A lot has changed in warfare since the days of hand-to-hand combat with swords and spears in ancient Mesopotamia 5,000 years. One thing hasn’t changed, however: War remains a test of wills. If you break the enemy’s will, you win. If he breaks your will, you lose. If neither of your wills is broken, and assuming you have sufficient material resources to continue fighting, the war becomes a stalemate. This is a fundamental truth and yet one that President Obama seems to miss time after time.
In Afghanistan, U.S. forces and their Afghan allies have dealt defeat after defeat to the Taliban. Yet the president keeps showing that his will is wavering by attaching deadlines to U.S. troop deployments, the most recent being a promise that, while 9,800 U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan in 2015, all of them will depart by the end of 2016. The latest sign of wavering American will, at least from the Taliban’s standpoint, is the prisoner exchange for Bowe Bergdahl.
The Taliban are going to town with a video of the exchange that has become an Internet sensation. The message of the video is obvious: the Taliban are a force to be reckoned with. The U.S. has tried to portray the Taliban as mere terrorists who are on the wrong side of history, but the fact of this exchange bolsters the Taliban’s narrative that they are actually a legitimate governmental entity that will one day rule Afghanistan again. The Taliban’s video producers pulled out all the stops to depict the exchange as a shameful surrender for America. As one news account notes, “For the insurgents, getting the five men back was ‘blissful news’ and a ‘historic achievement,’ the narrator says, which ‘filled up the eyes of all Muslims with tears of happiness.’ ”
For most ordinary Afghans—whose allegiance is the ultimate prize in this conflict—the exchange was disconcerting news. As the Wall Street Journal reports, “Fifteen years later, local residents here are responding with fear and dismay to the U.S. release of the notorious commander [Mohammed Fazl], along with four other Taliban leaders in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the only American prisoner of war who was held by the Taliban.”
The reactions of this residents of the Shomali Plain is easy to explain, since they remember all too well how Fazl and his goons terrorized them. As the Journal notes: “When the Taliban seized control of this area from their Northern Alliance rivals in 1999, they systematically demolished entire villages, blowing up houses, burning fields and seeding the land with mines, according to two comprehensive studies of war crimes and atrocities during wars in Afghanistan and human rights reports. Mr. Fazl played a major role in the destruction.”
What kind of message does it send to these Afghans when the U.S. has been coerced into letting Fazl and four other notorious terrorists go free? That will be seen as a rebuttal of Kabul’s and Washington’s claims that the Taliban cannot win. After all they have just won a big concession—and they can expect more gains once the US pulls out. It may not turn out that way, because the Afghan security forces are increasingly capable of defending their own country—but why give the Taliban hope just when they are reeling from numerous setbacks, most recently the successful presidential election?