Less than forty-eight hours after securing the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five Taliban detainees held at Guantanamo, Republicans in Congress and conservatives in media began attacking the deal. In doing so, they are refusing to accept the reality of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan and the way wars end.
The United States is engaged in an armed conflict in Afghanistan against al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces authorized by Congress under the 2001 Authorizations to Use Military Force. It is remains controversial whether this armed conflict extends beyond Afghanistan and the border regions of Pakistan, but what is not in doubt is that of the enemy forces party to this conflict, the Taliban is confined to Afghanistan and Pakistan. President Obama recently announced that the combat role for the United States in the armed conflict in Afghanistan will end this year and all participation will completely cease by 2016.
When wars end, prisoners taken custody must be released. These five Guantanamo detainees were almost all members of the Taliban, according to the biographies of the five detainees that the Afghan Analysts Network compiled in 2012. None were facing charges in either military or civilian courts for their actions. It remains an open question whether the end of U.S. involvement in the armed conflict in Afghanistan requires that all Guantanamo detainees must be released. But there is no doubt that Taliban detainees captured in Afghanistan must be released because the armed conflict against the Taliban will be over.
Sgt. Bergdahl was a U.S. soldier captured in an active zone of combat. The circumstances of his capture make him a Prisoner of War, not a hostage as some have erroneously claimed. In traditional conflicts, both sides would release their prisoners at the conclusion of hostilities. This is not a traditional conflict, however, and the Obama administration rightly had no expectation that Sgt. Bergdahl would have been released when U.S. forces redeployed out of Afghanistan. As that date neared, any leverage the United States possessed would have been severely undermined.
Conservative critics, however, are stuck fighting the political fights of the last decade and refuse to appreciate the cunning maneuvers that secured the release of the lone American soldier taken prisoner in Afghanistan at little risk to the security of the United States.
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI) said of the move, “I believe this decision will threaten the lives of American soldiers for years to come.” Other Republicans have joined in the chorus since the deal was announced, including Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, calling for hearings over the agreement. Even though Rogers is the Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, he offered no evidence to support his charge. That’s because the evidence demonstrates that the Obama administration has been remarkably successful at preventing detainees it has released from Guantanamo from engaging in militant activities against the United States.
Statistics from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence show that only 6 percent (5 in total) of Guantanamo detainees released during the Obama administration have been assessed to have potentially engaged in militant activities. That compares with a rate of nearly 30 percent under the Bush administration. While these statistics have been criticized as including activities that no one should consider threatening the security of the United States, such as writing op-eds critical of U.S. policy, no one is arguing that they are undercounting those detainees who potentially have committed violent acts upon release.
So the statistics show that there is a 5 percent chance at most that these detainees will engage in militant activities upon release, they will be in Qatar for at least a year by which time the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan will be over, and they would have had to be released soon anyway. When put in the proper perspective, obtaining the release of the sole U.S. prisoner in Afghanistan is a masterstroke and worthy of congratulations.
The five detainees that were included in the deal would have to be released soon anyway because the U.S. involvement in the armed conflict against the Taliban is ending. And the Obama administration has been exceptionally good at preventing released Guantanamo detainees from engaging in militant activities against the United States, especially compared to the Bush administration. It’s time to move on from the constant political fights of the last decade and conservatives critics should simply be celebrating the return home of Sgt. Bergdahl.
Ken Gude is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he focuses on issues involving detainees, privacy, and technology.