President Obama says “America’s war in Afghanistan will come to a responsible end” when the last U.S. combat troops leave at the end of 2016, 2 years from now.
But what goes on, barring a peace deal, is war for the Afghan National Security Forces and the elected government, both trying to survive relentless Taliban who once ruled the country and want it back.
Analysts say this means the five senior Taliban released in exchange for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl will have ample time to join the fight and replenish the enemy’s leadership during and after the Americans and NATO personnel leave.
“Clearly, they do pose a threat because they’re going to be part of the leadership team again,” said retired Army Gen. John Keane, who served as an adviser to past commanders in Afghanistan. “The fact of the matter is they’re likely to be back in Pakistan with that leadership to influence future operations while the United States military is still there at least for a remaining year.”
Gen. Keane added that, although the five present a threat to U.S. personnel, “I don’t think it’s high-risk.”
The deal requires the five to remain in the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar for one year. They can re-emerge on the battlefield in June 2015, when the U.S. will have a dwindling force of 9,800 troops that will shrink to 5,000 by year’s end. NATO also is expected to keep some European troops in country. Britain is now the largest European contributor, with 5,000 troops.
Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, California Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said that “although there will be fewer U.S. personnel in Afghanistan in 2015, the return of these five Taliban leaders directly threatens the gains of our men and women who have fought and died.”
Stephen Biddle, a professor of international relations at George Washington University, said the point being lost in discussing the prisoner swap is that there is no sign the war is ending.
Mr. Biddle predicts the war will grind on until a settlement is reached or Washington cuts off funding for the Afghan National Security Forces.
“If the latter comes first, [which is] a distinct possibility, then the ANSF breaks up, the government fails, and U.S. war aims are lost,” he said. “The only meaningful alternative to that scenario is negotiation and settlement. Hence the right way to think about issues like prisoner releases is whether or not they facilitate progress toward settling a war that otherwise won’t end anytime soon.”
Did the deal move the U.S. in that direction?
“Not much. That’s my biggest problem with it,” Mr. Biddle said. “Between sacrificing the potential leverage inherent in the Taliban 5 and pre-emptively conceding the issue of U.S. withdrawal, the net of recent policy choices would appear to have diminished the prospects for a settlement rather than enhancing them.”
At a House Armed Services Committee hearing Wednesday, Rep. Michael K. Conaway, Texas Republican, asserted to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that “the return of these five individuals, once they serve their halfway house nonsense in Qatar and get back into Afghanistan, will strengthen the Taliban and their efforts to do whatever it is they want to do in Afghanistan.”
Mr. Hagel answered, “Maybe.”