John Kerry reported for duty on the Sunday morning talk shows to defend the Taliban-for-Bowe Bergdahl swap. On CNN he claimed that the U.S. has the ability to closely monitor the five released Taliban fighters and that if they were to return to terrorism, the U.S. would kill them. He said: “I’m not telling you that they don’t have some ability at some point to go back and get involved (in fighting). But they also have an ability to get killed doing that.”
Technically, Kerry is right–the Taliban Five do have the potential to get killed waging jihad against the U.S. and our allies. But how likely is that? Not very. For one thing, the CIA program of drone strikes in Pakistan has all but ended. According to the New America Foundation, there hasn’t been a single strike since Christmas.
For another thing, even while the drone strikes were going at full tilt (2010 was the peak year, when an estimated 849 people were killed in drone attacks in Pakistan) senior Taliban commanders were largely exempt from attack. While CIA drones have killed senior members of the Haqqani Network, the group which was holding Bergdahl and which was responsible for the worst terrorist attacks in Kabul, the Quetta Shura Taliban (so-called after the Pakistani city in which their headquarters is located) has not been targeted by American drones (or Special Operations Forces).
The reasons for this forbearance are a bit mysterious–it’s not as if U.S. intelligence doesn’t have good actionable intelligence on the location inside Pakistan of senior Taliban commanders and it’s not as if those commanders aren’t plotting regular attacks on American forces. Most likely the U.S. has refrained from targeting them for fear of offending Pakistani sensitivities, because the Taliban are so closely linked to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. There is also undoubted concern about operating drones in urban areas where the Taliban hide and where the risk of civilian casualties is much greater.
Whatever the cause, it’s a fact that the U.S. has not tried to kill senior Taliban commanders such as those just released from Guantanamo as long as they have stayed out of Afghanistan. This is unlikely to change in the future, especially now that the U.S. is beginning its pullout from Afghanistan. So as long as the Taliban Five don’t infiltrate Afghanistan–as long as they stay in Pakistan, or even Qatar, to organize attacks–they are de facto freed of the threat of American retaliation.
The Bergdahl swap may still be defensible on “leave no man behind” grounds. But Kerry and other senior administration officials need to level about the fact that our imperfect intelligence will not allow us to know as soon as the Taliban Five return to terrorism and our self-imposed limitations on the use of force in all likelihood will not allow us to kill them if they do.