News Column

Bergdahl swap affects Taliban, Afghanistan futures

June 16, 2014

By Brian Smith, The Times-News, Twin Falls, Idaho

June 16--TWIN FALLS -- As Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's captivity reached nearly five years and Afghanistan prepared for an election in mid-March, those close to the situation feared the Hailey native's future was increasingly entangled with the clouded future of Afghanistan.

For years, the United States offered to trade five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay for Bergdahl. But the Taliban -- the terrorist-friendly Islamic fundamentalist group that ruled before U.S. forces ousted it -- wanted one more thing: a role in the post-war Afghan government.

Bergdahl was the Taliban's best bargaining chip to secure such talks, as the Army sergeant was one of the remaining anchors tying U.S. forces to Afghanistan -- the country from which the U.S. wants to withdraw by the end of the year.

On May 31, however, the 5-for-1 deal was struck without the Taliban demanding political negotiations.

The reasoning for that, what it means for the Taliban's future and what it says about U.S. priorities in the besieged country prompted very different responses from analysts who spoke with the Times-News. But most agreed that the exchange legitimized and strengthened the Taliban, thus ensuring that negotiations would be the only clear way to exit the country without leaving it in ruin.

"Few" indications signal that the Taliban will enter such peace talks "any time soon" though, the Associated Press reported Monday, as the process is on hold pending the second round of voting to see who will succeed Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Bill Goodfellow, executive director of the Center for International Policy, said he long has argued that a negotiated settlement is the only way to keep Afghanistan from devolving into the situation now seen in Iraq. Insurgents have invaded Iraq, hoping to build a caliphate ruled by an extremist interpretation of Islamic law.

"I think that's what we have to look forward to if there is no real effort to bring the Taliban, to some extent, into the government," Goodfellow said. "As long as Pakistan supports them -- and there is no reason to believe they won't -- the Taliban can fight on forever."

U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, also drew a comparison with the current situation in Iraq but said it isn't the U.S.'s role to negotiate on behalf of the Afghan government.

"I expect that once we leave Afghanistan, what's going to happen there is what's happening currently in Iraq, which is troublesome," Simpson said. "But I think our country has done everything it can to give them a chance for a better future. But ultimately, it is going to be up to the people of Afghanistan."

Goodfellow said he was excited, however, by the degree of trust established with the Taliban through the trade. "This could be an opening for some serious negotiations," he said.

The exchange also injected an older perspective back into the Taliban, he said. Many of the group's elders have been killed during the war, leaving younger, more "fanatic" commanders who are less prone to support a negotiated settlement.

Indeed, the deal makes clear that Taliban factions are coalescing and may unify their objectives, said Thomas Gregg, associate director for the Center on International Cooperation.

"This deal required the blessing of all the core elements of the movement," he said. "That speaks to a level of unity despite the tensions that we have heard have emerged in the movement. This deal required all the various elements to be in support of it."

Gregg, however, said he thinks it "increasingly unlikely" that the Afghan government and Taliban will strike a complete peace deal.

"I think it's much more likely that you'll see a piece-by-piece, elements of a deal being done locally and regionally in a patchwork approach over a number of years," he said.

Goodfellow agreed with Simpson that the U.S. could help get the new Afghan president's administration to the table with the Taliban, but any deal must not be dictated by Americans. The U.S.'s new role, he said, should be to "throttle" the Pakistanis.

"We give them huge amounts of money, and Karzai has been screaming for years, 'Condition your aid on their (Pakistan's) stopping support of the Taliban,'" Goodfellow said.

The Taliban's failure to demand negotiations was more surprising than the U.S. agreement to forgo starting them in the Bergdahl deal, said Anish Goel, a senior South Asia fellow with the New America Foundation.

Goel said the U.S. handling of the swap indicates its priorities in-country. Rescuing Bergdahl afforded the U.S. a clean exit, which was more important than "winning the trust of the Afghan people, because they were trying to win the trust of the American people."

The deal only makes the U.S. look weak if one believes our main role is to stabilize Afghanistan, which it is not, said Goel, Obama's former senior South Asia policy adviser.

"Stabilizing Afghanistan and preserving the progress, those are all secondary objectives," he said. "That's not what the government would say, but I think you'd be hard-pressed to argue that it is any other way right now. The swap helped the United States disentangle itself from Afghanistan."

All agreed that the result of the run-off election between front-runner Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, and the formation of the new president's administration and policies, will be critical to that country's future. It will be the first Democratic shift of power Afghanistan has seen.

"I think if you want to defeat the Taliban, you do it by making the government more responsive to the needs of people," Goodfellow said. "You make it less corrupt, and you educate people."


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