Why were Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia competing to host an office for the Afghan Taliban? And what was Pakistan’s role in Bergdahl’s release?
KARACHI, Pakistan — The release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. Army soldier held by a Taliban-aligned group in Afghanistan for five years, has met with a growing chorus of criticism.
His controversial release also came at a price, as the Obama administration had to swap five senior Afghan Taliban leaders who had been detained at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
According to news reports, these five detainees arrived to a hero’s welcome at the Afghan Taliban’s office in Doha, Qatar, following their 13 years in detention. The highest-ranking Taliban members held at Guantanamo still wield major influence in the movement’s ranks. In a rare statement, Taliban leader Mullah Omar called their release a “great victory.”
As reported by the BBC, the timing of the release seems significant for the Taliban. Major differences had surfaced within the insurgency’s top leadership recently, and the reappearance of old faces may serve as a unifying force that is sorely needed.
But what has been lost in the conversation about Bergdahl’s release are questions about why Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia were all competing to open up a political office for the Afghan Taliban, and a look at Pakistan’s integral role in negotiations for Bergdahl’s release.
Not everyone is ready to welcome Bergdahl home
Among those vociferously opposed to the swap are the Republicans. Sen. James Inhofe and Rep. Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, issued a statement saying that by trading the release of the five Taliban members for Bergdahl’s return, “Our terrorist adversaries now have a strong incentive to capture Americans. That incentive will put our forces in Afghanistan and around the world at even greater risk.»
Inhofe, McKeon and others have also berated President Barack Obama for circumventing a law that requires the president to give Congress 30 days’ notice of any transfers of prisoners from Guantanamo.
Hasan Abdullah, a Karachi-based journalist researching Islamist groups who frequents both the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Afghanistan, told MintPress News that jihadi groups around the globe — especially those linked to al-Qaida — view capturing enemy combatants as one of the «most effective tools for diplomacy.”
«They have been doing this in many war zones,» Abdullah explained.
He said the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, the Pakistani Taliban, captured Iranian diplomat Heshmatollah Attarzadeh in 2008, then released him in exchange for some key al-Qaida figures who had been detained by Iran. «Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and others have also done the same,» he added.
The 28-year-old Bergdahl was handed over near Khost, close to the Afghan-Pakistan border, on May 31. He was the only U.S. soldier held by the enemy in the Afghanistan War. The negotiations for his release began three years ago, with U.S. and Afghan Taliban officials meeting in Qatar.
Obama has resolutely defended the prisoner swap, citing the «sacred rule.” He told reporters in Warsaw during his four-day European trip that the United States never leaves its «men or women in uniform behind.”
“Regardless of circumstances, whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American prisoner back,” he said. “Period. Full stop. We don’t condition that.”
Deserted or captured
Reports of Bergdahl’s capture remain murky. The U.S. military has not publicly revealed the results of its investigation into the soldier’s disappearance, saying they need to question Bergdahl first. Abdullah’s Taliban sources have reportedly told him that Bergdahl, who spent part of his captivity in Pakistan, was «treated well throughout his detention.”
«If he decides to make it public, there will be a very interesting disclosure that has so far not been announced,» Abdullah said.
This statement directly conflicts with the U.S. administration’s claims that Bergdahl’s «failing health» resulted in the «acute urgency» that prompted Obama to bypass the requirement that he notify Congress about the prisoner swap.
Meanwhile, Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers have alleged that he was disillusioned with the war when he left his platoon in 2009, and that six soldiers died during the manhunt for Bergdahl.
“Basically, my son died unnecessarily, hunting for a guy that we shouldn’t even have been hunting for,” said Robert Andrews, whose 34-year-old son Darryn, a second lieutenant, was among those who died looking for Bergdahl.
Two months after Bergdahl went missing, Darryn Andrews’ vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb and a rocket-propelled grenade in a district of Afghanistan’s southeastern Paktika province.
Thus, some are irked by those celebrating Bergdahl’s release or treating him as a hero without knowing the circumstances of his capture.
In response to such sentiments, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a Facebook post: «Like any American, he is innocent until proven guilty. Our Army’s leaders will not look away from misconduct if it occurred. In the meantime, we will continue to care for him and his family.»
Pakistan behind the prisoner swap
While there may be much criticism over the prisoner swap in the U.S., in Pakistan, experts say it augurs well in times to come for all the stakeholders. Pakistan played an active role in brokering the deal, and it’s no surprise that the five released men — all of Afghan origin — travelled to Qatar on Pakistani passports.
«It’s part of conflict resolution, and happens all over the world,» pointed out Imtiaz Gul, executive director of the Islamabad-based independent Center for Research and Security Studies.
Gul used the example of the Palestinian Liberation Organization leaders who were time and again provided with travel documents by Jordan and Kuwait while peace talks were held. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Gul explained, had refused to furnish members of the Taliban with these documents, adding, “Even the Taliban do not recognize the present or the upcoming political set-up.”
«They were given Pakistani passports in view of the state’s defined role in the peace negotiation process,» said Hamza Ameer, an Islamabad-based journalist who frequently travels to Afghanistan and keeps a close watch over Pakistan-Afghan and Pakistan-India affairs.
The release in Pakistan’s interest?
«These are testing times for Pakistan and it would not want to burn its fingers by being on the wrong side of the Afghan Taliban,» Gul said, adding, «At the same time, securing the release of the U.S. soldier reiterates Pakistan’s leverage with the Afghan Taliban, with whom it has had historic ties.»
Pakistan sees the Afghan Taliban as an important player in the future of the region. According to Ameer, the prisoner swap is like an a icebreaker put out by Pakistan. «It hopes for the dialogue process to continue in a slow but positive momentum.»
Pakistan, he said, is also watching and waiting to see how Afghanistan will fare after the foreign forces leave.
At the same time, Ameer said Pakistan intends to use this interim period to initiate the peace dialogue between the U.S. and the Afghan Taliban. «Pakistan does not want the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaida to penetrate into Pakistan,» he explained.
“Pakistan has been working hard to declare the Pakistani Taliban as the only team it will negotiate with, leaving the Afghan Taliban to be the Afghan government’s headache. Pakistan wants to differentiate the [Pakistani Taliban] from the Afghan Taliban and treat them separately.»
The 2,250-kilometer long porous border between Pakistan and land-locked Afghanistan allows people from both sides to go back and forth fairly easily, and this is a major concern for Pakistan.
Every day an estimated 50,000 people from both sides cross from over 100 frequented and unfrequented border points in addition to the two official ones at Chaman and Torkham.
Not only is it easy for the Afghan Taliban to cross the border, but cross-border attacks are also fairly easy to carry out.
Pakistan has to be cautious with its narrative post-2016, when the U.S. is set to leave Afghanistan. «The Pakistan establishment was convinced the international troops drawdown would not take place so soon and it has upset its calculations,» said Gul.
«Pakistan may need to revisit Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy after 2016,” he added.
He said even Kabul cannot completely dismiss the Afghan Taliban, who have kept the heat on the U.S. for over a decade.
«It makes them a relevant stakeholder in future Afghanistan, maybe not a legitimate stakeholder, but an important actor nevertheless,” he said. “At the same time, the Taliban needs to understand that legitimacy comes through the ballot, not the bullet, and this may or may not happen — one will have to wait a few years down the road to see.»
According to Gul, two other countries — Turkey and Saudi Arabia — were competing to facilitate the Afghan Taliban’s move to open a political bureau. The objective was to provide a venue for the group to carry out peace negotiations with the U.S. without fear of being killed or arrested by NATO troops or the Afghan government. In the end, Qatar was selected, though Karzai would have preferred for Saudi Arabia or Turkey to have played host.
The natural gas-rich state of Qatar was spared the violence and anarchy of the Arab Spring. And much to the chagrin of the U.S., it has recently shown support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which merged with the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, or Nusra Front.
Qatar, along with Turkey and Saudi Arabia, had tried to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad by funding the rebels — including the Qatar-backed and al-Qaida-aligned Islamic State of Iraq that is vying for power in Syria against Saudi Arabia. In fact, Qatar is thought to be the main supplier of weapons to rebels in Syria. Qatar wanted to wield more power over the opposition forces in Syria and gain influence in Syria in the post-Assad era.
But Qatar also has bigger plans. It hopes to gain an edge over Saudi Arabia and to establish itself as a major power broker in the Middle East — a factor that prompted Qatar to allow the Afghan Taliban to open its office in their country. Qatar is using its financial firepower now to buy influence for the future.
«Qatar is one of the strongest American allies and has, at the same time, managed to take the Taliban into confidence in providing them a safe passage with certain terms and conditions,» said Abdullah, the Karachi-based journalist. «Good relations with the superpower, its neighbors and the re-emerging Taliban movement would offer potential business dividends in the long run.»
As for the Taliban, its entry into the Middle East may send the Arab world into the throes of extremism, terrorism and political instability — conditions Afghanistan and Pakistan know all too well.