What the Release of Bowe Bergdahl Says About Obama’s Afghan Strategy

What the Release of Bowe Bergdahl Says About Obama’s Afghan Strategy

The return of a U.S. soldier warrants a certain fanfare, and the release of Bowe Bergdahl is cause for celebration and relief for his family and friends. The circumstances surrounding Bergdahl’s return, however, also raise questions about U.S. foreign policy and President Obama’s endgame in Afghanistan. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has said that the prisoner exchange was negotiated for humanitarian reasons, "essentially to save his life" — clearly a high priority. The humanitarian impulse should never be ignored when making important foreign-policy decisions and I imagine we’ll hear more about Bergdahl’s health conditions that were so dire that this costly exchange was merited.

Costly, however, is the operative word here. First, because of the harm that the five released prisoners can do directly from their safe haven in Qatar. How much will their freedom and leadership now contribute to the Taliban’s ability and desire to overthrow the democratic regime in Kabul? We care about what we leave behind in Afghanistan; we have to ask whether the release of these prisoners helps or hurts the post-conflict environment.

Second, Taliban fighters will almost certainly draw inspiration from the release and fight all the more aggressively against U.S. and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops who continue to hold their ground in Afghanistan. Have we set the stage for an increased loss of life by agreeing to this exchange? Another hidden cost is the possibility that more American citizens will be seized in the hope of getting additional prisoners released from Guantánamo. This is a constant threat, of course, but the appearance of being willing to use Guantánamo prisoners as trade bait does not improve a dangerous situation.

President Obama certainly must have weighed these costs against likely benefits, but here the story gets both confusing and more problematic. His national security advisor, Susan Rice, said that the exchange serves U.S. national security interests, presumably meaning that it is part of a broader strategic approach. If it is, however, why did Hagel say it was done to save Bergdahl’s life? The administration’s message is mixed — did the deal have to be struck quickly to save his life? If so, how does that serve a broader strategy? 

These misaligned statements therefore raise the question of the strategy in Afghanistan. The release was not discussed with President Hamid Karzai, but were either of the two candidates to succeed him consulted? If not, are we again sowing seeds of mistrust when we develop strategy without regard to the effect on allies? Does the decision once again to bypass Karzai explain why the two presidents so publicly failed to meet when Obama visited Afghanistan over Memorial Day? Even if Obama and Karzai cannot get along, one of the two candidates in the Afghanistan presidential runoff will face the consequences of the swap. We need to nurture a positive relationship with Afghanistan’s leadership, which requires extensive communication and coordinated planning.

Another security question involves the role Pakistan played throughout Bergdahl’s confinement. Since the Haqqani network held Bergdahl on Pakistani territory, did Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif play a role behind the scenes? Was Pakistan’s intelligence arm, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI), involved either positively or negatively? Alternately, was this done despite — or without — consideration of Pakistan’s wishes? Pakistan has lately been conducting military action across its border with Afghanistan; as U.S. and ISAF forces leave, relations between these neighbors may explode. What is the big picture for this relationship and how does the release of high-level Taliban prisoners affect it?

It will be a triumph for Obama if the Bergdahl release is the first step in a peace process that gets the Taliban to accept democracy in Afghanistan and lay down its arms. Little in the Taliban’s past, however, suggests that it is prepared to take that momentous step. If the release is indeed in America’s strategic interest, as Rice stated, perhaps a page has turned. If releasing the Taliban prisoners leads to reconciliation, it will prove the wisdom of Obama’s policy. Short of that, however, the costs loom far larger than the benefits.