Afghan Expert Calls Bergdahl Deal 'Victory For Common Sense'

Jun 2, 2014
Originally published on June 2, 2014 1:11 pm

Along with celebrations over the release of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, there are growing questions. House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Rogers of Michigan is asking whether the Obama administration broke the law in not consulting Congress over the negotiations and says this is a “dangerous” precedent: “If you negotiate here, you’ve sent a message to every Al Qaeda group in the world — by the way, some who are holding U.S. hostages today — that there is some value now in that hostage in a way that they didn’t have before.”

General James L. Jones, who served as a national security adviser to President Obama, is voicing concern about the five Taliban prisoners who were released in exchange for Sgt. Bergdahl, saying they would pose a danger if they returned to the battlefield.

Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona is calling the five Taliban men, “the hardest of the hardcore.” He adds, “it is disturbing that these individuals would have the ability to re-enter the fight, and they are big, high-level people, possibly responsible for the deaths of thousands” of Shiite Muslims in Afghanistan.

White House has responded. National security adviser Susan Rice told ABC news, “Sergeant Bergdahl wasn’t simply a hostage; he was an American prisoner of war captured on the battlefield. We have a sacred obligation that we have upheld since the founding of our republic to do our utmost to bring back our men and women who are taken in battle, and we did that in this instance.”

Rice says that President Obama has received “very specific assurances” that five Taliban prisoners released, “will be carefully watched and their ability to move will be constrained.”

Michael Semple, who served as deputy to the European Union special representative for Afghanistan, says he worked in Afghanistan during the period when at least four out of the five of the Taliban prisoners were senior Taliban officials.

“I’ve had direct and indirect dealings with them. In addition to having dealt with them, I actually profiled them,” Semple told Here & Now’s Robin Young. “I certainly consider them influential … but they came to prominence over a decade ago as part of another war. They came to prominence as part of the Afghan civil war, before the U.S. intervention. They played a very brief role, for a matter of two months during the U.S. intervention, and they have had no role what so ever in the ongoing insurgency. If fact, the battlefield of today, one which is dominated for the Taliban by IEDs and suicide bombers, would be absolutely unfamiliar to these people.”

Guest

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Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

So who are the five Taliban detainees traded in that swap for POW Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl? The U.S. traditionally does not negotiate with terrorists. The Republican House Intelligence Committee chair, Mike Rogers, said in doing so in this case, others will have more incentive to take hostages. And Senator John McCain, of course a former POW, and General James Jones, former national security advisor to President Obama, are asking, will the five prisoners released pose a future danger?

Well, the Obama administration says it didn't negotiate directly with terrorists. The government of Qatar did. And Qatar says the prisoners are not returning to the battle field.

Let's bring in Michael Semple. He has long experience working in Afghanistan. He's a visiting research fellow at the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queens University in Belfast, Ireland. We've reached him by Skype. And, Michael, your take on this deal?

MICHAEL SEMPLE: I think it's a victory for common sense.

YOUNG: Because?

SEMPLE: Because these are five graying, middle-aged men. Four out of those 5 has played no role in the conflict in Afghanistan. One out of the 5 has had a very minor role at the very start of it.

I think the U.S. was left with a headache as to what to do with people that it was eventually going to have to release from Guantanamo. And now the administration has come up with a way of parking them safely in Qatar, where they're a danger to no one. And Obama has been able to bring Bowe Bergdahl back.

YOUNG: Now, how do you know - remind us more about how you know about these five men.

SEMPLE: Well, firstly, I worked in Afghanistan for the United Nations during the period when these men were, at least 4 out of 5 of them, were senior Taliban officials. So I've had direct and indirect dealings with some of them. In addition to having dealt with them, I actually profiled them. So I feel I know them pretty well.

YOUNG: Well, you're saying that. But then The Washington Post is reporting that they were among the Taliban's most influential commanders. One of them was a founding member of the Taliban. He was close to the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, who, by the way, made a very rare public statement after the deal thanking the Qatar government for their mediation and for now hosting, as he put it, hosting, not detaining these men. So that's leading to fears that they won't stay in detention. Your sense, though, if someone says that they are potentially dangerous?

SEMPLE: Well, I certainly considered they're influential. It's absolutely right to say that Khairullah Khairkhwa, one of these people, was a senior civilian leader of the movement who was quite close to Mullah Omar. Mullah Fazl was during the 1990s, and until the time of his surrender, was the head of the Taliban military.

But they came to prominence over a decade ago as part of another war. They came to prominence as part of the Afghan civil war before the U.S. intervention. They played a very brief role for a matter of two months during the U.S. intervention. And they have had no role whatsoever in the ongoing insurgency. In fact, the battlefield of today, one which is dominated for the Taliban by IEDs and suicide bombers, would be absolutely unfamiliar to these people. They wouldn't recognize today's battlefield in Afghanistan.

YOUNG: You know, you take my point that might they be released even more angry than when they went in?

SEMPLE: The Emirates of Qatar has proven its ability to look after people who have been entrusted to it. And I think we can be pretty sure for the length of this guarantee - and we're told at the moment it's a one-year guarantee - that these five gentlemen are not going to be leaving Qatar and are not going to be participating in any struggle against the U.S. or the Afghan government. My feedback from other prisoners who spent a long time with them in Guantanamo is that Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa and even Mullah Fazl, the old senior commanders - so many of the mistakes that the movement had made and weren't fired up with the idea to come out and rejoin the fight.

But looking at this from the position of someone who tries to be a peacemaker, this is now an opportunity. These are senior members of the movement, who in a sense have their credibility intact because of the sacrifice they've made by being held in Guantanamo. But they're parked somewhere safe. I think that anybody who's going to be trying to mediate in the Afghan conflict, they will be trying to meet with these people to listen to what they have to say and encourage them to use their influence to start winding down this conflict.

YOUNG: I was going to ask you what impact this might have on what we hear are, you know, these tentative talks with certain strains of the Taliban. But if you would address for a second the concerns that this might mean the kidnapping of other American troops because they can use it as leverage.

SEMPLE: Can I come back on something that you said earlier? You said that Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, has for once broken his silence and expressed his delight at this deal. Now, you are saying that on the basis of an email, which has been sent by somebody operating on behalf of the cultural commission of the Taliban, saying that he has received a message from Mullah Omar. There's no evidence whatsoever, that I would consider credible, that Mullah Omar has actually given any such message.

I'm not sure that Mullah Omar is even aware of the release of these people. I doubt that he has expressed his joy at it in the sense that, you know, the Western media has been a little bit gullible on this one, accepting statements at face value, because for three years this deal or something like it has been on the table and the Taliban haven't jumped.

I personally have used any influence that I've had in talking to people, you know, close to the Taliban, to say actually that they ought to accept it. For three years they've held out and not accepted this deal. I don't for the life of me believe that the Taliban leadership considers this some kind of great victory. If it was, they'd have snapped it up three years ago. So I think it's absolutely implausible that this will create an incentive for kidnapping of U.S. soldiers because, yeah, if this were such a great thing the Taliban were getting, they'd have moved three years ago rather than digging in their heels at the last possible moment.

YOUNG: Well, pull that thread. Why do you think this is happening now? And of course, you know, we - yeah, we are reading - I'm looking right at The Washington Post that the Taliban released a rare public statement from the organization's leader. You're saying maybe it wasn't Omar. Who would it have been and what does it mean to you?

SEMPLE: Well, the Taliban movement are waging insurgency. They've been very effective at persuading young men to go out and get themselves killed over the past decade or more. To persuade young men to keep on fighting, they have to run a propaganda effort.

This statement which they attribute to their leader, who hasn't been seen for over a decade now and whose voice hasn't been heard since 2009 - you know, they use statements attributed to him to try and keep up this sort of morale of the fighting forces. It's wartime propaganda. So they have to put a positive spin on things that happen.

But I believe if you were to ask the Taliban themselves, their reaction might not be so different from these of the negative reaction of Senator McCain because they're saying, on the one hand, of course we're happy that our men will be, you know, back with their families. While on the other hand they say, they haven't actually been able to rejoin us. They're neither able to come to Afghanistan or Pakistan where they can rejoin the fight. What use are they to us sitting in Qatar?

And so I think that the Taliban propaganda machine has put a positive spin on this. But I'm extremely doubtful that the Taliban leadership considers this a victory.

YOUNG: Michael Semple, who has, as we've been hearing, long experience working in Afghanistan, visiting research fellow at the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queens University in Belfast - involved in a lot of these negotiations. Michael, thanks so much for speaking with us.

SEMPLE: Delighted. Nice to speak to you again, Robin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.