- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 12, 2014

The five Taliban commanders freed by the Obama administration will find an Afghanistan in 2015 that is still home to nearly 10,000 American troops and still in a war that likely will go on for years.

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.”

The defense secretary quoted from an intelligence assessment that said “a few new Taliban leaders, no matter how senior, will not appreciably change the threat to the Afghan people, to the Afghan army, but most importantly for us — to our forces.”

Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said of the release: “Of course it came with risk. But I think that risk has been greatly exaggerated.”

The U.S. withdrawal is set to transpire this way:

From a surge peak of 100,000 troops in 2011, there are now 32,000 U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan serving in an advise and assist role. They go on missions with Afghan security forces, but the Afghans take the lead. In some situations, they engage in combat on the ground and perform airstrikes.

The combat mission is due to end in December. With the expected signing of a security pact, the U.S. will have 9,800 troops in the country next year deployed with Afghans and other NATO soldiers at various bases. The responsibility for defending the country shifts fully to the Afghan government.

By the end of 2015, about 5,000 U.S. troops will be consolidated at two points: Kabul and the sprawling Bagram Airfield. The main missions will be training and supporting counterterrorism operations. Those troops will leave by the end of 2016.

Left behind will be units to defend the embassy and handle paperwork for the procurement of equipment in a process called security assistance.

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