This article was first published by The Century Foundation.
Last week, the Obama administration presented a golden proposition in an updated, incentivized version of a prisoner swap that would release five Taliban commanders from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the only known American prisoner of war in Afghanistan. The Obama administration should doggedly pursue this deal in order to revive peace talks, even though it carries political risk. Peace negotiations and reconciliation will further splinter and weaken the Taliban and will leave a more manageable security situation for the Afghan National Army when coalition troops leave in 2014. Even if their outcome is uncertain, talks and a prisoner swap create more opportunities for the United States than the alternative, a desultory fight to the finish line.
An outright military victory in Afghanistan is untenable, and it is likely that Afghan National Army troops will cede territory to insurgents as America and its allies leave over the next two years. Negotiations with the Taliban have become a more palatable solution to an ongoing military stalemate. Without negotiations with the Taliban, as I argued more than a year ago, there is little hope for a peaceful transition in Afghanistan. In fact, peace talks with the Taliban are the only way to ensure a stable Afghanistan in the future.
For this reason, the Obama Administration has made another attempt to rekindle peace talks with the Taliban after a previous attempt fell apart early this March. In that round, the Taliban claimed the United States "turned their backs on their promises" and changed stances on preconditions for these negotiations. There has to be a strong reason for the Taliban to come back the table.
Obama had secretly proposed the original version of the current proposed swap during the spring negotiations. The plan was to transfer two of the prisoners from Gitmo to the Taliban office in Qatar, receive Sgt. Bergdahl, and then transfer the remaining three Taliban members. Once in Qatar, these members of the Taliban would be kept under house arrest.
The specifics of this original plan were exposed when Sgt. Bergdahl’s parents leaked details to the media in May because they feared that the Obama administration was moving too slowly. By then, talks had dragged on for a year and the Bergdahls thought their son might never be released. No known progress has been made on talks with the Taliban since these details were released.
This time around, the Obama administration has upped the ante in the hopes of getting the Taliban to return to the table. Missy Ryan of Reuters reported that, according to officials with knowledge of the talks, all five prisoners would be released simultaneously in Qatar to begin the deal, instead of in two groups as was previously proposed. Then, the Taliban would be required to release Bergdahl. This revamped proposal represents a significant concession and gesture of trust on the part of United States.
The proposal is a risky gambit in the middle of an election year. If this deal was to fall apart, or fail completely with the Taliban refusing to release Bergdahl after prisoners were transferred from Gitmo to Qatar, it would be a foreign policy and national security disaster for President Obama. Not only would the administration be accused of “negotiating with terrorists,” but it would undermine Obama's otherwise sterling national security record. Although it may damage Obama in the short term, successful negotiations with the Taliban would yield a decrease in violence over the long term.
There will surely be significant pushback from Congress and presidential candidate Mitt Romney over the proposed prisoner swap for Sgt. Bergdahl. The original plan received heavy criticism from lawmakers in Congress, who are entitled to a close review of any potential plan. Romney panned the deal and said, "We do not negotiate with terrorists."
Despite this reaction, the Obama administration should seize the opportunity to bring the Taliban back to the table and restart negotiations. It seems that the leadership of the Taliban, aware of the United States’ continuing cooperation with the Afghan government after 2014 within the Strategic Partnership Agreement, is interested in forming a more cooperative political relationship with the United States. If successful, these negotiations could lead to reconciliation talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in the future. These talks are a necessary step toward improving the long-term stability and security of Afghanistan.
In June, the Taliban sent a representative to Kyoto for a conference on peace and reconciliation that was also attended by an adviser to President Karzai. According to Abdul Hakim Mujahid, the deputy chairman of the Afghan High Peace Council, this was a “very decent step toward peace.” An agreement on this prisoner swap would be an important stride toward serious talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, but would only be the first small step. In order for a peace deal to be pursued, the United States and the Afghan government have said that the Taliban must reject violence, accept the Afghan Constitution, and cut ties to Al-Qaeda. Meeting those three demands, which the Obama administration has laid down as red lines, will be difficult for the Taliban to swallow. A prisoner swap, however, makes it more likely.