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US military prisoner released by the Afghan Taliban

June 5, 2014

Summary: A US Army sergeant, captured by the Taliban in 2010, has been released in exchange for the release of five Guantanamo inmates.  Initial debate focuses on how he came to be captured and the morality of dealing with terrorists.  The long term debate could consider what impact the Taliban releasees may have on the Taliban’s leadership and decision-making direction and whether the release operation points to potential additional confidence building measures between insurgents and the international community in the future.

bowe bergdahlSergeant Bowe Bergdahl, a United States soldier taken captive by the Afghan Taliban was released by the Taliban to the custody of US Special Forces this week. He had been a prisoner – the only US soldier ever taken by the Taliban – since 2010. It appears that this was a trade-off deal in which Bergdahl was exchanged for the release of five Afghan Taliban members from Guantanamo prison.  See the release video, courtesy of the  Taliban, here.

Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban when he apparently wandered off his base in eastern Afghanistan. The reason for this has not yet been ascertained although there are many strong suggestions that he might have been attempting to desert after becoming disillusioned with the US operation in Afghanistan.

The five Talebs have been released into the care of the Qatari government, who appeared to have played a significant role in brokering the deal which has been a source of keen speculation for at least a year or so.


Amidst (mainly) relief that their son has come home, America is grappling with several questions arising in relation to the Bergdahl case:

a) was he doing something stupid – like deserting – to get himself captured?; (See here for an appropriately emotive and entertaining explanation from Gary Owen)
b) how many people did he put at risk over the years who were trying to locate and release him?;
c) should the US be making deals with terrorists, particularly when several previous Guantanamo detainees – or rather releases have returned rather promptly to the jihad from which they had been rudely interrupted.

There are a couple of other more long-term aspects which are worthy of consideration. If we stay with the idea that, although very difficult to pinpoint, the Taliban seem to be divided in approach into those favouring military solutions (continue the jihad) and those contemplating and arguing for a more pragmatic political approach, including dialogue with Afghan and international audiences. The five Taliban releases may have an impact on the “balance of power” in this contest. I do not have a good sense of the direction – if any – that this might take. But the Afghanistan Analysts Network have some very helpful biographic information on the five.

Furthermore and following on, several years of dialogue between the US and the Taliban on Sergeant Bergdahl, culminating crucially in a successful joint exercise, might, once both sides have exhausted the spin and propaganda angles, indicate a useful confidence building measure that could lead to others. Lines of commnunication and trust have been built up.  It is a building block. It is unlikely, on its own and in a short timeframe, to lead to a dialogue with the Taliban, but at least a step forward has been made.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 5, 2014 1:56 pm

    Tim, You may already have read in news and opinion reports in and from the USA that this exchange is a political disaster for President Obama. Even senior members of his own party and news organizations friendly to Mr. Obama are condemning this ‘deal.’ Whatever possible confidence-building may have been contemplated by the President and his advisers seems, from here, to be lost in the general outcry against Mr. Obama’s decision. The manner in which the decision was reached may even have been against US Federal statutes. (I’m in the USA at present).

  2. June 5, 2014 2:13 pm

    Ron, hi and thanks. Yes, I admit I rather skipped over that aspect of the debate in my eagerness to look at the longer-term implications. But it is quite a tussle between two US fundamental arguments: “leave no man behind” versus “no dealing with terrorists”. I conclude, rather unhelpfully, that time will tell on the “confidence building” issue but I still rate it as an important, although small, step in a useful direction – even if that “direction” isn’t entirely clear yet. And any useful confidence building will probably be largely behind closed doors up to a point. But I think 2014-15 will be seeing some serious internal (even existential?) reflection by the Taliban anyway. Depends what the “releasees” go on to do, I guess. I understand they are “bailed” to remain in Qatar for a year. Keep me posted!

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