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A U.S.-Taliban Prisoner Swap?

Now that peace talks are sort of on again with the Taliban–at least hopes of such talks have risen again, even if Kabul’s outrage at Taliban preening in opening an embassy of sorts in Qatar has blocked the actual start of talks–the air is once again filled with talk of a prisoner exchange. The Taliban would love it if, as a sweetener for the talks and in exchange for the release of the only American prisoner they are holding, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the Obama administration would release five senior Taliban detainees from Guantanamo.

The New York Times today has a profile of the five, and it would be hard to imagine a more repugnant bunch. As the Times notes:

Two were senior Taliban commanders said to be implicated in murdering thousands of Shiites in Afghanistan. When asked about the alleged war crimes by an interrogator, they “did not express any regret and stated they did what they needed to do in their struggle to establish their ideal state,” according to their interrogators.

There is also a former deputy director of Taliban intelligence, a former senior Taliban official said to have “strong operational ties” to various extremist militias, and a former Taliban minister accused of having sought help from Iran in attacking American forces.

If administration officials think they will win Taliban goodwill by releasing this rogue’s gallery, even as the Taliban continue to kill American soldiers, they are dreaming. Detainee releases make sense when it is clear that the movement to which the detainees belong is tired of fighting and seriously interested in making peace. That was the case with most Sunni insurgents in Iraq in 2007, which is why Gen. David Petraeus released so many of them from coalition custody. It’s not the case with the Taliban today: They remain convinced, reportedly, that they will take Kabul “in a week” once U.S. troops pull out. Making peace is not on the Taliban’s agenda in Qatar; gaining international legitimacy is.

Yet for all that, I am not completely opposed to the release of the five Taliban detainees–as long as it is understood that the point is simply to win Sgt. Bergdahl’s release. It is in general not a good policy to deal with terrorists, but democracies such as the U.S. and Israel have a long history of doing just that to win the release of their citizens; such concessions are perhaps inevitable in a liberal democracy which cares so much about its troops in particular. Israel, most recently, released some 1,000 Palestinian detainees to get Sgt. First Class Gilad Shalit out of Hamas’s hands. By Israeli standards, the exchange of five Taliban detainees for one American sergeant is a good bargain.

Would the release of the Taliban prisoners increase the risk to American troops in Afghanistan? Possibly, but the difference these five would make would be minimal, especially when so many other Taliban detainees have already been released from coalition and Afghan custody. Many more will be sprung in the future now that the Kabul government, which is notoriously corrupt, has taken control of all detention facilities in Afghanistan from the U.S.

If the administration does decide to make the prisoner swap, at least it should not fool itself that it is helping to bring peace to Afghanistan. It would simply be a gesture of mercy for an imprisoned American soldier.


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