The World

Getting Out of the Taliban-Fighting Business    

Freed American soldier Bowe Bergdahl’s mother Jani Bergdahl speeks to the press while his father Bob Bergdahl and US President Barack Obama look on in the Rose Garden of the White House on May 31, 2014. 

Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

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 said it is “disturbing that these individuals would have the ability to reenter the fight.” Gen. James Jones, Obama’s former National Security Advisor, 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 likely not because Guantanamo has become so much more effective at rehabilitating detainees. It likely has more to do with the fact 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.

Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, suggests that the Bergdahl negotiations mark a “fundamental shift in US policy signals to terrorists around the world a greater incentive to take U.S. hostages.”

It should be said that Chuck Hagel’s line that the U.S. “didn’t negotiate with terrorists” because all talks went through Qatari intermediaries isn’t a particularly convincing defense. Especially since this deal wasn’t a radical break with policy but the latest development in tentative contacts between the U.S. and Taliban that have been happening since at least 2011. As far back as December, 2011, Reuters reported that as part of these talks, “the United States is considering the transfer of an unspecified number of Taliban prisoners from the Guantanamo Bay military prison into Afghan government custody.”

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.  

It’s not entirely clear what U.S. counterterrorism policy is going to look like going forward – and as the recent debate over repeal of the 9/11-era Authorization for the Use of Military Force showed, the administration isn’t all that eager to clarify it just yet – but it’s fairly safe to assume that thanks to drones and special forces raids, it will involve a lot fewer U.S. troops being left in countries where they are targets for years on end.

With Bergdahl’s release, the U.S. ties up one more Afghan loose end. I suspect that despite Republican protests today, most Americans will be happy to see this soldier come home from Afghanistan, as well as fewer being sent there in general.

The Afghan government is understandably less happy about the deal. The U.S. may no longer be interested in fighting the Taliban, but if the five released detainees do return to fighting, it’s still going to be Afghanistan’s problem.