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Does prisoner swap show US eagerness to leave Afghanistan?

Why did the US agree to exchange five Taliban prisoners for captured soldier Bowe Bergdahl now?
This US Army handout photo obtained on June 1, 2014 shows Private First Class(Pfc) Bowe Bergdahl, before his capture by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Bergdahl went missing from his post in Afghanistan on June 30, 2009. AFP
This US Army handout photo obtained on June 1, 2014 shows Private First Class(Pfc) Bowe Bergdahl, before his capture by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Bergdahl went missing from his post in Afghanistan on June 30, 2009. AFP

KABUL // The prisoner swap between the US and the Taliban is clearly a positive development, but it raises questions about why the two sides struck a deal after all this time.

Some might believe the agreement, which freed the US prisoner of war Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, is an effort to kick-start a peace process that has never really moved into second gear.

Last year, the Taliban opened an office in Qatar with the blessing of Washington, only for it to be almost immediately closed when they were accused by the Afghan president Hamid Karzai of acting like a government in exile.

Perhaps all sides have finally accepted that sooner or later they need to hold serious talks about ending the fighting.

Unfortunately, there is also an alternative scenario. Only 9,800 American troops are due to be in Afghanistan next year and, according to plans recently announced by US president Barack Obama, this number will gradually drop to reach a few hundred after 2016.

The US had initially seemed set to keep a larger military presence here for potentially another decade, but it has grown tired of the war.

In the rush for the exits Washington could not suffer the ignominy of leaving Mr Bergdahl behind.

He was captured in June 2009, after leaving his base in the south-east province of Paktika, an insurgent stronghold on the border with Pakistan.

Even for Afghanistan, it had been a violent summer.

Mr Obama had only been in office for a few months, but quickly signalled his intentions towards Afghanistan by deploying additional troops. Another surge of forces would follow later.

The war was not winding down, it was escalating, and Sgt Bergdahl, then ranked private first class, found himself caught up in the storm just like thousands of soldiers, civilians and insurgents.

According to an article published by Rolling Stone magazine in June 2012, he was disgusted by what he witnessed and deliberately fled his base – only to be captured by the Taliban.

Since then he is believed to have been held in Pakistan, surfacing in occasional Taliban propaganda videos and then disappearing into the shadows once again.

There had been rumours of a prisoner exchange in the past but opposition from some politicians in the US always appeared to be a major obstacle. They balked at the idea of their government striking a deal with the Taliban, who they invariably described as “terrorists”.

For these men it was anathema to see the rebels as soldiers fighting on one side of a complex and difficult war. A similarly tough stance had led to the opening of Guantanamo Bay detention camp after the 2001 US-led invasion.

The fact that prisoners are still being held there, despite widespread international condemnation and Mr Obama’s own pledge to shut the place down, is another reminder of the legacy this conflict has left the world.

Rather than being a sign of progress, the release of the five Taliban prisoners might simply be an indication that the US and its allies are desperate to move on.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Updated: June 1, 2014 04:00 AM

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