Speaking today on ABC’s This Week National Security Advisor Susan Rice described the homecoming of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl after five years of captivity at the hands of the Taliban as “a joyous day.” No doubt, all Americans are happy that his ordeal is at an end. But as with the most famous of Rice’s previous appearances on the Sunday morning news shows when she wrongly claimed that the Benghazi terror attack was the result of film criticism run amok, the messaging was slightly off kilter. Ransoming Bergdahl is defensible but the notion that what has occurred was not a case of the U.S. negotiating with terrorists, as Rice and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel claimed on the same show, is an absurdity. At least when Israel releases terrorists to gain the freedom of one of its soldiers, the country’s leaders have the grace to treat the decision as a regrettable action made out of necessity and nothing to celebrate.
The debate over the Bergdahl swap raises comparisons to Israeli actions, such as its prisoner swap to gain the freedom of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit. Some congressional Republicans, such as House Intelligence Committee chair Mike Rogers, are criticizing the swap for the same reasons many Israelis and Americans denounced the deal in which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traded over 1,000 Palestinian terrorists to Hamas, including many murderers, for Shalit. Rogers believes that negotiating with the Taliban not only strengthens these Islamist foes of the United States but also sets a high price on hostages that will make it difficult to free others who are held by terrorists and encourage more attacks on Americans.
These are all fair points, but I have to confess that my first reaction to the headline about the five-for-one agreement mediated by officials in Qatar was puzzlement as to how the Obama administration had managed to make such a deal for only five prisoners when the Israelis are routinely forced to release hundreds or more than a thousand terrorists for only one of their own people. Is it that the Israelis are simply too easy a mark in such negotiations? Are Americans better at driving a hard bargain? But the more I’ve read about the five prisoners who have been freed in exchange for Bergdahl, the less impressed I am with the negotiating acumen of the administration. Far from cutting a better deal than the Israelis tend to be able to do, this swap may actually be far worse in terms of the potential danger of the particular individuals involved and the administration’s future attitude toward the conflict. While the Israelis often pay too high a price for their hostages, they do so without conceding defeat in the long-term struggle in which they are engaged. The Bergdahl deal appears to be not just a lopsided swap but also an indication that the U.S. may be conceding defeat to the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Anyone who thinks the U.S. got off cheap, especially in comparison to the lopsided Israeli deals, needs to read the report by Eli Lake and Josh Rogin in the Daily Beast today about the five men who have been sprung from Gitmo for Bergdahl. These are not run-of-the-mill terror operatives but key figures in the war being waged against the U.S. and its allies. As Lake and Rogin wrote:
While not as well known as Guantanamo inmates like 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Taliban 5 were some of the worst outlaws in the U.S. war on terror. And their release will end up replenishing the diminished leadership ranks of the Afghan Taliban at a moment when the United States is winding down the war there.
The dossier on their activities is a compendium of involvement in the terror campaign against the U.S. as well as other assorted crimes such as heroin trafficking. But the main point here is that these are not, as was the case with most of the people Israel released, rank-and-file terrorists. Many of those freed by the Israelis are criminals with blood on their hands, including participation in notorious atrocities. But the Israelis have rarely released anyone in the chain of command of groups dedicated to their destruction. As Lake and Rogin detail, the five Taliban operatives are key players in the war against the U.S. in Afghanistan. Though they are not the people who pulled the triggers or exploded the bombs that killed U.S. troops and our allies, they are the people who gave some of the orders for the shedding of American blood and are thus far more important. Seen in that light, some of the outrageously lopsided deals concluded by the Israelis don’t seem quite so ill advised.
But there is more to this controversy than just the price of Bergdahl’s freedom. By releasing these five top Taliban commanders, the U.S. is demonstrating that it is throwing in the towel in the long struggle against the Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies in Afghanistan. It is spinning this mindset as a sign that the war is already either over or coming to an end, as the president said in his West Point speech this week. But the Taliban hasn’t gotten the memo about the end of the conflict. Indeed, the circumstances on the ground in Afghanistan are little different from where they were prior to the president’s correct decision to order a “surge” of U.S. troops to seize the initiative in the war. This administration has done a good job seeking to hunt down al-Qaeda operatives with drone strikes but the notion that it can keep Afghanistan from falling into the hands of these killers while both drawing down U.S. forces to a bare minimum and releasing senior Taliban commanders is laughable. Wars don’t end just because one side decides they are tired of the conflict. The Taliban have been waiting patiently for the end of the U.S. presence in the country and along with their terrorist allies believe their 2001 ouster from Kabul can be reversed.
Rice is right that President Obama had a “sacred obligation” to do whatever he could to gain the release of Sergeant Bergdahl. No American should ever be left behind if they can be rescued. But the problem here is not just the price the U.S. paid for the lone American unaccounted for after more than a dozen years of fighting in Afghanistan. Say what you will about the Israel prisoner releases and the unfortunate celebrations in which the Palestinians have celebrated the murderers freed to gain the freedom of hostages or even to restart peace negotiations. But there has never been any doubt about Israel’s determination to continue the struggle against its enemies. The same can’t be said about the Obama administration today.