprise Institute.
“The Taliban’s aim of opening the Qatar office and starting dialogue with the U.S. was primarily to get their senior leaders released from Guantanamo and gain international legitimacy, rather than to end violence in Afghanistan,” he said.
Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taliban leader who has been in hiding since the U.S. invasion, issued a rare statement online in which he called the deal a “colossal victory” that portends the “liberation of the whole country and reassures us that our aspirations are on the verge of fulfillment .”
Afghan political analyst Moeen Mrastyal said he still thinks the exchange can eventually be positive for peace efforts, but that sidelining Kabul in the deal was a mistake.
“If Afghanistan was aware of this deal and would have taken part in it, the result and the effect would have been much better,” he said.
The news of Bergdahl’s release was not met with unanimous celebration in the U.S. either. Besides some lawmakers who questioned the legality and the wisdom of the prisoner swap, confusion over how Bergdahl came to be separated from his unit has led to ambivalence among many servicemembers.
The military has yet to formally confirm the details of his disappearance, leading to a mixed reaction to his release.
On Facebook, several pages have popped up calling the freed soldier a “traitor” whose actions may have put others in danger. Other former and current servicemembers took to social media to argue that it is important to leave no one behind, even if their actions are controversial.
Some Republicans have blasted President Barack Obama for releasing who they see as dangerous Taliban leaders and for setting a bad precedent by negotiating with the insurgent group. Rep. Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Sen. James Inhofe, ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, released a statement criticizing the deal.
“Our terrorist adversaries now have a strong incentive to capture Americans,” the statement reads. “That incentive will put our forces in Afghanistan and around the world at even greater risk.
The timing of the deal, just days after Obama announced the timeline for withdrawing all U.S. troops, may complicate efforts by the next president of Afghanistan to repair ties to Washington by adding to the perception that America is more interested in leaving now than in helping the country, observed Majidyar, the American Enterprise Institute researcher. “This gives credence to conspiracy theories in Afghanistan that Washington is not committed to bringing peace in Afghanistan.”
Though the U.S. has a long-standing position of refraining from prisoner swaps, some countries, including Israel, periodically employ the tactic. For example, in 2011 Israel gave up 100 Palestinian prisoners for one of its soldiers.
Afghan Member of Parliament Ramazan Bashardost said the released prisoners will undoubtedly return to some military role, but questioned how much that matters to the war.
“(Taliban leader) Mullah Omar continued this war without these [five] leaders for ten years and I don’t think it will have a major impact on the military activities of the Taliban,” he said.
Stars and Stripes reporters Josh Smith and Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.