Many Afghans are not exactly thrilled by the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner exchange — and probably for more genuine reasons than GOP strategists hoping to turn Bergdahl into the next Benghazi bonanza.
The US government traded five high-ranking members of Afghanistan’s Taliban government — who were imprisoned at Guantanamo for 13 years — for the last American prisoner of war on Saturday.
Predictably, the prisoner swap angered people on all sides, including Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers, who called him a deserter, and Guantanamo critics, who slammed the "one American to five Afghans" exchange value of the deal and argued that the trade shows President Obama has all the power to close down the infamous prison — just not the will. US conservatives promptly turned the prisoner exchange into their new political platform, with some even having to backtrack on previous comments, including Senator John McCain, who put out a statement to clarify his earlier support for a prisoner swap.
'In general, the Afghans’ reaction was one of fear and disappointment.'
“Had [Anderson] Cooper asked if Senator McCain would support a deal that freed five hard-core Taliban leaders, two of whom are wanted by the UN for war crimes for slaughtering thousands of Shiite Muslims, under terms that allowed them to potentially return to the battlefield against America in a year, the answer would have been ‘Hell no,’” the statement read.
But here’s a group who really has a right to complain: the Afghan people themselves, and especially those who directly suffered under the rule of the “Taliban Five,” as the released prisoners have been dubbed.
At least two of the released men are accused of pretty awful conduct back in Afghanistan — although that hardly differentiates them from many other characters the US has expressed no qualms about working with there. Mullah Mohammad Fazl, in particular, is accused of war crimes, and Abdul Haq Wasiq was deputy head of an agency that carried out torture, according to biographies of the men by the Afghan Analysts Network (AAN), an independent think-tank.
'The five Taliban leaders had committed a lot of atrocities and many still remember them.'
Interestingly, the AAN points out that the rest of the released prisoners were relatively moderate, and that while Wasiq is accused of torture, that has "always been carried out by Afghan intelligence whoever has been in charge and, indeed, this has been no bar to close cooperation with it by the US and other countries.”
Still, the men were no saints and many in Afghanistan are dismayed and frightened by their release — particularly that of Fazl. Many remember him as the commander of a violent offensive in 1999, that sent 300,000 people fleeing for their lives, the Wall Street Journal reported.
"If he is released, he will burn our houses again because he doesn't shake hands with the government," Khwaja Gul Ahmad a 74-year-old farmer whose son was killed by Taliban fire during the fighting in the Shomali plain north of Kabul, told the Journal.
“There was not a single undamaged house or garden," Masjidi Fatehzada, a shopkeeper in the area recalled. "My entire shop was burned to the ground. There was nothing left."
“In general, the Afghans’ reaction was one of fear and disappointment. The five Taliban leaders had committed a lot of atrocities and many still remember them,” Ahmad Majidyar, an Afghan security analyst, told VICE News. “Many in Afghanistan also felt betrayed by Washington and saw the move as the US admission of defeat and as part of President Obama’s larger goal of disengaging from Afghanistan at all costs.”
'We want the detainees to have complete freedom.'
Afghan officials, who had no knowledge of the deal, were also pretty pissed, but they had a bizarre way of expressing that — with the ministry of foreign affairs complaining about the restrictions imposed on the men and demanding the "unconditional freedom of its citizens." As part of the deal, the five men are supposed to spend the next year "on probation" — and under surveillance — in Qatar.
The ministry sent a letter to the US and Qatari governments to make it known that it's not happy and to demand a clarification of Qatar's mediating role, according to local reports.
"The Ministry of Foreign Affairs tried to inform the Qatari government and the US about its concerns, we want the detainees to have complete freedom," a spokesman said on Monday.
The US bypassing him made Karzai 'furious.'
That's counterintuitive at best — and it remains a mystery why the Afghan government, which has been fighting the Taliban for the past decade, would be so eager to have the five leaders back in the country and free to move around.
But it's no secret Afghan President Hamid Karzai was never a fan of Qatar's meddling in the country's business — the Taliban even briefly opened their first international office in Doha, in June 2013. The release of Taliban prisoners from Gitmo had previously been tied to a — still yet to happen — settlement between the Taliban and the Afghan government, and the US bypassing Karzai made him "furious,” Majidyar added.
“What the Afghan government — literally meaning Karzai and a small number of pro-Taliban aides, not the cabinet and parliament — wanted was two things. One, that the release of the prisoners should be tied to the peace negotiations with the Taliban and, two, that the prisoners should have been transferred to Kabul rather than Doha,” Majidyar said. “Kabul knows that the Taliban leaders are now freed and it can do little to change that. But by calling for 'full freedom' for the five Taliban leaders, it is fruitlessly trying to ingratiate itself with the Taliban.”
'In the recent presidential election, millions of Afghans went to the polls to express their defiance of the Taliban. This deal, and America talking to the Taliban, deeply undermines that.'
Others pointed out that the deal — which the Taliban hailed as a “huge and vivid triumph,” while also promising more kidnappings — is a sign of deteriorating American influence in Afghanistan, which could be bad news for many Afghans who have no desire for a Taliban comeback.
"In the recent presidential election, millions of Afghans went to the polls to express their defiance of the Taliban, but also to show their desire for a long-term, strategic partnership with the US,” Davood Moradian, director of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies, told VICE News. “This deal, and America talking to the Taliban — through Qatar — deeply undermines that."
"The US release of the Taliban leaders shows a contradiction in the way the US sees the Taliban. Obama's eagerness to negotiate with the Taliban seems to reflect some fatigue or self-doubt,” Moradian added. “The problem is not Afghanistan, or even the Taliban's brutality — it's the US receding self-confidence in Afghanistan."
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi
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