Washington has tried its very best to sweep the war in Afghanistan under the rug. Most of the press dutifully went along with the fiction of declaring the war to have ended in December. The military joined in, trying to classify virtually all information coming out of Afghanistan. That classification move has been backtracked somewhat, but we still haven’t seen a revised quarterly report from SIGAR with the newly released data.
For those who care about the truth of what is really taking place in Afghanistan as a result of the misguided US action, it is a good thing that Washington cannot stifle information flowing out of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. UNAMA has been tracking civilian casualties in Afghanistan since 2009, and their latest report was released today (press release is here and full report in pdf form is here). The news is not good at all. Deaths jumped by 25% from 2013, going from 2969 to 3699. Injuries also showed a sharp increase, from 5668 to 6849. These numbers simply do not comport with the rosy statements coming out of the Pentagon on what our troops in Afghanistan “accomplished”, how the Taliban are being defeated and how the ANSF are now “hugely capable”. Civilian casualties in Afghanistan have shown a relentless rise since the UN started collecting data:
It is harder to find data for the years leading up to 2009, but here is one report (pdf) in tabular form from Costs of War:
The figures from this report include only a subset of the types of death tracked by UN, accounting for the slight discrepancy in the years of overlapping data.
US military operations and continued presence in Afghanistan has been a disaster for civilians there. The insurgency which has arisen in response to the US presence is responsible for most of the casualties, but it is hard to see how these numbers would be as high if the US had simply left after deposing the Taliban in the first few weeks of the operation.
In addition to tracking casualties, the UN collects information on war crimes. Units of the Afghan Local Police are notorious in this regard (ALP most often are comprised of private militias that have been given a brief bit of training by US death squad trainers from JSOC and/or CIA). From the report:
For example, on 11 July, an ALP member shot and killed a local shopkeeper after an argument over ice. On 7 July, an ALP commander and four of his men assaulted (and injured) four civilians in Jorum district, Badakhshan province, during a wedding party. The reason for the beating was reportedly that the family had failed to provide food to the ALP as demanded.
UNAMA documented multiple examples of ALP intimidating and ordering the displacement of families from their communities. For example, on 12 October, ALP forcibly displaced 150-200 families from Khak-e-Safed district, Farah province. The ALP had warned the local population not to allow the Taliban to launch attacks from the village. The Taliban had also threatened the local population not to cooperate with the ALP. After Taliban fighters established positions in the area, the ALP ordered the 150-200 families to leave the area, resulting in displacement of an entire village, mainly to Farah city.
I would imagine that someone in Washington is busy today trying to find a way to prevent UNAMA from releasing its next report.
On January 30, I noted how the varied history of Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim had seen him on many different sides of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. His history depends on whoever is describing it, but it is clear he spent time at Guantanamo, where leaked documents said that he was “substantially exploited“. He was released from Guantanamo and held for at least some time in Afghanistan’s notorious Pul-e-Charkhi prison. Many reports put him serving on the Quetta Shura of the Afghan Taliban at a later point and getting quite close to Mullah Omar. Most recently, he was said to be an active recruiter for the Islamic State and perhaps even serving as the IS governor of the region.
Multiple reports today state that Rauf has been killed by a US drone strike in Afghanistan. From the Reuters report:
A missile-firing drone killed six people in Afghanistan on Monday including a veteran militant believed to have defected to Islamic State (IS) from the Taliban, Afghan officials said.
The senior militant, former Guantanamo Bay detainee Mullah Abdul Rauf, was killed in the violence-plagued southern province of Helmand, officials there said.
Police chief Nabi Jan Mullahkhel said Rauf was travelling in a car when the drone attacked. The other casualties included his brother-in-law and four Pakistanis, Mullahkhel said.
More details from the area:
Afghanistan’s main intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), said in a statement Rauf was in charge of IS in southwestern Afghanistan and he was killed just after mid-day in “a successful military operation”.
Helmand’s deputy governor, Mohammad Jan Rasulyar, said Rauf’s membership of IS could not be confirmed but his associates were dressed in black outfits often worn by IS members.
“It is too early to confirm that he was Daish but his people were wearing the same clothes and mask,” Rasulyar said, referring to IS.
It is hardly surprising that the CNN account of his death would open with the recidivist angle:
He was a Taliban commander captured by the United States and held at Guantanamo Bay. But he was let go and returned to Afghanistan. Mullah Abdul Rauf went on to become a recruiter for ISIS in Afghanistan.
He was killed in a drone strike Monday, two officials told CNN.
And, as with seemingly all stories of this type at the early stages, the possibility that Rauf escaped has been presented. Khaama Press relays the same reports of Rauf’s death, but adds this to their story:
However, Pacha Gul Bakhtyar, Security Officer of Helmand Province had told Khaama Press earlier in the afternoon that Mullah Abdul Rawouf Khadim sustained serious injuries while four of his fighters were killed in the attack.
He said that Mullah Abdul Rawouf Khadim was traveling along with a group of his people in a Saracha vehicle when their vehicle was targeted, leaving Khadim seriously wounded and four of his people killed.
He said that Mullah Abdul Rawouf has escaped in wounded conditions.
So, while Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security states outright that Rauf was in charge of IS recruiting for the region, the Ministry of the Interior was insisting as recently as Sunday that the presence of IS fighters in Afghanistan was nothing more than a publicity stunt:
Rejecting the infiltration of the Islamic State (IS) fighters to Afghanistan, the Ministry of Interior (MoI) has said the rumors about the sightings of theses fighters were nothing more than publicity.
MoI spokesman Sediq Sediqqi at a press conference on Sunday in Kabul said that the security agencies were aware of the movements of all enemies of the country.
He warned the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) would suppress all rebel groups whether they were operating under the name of IS or other brands.
As a final note, the case of Rauf and his constantly changing sides should be seen as the rule for areas where the US military has engaged in its misadventures rather than an exeception. Other stories in today’s news note disputes over Afghan police with ties to the Taliban and Iraqi militias operated by a member of Parliament attacking Iraqi citizens at the same time they pursue ISIS.
So, of course, the US should promptly arm troops in Ukraine, as well, so that we can have another region where US arms raise the stakes the rapid changing of sides in a conflict.
All of the ladies attending the ball
Are requested to gaze in the faces
Found on the dance cards
Please then remember
And don’t get too close to one special one
He will take your defenses and run
So we change partners
Time to change partners
You must change partners
Lyrics by Stephen Stills
When last we left Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim, only two short weeks ago, he had suddenly appeared on the scene in Afghanistan as a recruiter for ISIS. That was after he had spent time on the Taliban’s Quetta Shura as one of Mullah Omar’s top advisors. That was after he escaped from Afghanistan’s Pul-e-Charkhi prison. That was after he had been transferred to Pul-e-Charkhi from Guantanamo, where he was “substantially exploited“.
Today, Pakistan’s Express Tribune is reporting that the Mullah Omar of ISIS, none other than Abu Bakr Baghdadi himself, has named Rauf the head of the Islamic State in Afghanistan, which, in ISIS-speak, is now known as the Khorasan Province of the Islamic State. Khorasan also includes Pakistan and selected other surroundings according to ISIS.
That is a very interesting development, especially since earlier this week, there was a report that Rauf had been arrested by the Taliban. Here is Adam Weinstein, writing at Gawker:
The Taliban, bane of America’s post-9/11 Afghanistan operations, said Wednesday that they captured Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim, a renegade insurgent and ex-Guantanamo detainee who was in Afghanistan recruiting for the Islamic State, the latest parry in a messy internecine conflict between violent Islamist regimes.
The independent Pajhwok news agency of Afghanistan reports that Khadim—who had previously been identified in the media as an ex-Taliban footsoldier who sought revenge against the U.S. after his detention in Gitmo—was arrested, along with 45 armed followers, after attempting to turn local militants against the Taliban and win their allegiance for ISIS’s attempts to build a global caliphate.
However, not everyone was convinced of that report. From Thomas Joscelyn, writing at Long War Journal, also on Wednesday, we have this:
Still, Khadim has been an effective commander and the Khorasan province is already active in southern Afghanistan. There have been skirmishes between Baghdadi’s followers and their rivals in the Taliban, which is clearly gunning for Khadim. One report says that the Taliban has captured Khadim and dozens of his followers, but that has not been confirmed.
Today’s announcement of Rauf as governor of Khorasan marked a rather rapid promotion for him, as a report by Joscelyn on Monday noted that Rauf had been named deputy governor.
Oh, and while you’re trying to sort out just whose side Rauf is on, or whose prison he is in this week, you can get even more confused about funding for ISIS and where it is coming from. Iran seems to be enjoying that particular tidbit.
Many outlets are reporting on the disclosure earlier this week that there appears to be active recruiting for Islamic State taking place in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. Here is AP as carried by ABC News:
Afghan officials confirmed for the first time Monday that the extremist Islamic State group is active in the south, recruiting fighters, flying black flags and, according to some sources, even battling Taliban militants.
The sources, including an Afghan general and a provincial governor, said a man identified as Mullah Abdul Rauf was actively recruiting fighters for the group, which controls large parts of Syria and Iraq.
The article notes that the Taliban is not taking this development lightly and that there are reports that up to 20 people had died up to that point in skirmishes between the Taliban and those swearing allegiance to IS.
But Mullah Rauf is not just any random figure in Afghanistan. As the article notes, he was once a prisoner at Guantanamo.
In their profile of him this week, the Washington Post had this to say about Rauf:
Rauf is also known as Abdul Rauf Aliza and Maulvi Abdul Rauf Khadim. According to a military document released by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, he turns 34 in February and was listed as detainee 108 at Guantanamo Bay. He was transferred to Afghanistan’s control in 2007.
The report on him released by WikiLeaks said he was associated with several known Taliban commanders, but claimed to be a low-level soldier. In interviews with U.S. officials, he was cooperative, but his responses were vague or inconsistent when asked about the Taliban leadership, according to the report. Nonetheless, Rauf was assessed not to be a threat, and was recommended for transfer out and continued detainment in another country.
That Wikileaks document on Rauf can also be read here at the New York Times. This particular paragraph in the report caught my eye:
The document from which this is taken is dated October 26, 2004. The parenthetic note from the analyst begins “Detainee is substantially exploited”. In the context of Guantanamo, the issue of prisoner exploitation is a very important topic. A groundbreaking post by Jason Leopold and Jeffrey Kaye in 2011 provides crucial context by what this aside from the analyst means for Rauf’s detention: Continue reading
On Sunday, Dawn’s editors knew that Pakistan’s lawmakers would enact the bills needed to establish military courts and published a stern condemnation of the move in an editorial with the telling title “A Sad Day”:
In the end, our political leadership proved unable to defend the constitutional and democratic roots of the system or resist the generals’ demands.
Pakistan is to have military courts once again. To establish them the politicians have agreed to distort the principle of separation of powers, smash the edifice of rights upon which the Constitution is built and essentially give up on fixing decrepit state institutions.
The editors pointed out how the efforts to establish the military courts could have been put to better use:
Had the same time and effort spent on winning consensus for military courts gone into urgent reforms and administrative steps to fix the criminal justice structure, the existing system could have been brought into some semblance of shape to deal with terrorism.
Sadly, the political leadership has abdicated its democratic responsibilities. Surrender perhaps comes easily.
For a country that has been beset by repeated military coups, the Dawn editors rightly note the risk in granting more powers to the military.
The National Assembly and Senate on Tuesday passed the 21st Constitutional Amendment Bill 2015 and Pakistan Army Act 1952 (Amendment) Bill 2015.
The Constitutional Amendment Bill was passed with 247 votes – 14 more than the required two-third majority in the NA, and 78 votes out of 104 were passed in the Senate.
The amendment – aimed to set up special courts to try militants – was not opposed by any member present inside the house. Lawmakers from Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, Jamaat-e-Islami, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl and Sheikh Rasheed abstained from voting – in both the NA and the Senate.
Each clause of the bill was voted for separately. The bill is now expected to be signed into law by the president this week.
This move by Pakistan, coming in the wake of the devastating Taliban attack on a military school in Peshawar, is drawing obvious comparisons to US moves to establish military commissions at Guantanamo for trying terrorism suspects. Sadly, Pakistan has been just as reckless in making the move as the US was. Had they taken the time for a review of the outcome of US military commissions, they would have found (pdf) that while about 500 suspects in terrorism trials have been convicted in US federal criminal courts, the vaunted military commissions have yielded only 8 convictions since 9/11. On the occasion of the conviction in federal court last year of Osama bin Laden’s son in law, Lyle Denniston had this to say:
As long ago as 1866, just after the Civil War, the Constitution stood for the principle that, if the civilian courts were open and functioning during wartime, trials of civilians charged with crimes of war should be tried in those courts, not in military tribunals. That was the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Ex parte Milligan.
The Court’s lead opinion back then said: “No doctrine, involving more pernicious consequences, was ever invented by the wit of man than that any of its provisions can be suspended during any of the great exigencies of government. Such a doctrine leads directly to anarchy or despotism, but the theory of necessity on which it is based is false.”
[We can separately note that Denniston’s quote from Ex parte Milligan seems to apply just as well to the excuses brought forth in favor of torture as they do for the establishment of military commissions.]
Perhaps the only good aspect of Pakistan’s move to establish military courts is that the bills carry a two year sunset provision. Sadly, though, given the current cowardly status of Pakistan’s lawmakers, it would not be surprising for regular two year “extensions” of the laws to continue in perpetuity. Just like our endless extensions of unconstitutional wiretapping under FISA.
We need no other indicator of just how bad the situation in Afghanistan really is than that, with no previous announcement of the schedule that I am aware of, the US staged a ceremonial “end of combat operations” in Kabul today, more than three weeks before the December 31 scheduled end of the current NATO mission. The NATO mission is supposed to transition from a stated combat operation to one of support (as noted in its name: Resolute Support). We can only conclude that the date of the ceremony wasn’t announced because it would become an obvious target for the increased number of Taliban attacks in Kabul and throughout Afghanistan.
But like most of what the US says and does in Afghanistan, this was all really just bullshit. In a visit to Kabul on Saturday, which, like today’s ceremony also was unannounced due to the horrid security situation in Afghanistan, outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel admitted that the non-combat designation for US troops in Afghanistan from 2015 onward is in name only. First, the claim of support:
“As planned, Resolute Support will focus here in Kabul and Bagram with a limited regional presence,” he said. “As part of this mission, the United States is prepared to provide limited combat enabler support to Afghan forces.
See? Right there, he says we only are there to enable Afghan troops to take part in combat.
Oops. Hang on, Hagel wasn’t finished:
Hagel said U.S. forces in Afghanistan would “always” have the right and the capacity to defend themselves against attacks.
“We’re committed to preventing al Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a safe haven,” Hagel said, to threaten the United States, the Afghan people, and other U.S. allies and partners.
Also, the United States will take appropriate measures against Taliban members who directly threaten U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan or provide direct support to al Qaeda, he added.
Oh. So we are “only” combat support, unless we decide we aren’t and that there are targets we need to hit because they pose a threat to us.
And why are our troops there threatened? Simply by being there:
Yet Obama’s decision to allow American forces to remain behind in a more active role suggests the U.S. remains concerned about the Afghan government’s ability to fight. Chances of Ghani restarting peace talks with the Taliban also appear slim as he signed agreements with NATO and the U.S. to allow the foreign troops to remain behind — a red line for the militants.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told the AP that the group would continue to fight “until all foreign troops have left Afghanistan.”
“The Americans want to extend their mission in Afghanistan, the motive being to keep the war going for as long as possible,” Mujahid said. “And for as long as they do, the Taliban will continue their fight against the foreign and (Afghan) government forces.”
And there we have it. The Taliban and US troops continue their sick cycle of co-dependency. The Taliban will fight us as long as we are there, and we refuse to leave while they still want to fight us.
There simply is no level of duplicity that Iraqi or Afghan military leaders can engage in that will lead to the US re-examining the failed assumption that “training” armed forces in those countries will stabilize them. Between the two efforts, the US has now wasted over $80 billion and more than a decade of time just on training and equipping, and yet neither force can withstand even a fraction of the forces they now face.
The latest revelations of just how failed the training effort has been are stunning, and yet we can rest assured that they will be completely disregarded as decision-makers in Washington continue to pour even more money into a cause that has long ago been proven hopeless.
Consider the latest revelations.
We learned yesterday that a cursory investigation in Iraq has already revealed at least 50,000 “ghost soldiers”:
The Iraqi army has been paying salaries to at least 50,000 soldiers who don’t exist, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said Sunday, an indication of the level of corruption that permeates an institution that the United States has spent billions equipping and arming.
A preliminary investigation into “ghost soldiers” — whose salaries are being drawn but who are not in military service — revealed the tens of thousands of false names on Defense Ministry rolls, Abadi told parliament Sunday. Follow-up investigations are expected to uncover “more and more,” he added.
We can only imagine how much larger the total will become should Iraq actually follow through with a more thorough investigation, but already one Iraqi official quoted in the article hinted the monetary loss could be at least three times what is now known. But that isn’t even the worst condemnation of US practices in this report. Consider this quote that the Post seems to consider a throw-away since it is buried deep within the article:
“The problems are wide, and it’s an extremely difficult task which is going to involve some strong will,” said Iraqi security analyst Saeed al-Jayashi. “Training is weak and unprofessional.”
So the glorious training program in Iraq, which was proudly under the leadership of ass-kissing little chickenshit David Petraeus when it was being heralded, is now finally exposed as “weak and unprofessional”. And the US will do exactly diddly squat about these revelations. Recall that last week we learned that the Defense Department does not consider reducing corruption to be part of their role as advisors in Iraq. I’ll go out on a limb here and predict that when confirmation hearings are held for a new Secretary of Defense, there won’t be a single question aimed at asking how our current training program will be improved to avoid the failures that have been so clearly demonstrated in the previous attempts.
The situation in Afghanistan, although it is receiving less attention, is no better. Reuters reported yesterday on how poorly equipped Afghan forces are for dealing with the Taliban, despite over $60 billion that the US has spent to train and equip those forces:
Afghan district police chief Ahmadullah Anwari only has enough grenades to hand out three to each checkpoint in an area of Helmand province swarming with Taliban insurgents who launch almost daily attacks on security forces.
“Sometimes up to 200 Taliban attack our checkpoints and if there are no army reinforcements, we lose the fight,” said Anwari, in charge of one of Afghanistan’s most volatile districts, Sangin.
“It shames me to say that we don’t have enough weapons and equipment. But this is a bitter reality.”
The article goes on to utterly destroy the ridiculous statements from Joseph Anderson, commander of ISAF Joint Command, back on November 5. Despite Anderson claiming that Afghan forces “are winning”, Reuters points out that claims that the ANSF remains in control of most of the country are grossly overstated:
And while the coalition says Afghan forces control most of the country, the reality on the ground can be very different.
Graeme Smith, senior Kabul analyst for the International Crisis Group, says that in many remote districts, the government controls a few administrative buildings “but the influence of Afghan forces may not extend far beyond that point”.
And yet, despite this clear history of failed efforts to train and equip forces, the US now plans to spend more than another $5 billion fighting ISIS. If it weren’t for the carbon dioxide that would be released, it would probably be better for all of us if that money were simply incinerated.
Today, Pakistan’s military escorted selected members of the media through Miramshah, which had been ground zero for militants in Pakistan’s North Waziristan and the focus of the heaviest fighting in the Zarb-e-Azb offensive undertaken by the military last month. From the video provided in the Express Tribune story on Miramshah, it is clear that the town is essentially deserted and most buildings appear to be heavily damaged.
The offensive is taking a huge toll on Pakistan. Depending on the source cited, there are either 787,000 or 833,274 people who have been displaced from North Waziristan. Those are truly remarkable numbers, as the linked Washington Post article notes that previous estimates of the population of North Waziristan were only 600,000, so it is clear that virtually all citizens have left the region.
Because the media have been banned from the region before today, Pakistan’s military has controlled the flow of information. The latest claims I can find put the death toll at 400 militants and 20 soldiers. No information on civilian deaths has been released and the military claimed that the civilian death toll was zero even after over 200 militants were said to have been killed.
One of the most remarkable stories to emerge along with those who have fled Miramshah is that of Azam Khan, who was a barber in Miramshah:
Azam Khan was one of the top barbers in Miranshah — the main town of North Waziristan — until he, like nearly half a million others, fled the long-awaited offensive unleashed by the Pakistan military on the tribal area in June.
He told AFP his business boomed in the month leading up to the army assault as the militants sought to shed their distinctive long-haired, bearded look.
“I have trimmed the hair and beards of more than 700 local and Uzbek militants ahead of the security forces’ operation,” he said while cutting hair in a shop in Bannu, the town where most civilians fled.
For years he cut Taliban commanders’ hair to match the flowing locks of former Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leader Hakimullah Mehsud, killed by a US drone last November, but in May a change in style was called for.
“The same leaders came asking for trimming their beards and hair very short, saying that they were going to the Gulf and wanted to avoid problems at Pakistani airports,” Khan said.
It would seem that there is now a good chance that the real targets of this offensive left before it even began. All citizens of the region have been displaced and most buildings have been rendered useless, only to kill the low level forces who were left behind because they didn’t have the resources to flee along with their leaders.
I often note how the US military, throughout its nearly 13 year quagmire in Afghanistan, continues to spout “we’re winning” messages when it is clear that the entire effort has been an utter failure from the start. Juxtaposing a story in today’s Washington Post with another in today’s New York Times shows how the military’s rosy statements are devoid of all connection to reality on the ground.
The Post story centers on the military, with Joseph Dunford in the lead, filling in more details on projected troop staffing levels in Afghanistan beyond the end of this year. The article ends with this gem:
U.S. and NATO officials described a Taliban force that has been greatly debilitated since the beginning of this year and pointed to the successful first round of Afghanistan’s presidential election in April as a defeat for the militants. The top two vote-getters are competing in next week’s runoff to succeed President Hamid Karzai, who has refused to sign the bilateral security and status-of-forces agreements.
“In the wake of the election, for the first time . . . the Taliban are on the defensive in the information space,” the senior military official said. For 10 years, he said, the Taliban has had two messages — that the United States was occupying their country and ultimately would abandon it. In the wake of the turnover of combat operations to Afghan national forces over the past year, and Obama’s announcement for the future, those messages have less resonance, the official said. The coalition has made clear, the official said, that we “won’t fall off the cliff at the end of 2014.”
Dunford described “friction” within the Taliban and said that although the militants are still carrying out lethal attacks against Afghan forces, “if you compare the political space of the Taliban, it’s significantly reduced.”
Okay, then. The Taliban is “greatly debilitated”, are “on the defensive in the information space” and are “significantly reduced” in “the political space”. Yet, on the very day that Dunford and a “senior military officer” made such outrageous claims, the Taliban were happily scoring their biggest propaganda victory of the entire war in Afghanistan. From the Times:
The Taliban seem loose, almost offhand, on camera as they wait for the American Black Hawk to land. Two fighters walk their hostage, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, out to American troops, greeting their enemies eye to eye as they quickly shake hands. They wave as the Americans retreat back to the chopper.
In their viral video to the world on Wednesday, framing dramatic images of their transaction with the United States with music, commentary and context, the Taliban scored their biggest hit yet after years of effort to improve their publicity machine — one bent on portraying them as the legitimate government of Afghanistan in exile.
Within hours of the video’s release, the Taliban website where it was posted was overwhelmed with traffic and the page hosting it crashed, according to Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the insurgents. The video has since been uploaded in dozens of different versions on YouTube.
It is the product of a Taliban propaganda effort that has grown increasingly savvy.
It’s hard to imagine a better example of how the US has lost all credibility when it comes to describing conditions in Afghanistan. Granted, the statements in the Post stem initially from claims made around the election going “smoothly“, but the sweeping statements quoted clearly are meant to apply to the Taliban’s situation generally, not just regarding the election. But the Taliban even covered that:
And they suggested that they had purposefully held back on attacking civilians on election day in April, and that Afghans should trust the Taliban over a government being chosen by Western ways.
We can only wonder how Dunford and his associates will ever be able to top this one.
This weekend’s swap of Bowe Bergdahl for five Afghan Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo has triggered responses on a large number of fronts. For now, I will leave it to others to sort through whether Obama was required to inform Congress, whether the move provides incentive to the Taliban to capture more prisoners and whether Bergdahl was a deserter. Instead, I want to focus on the fact that this prisoner exchange stands as a significant accomplishment in negotiation among parties who have seen previous attempts at negotiation fail.
Recall that back in early 2012, we first learned that the Afghan Taliban was opening an office in Qatar:
The Taliban said in a surprise announcement last week they had reached a preliminary agreement to set up a political address in Qatar and asked for the release of prisoners held by the U.S. military at Guantanamo Bay.
So the release of Afghan Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo was at the top of the list for setting up the office in Qatar and beginning negotiations. It is also important to note that the Haqqani Network, who held Bergdahl in Pakistan, was also to be included in the talks at the same time that the opening for negotiations was first noted and that Pakistan helped to move things along:
The US has taken Pakistan into confidence over the unprecedented development of allowing the Taliban a political office in Qatar to advance the Afghan reconciliation process, sources revealed.
A senior Pakistani official stated that the Obama administration not only sought Pakistan’s consent over the Taliban office but had also given a ‘green light’ to allow the deadliest Afghan insurgent group, the Haqqani network, to be a part of the reconciliation process.
The move by Washington was a clear deflection from its previous policy of keeping Islamabad at bay over its peace overtures with the Afghan Taliban.
“Yes, we were onboard,” said the senior Pakistani official referring to the latest push by Washington to seek a political settlement of the Afghan conflict.
The process suffered a major setback when the office was found to be flying the flag the Taliban used when they ruled Afghanistan and when the sign on the door seemed to suggest that the Taliban felt they were still the legitimate governing body. Hamid Karzai threw a huge fit over that development, and even though his government hadn’t been invited to the talks, he managed to stall the process. About a year and a half later, things settled down a bit and the provocative sign and flag were removed.