Max, the decision to release a large batch of Iranian backed terrorists, especially now, is, quite frankly, bizarre, when viewed from the perspective of our Iran policy, assuming we have one. Your recent observation on Afghanistan is apt in this context as well: “Unfortunately, I’m not sure Obama himself knows which is the strategy and which is the head fake. He seems fundamentally ambivalent about the war in Afghanistan — as he is about the war on terror and most other military endeavors — and that ambivalence is reflected in the form of policy incoherence.” As ambivalent and incoherent as Obama is on Afghanistan, the administration’s herky-jerky moves on Iran (e.g., hints one day of a John Kerry visit, tough talk from Obama on human rights the next day, and not very crippling sanctions suggested on another) are downright schizophrenic. Given all that, the release of Iranian-backed terrorists hardly helps the matter. It comes at the very same time that Obama is trying to convince domestic critics, allies, and, most importantly, Iran itself that he is going to get tougher with the mullahs. So how does the release of over 100 Iranian-backed terrorists look in that context?
Perhaps there are reasons why battlefield commanders in Iraq would like to proceed in this fashion. (Nevertheless, as Bill Roggio points out: “Qais Qazli wasn’t just some run of the mill Shia thug; his group is backed by Iran. Qazali’s men were trained by Iranian Qods Force to infiltrate and assault the Provincial Joint Coordination Center in Karbala in January 2007. Five US soldiers were killed during the kidnapping attempt. The US soldiers were executed after US and Iraqi security forces closed in on the assault team.”) Time will tell whether this is about “reconciliation” or whether it mounts up to just a distasteful and exceptionally lopsided “prisoner swap,” as one military intelligence source put it.
However, there is a larger, looming problem: how to deal with the increasingly belligerent Iranian regime, which has ample reason already to doubt the resolve of the Obama administration. The symbolism of the release of a key terrorist (along with his many comrades) directly responsible for the deaths of Americans is awful. It was so bad, in fact, that it was done on New Year’s Eve in an effort, no doubt, to clamp down on domestic criticism. After the New Year’s revelry dies down, however, I expect that the release will be touted by Qazali’s Iranian backers, who will interpret this as not a cagey deal by U.S. commanders in Iraq but rather as another sign of squishiness by Obama. The mullahs and their henchmen will, doubtless, remain entirely unimpressed with the Obama administration’s promise to get “tough” with the worst of the worst within the Iranian regime.