WASHINGTON, DC — One of the two contenders to succeed Hamid Karzai as president of Afghanistan told panel attendees that he had concerns over the deal to trade Taliban captives for U.S. prisoner of war Bowe Bergdahl, but avoided directly critiquing the Obama administration’s decision.
Dr. Abdullah Abdullah is due to face off against his one remaining opponent in a run-off election for the Afghan presidency on Saturday. Speaking at an event hosted by the Atlantic Council and Center for American Progress, Abdullah — appearing over Skype — told attendees that while there were concerns with the release of the five Taliban members who were transferred to Qatar as part of the Bergdahl swap, he had not been briefed on many of the details, only knowing what has been released in the media.
“Our main concern is about those who have been released so they do not join the battlefield, because they are men who are criminals who have committed crimes in a massive way against the Afghan people,” he said. Abdullah pointed to prisoners released in Afghanistan as part of past attempts to make peace between the government and Taliban, but have returned directly to fighting against Kabul, a reason to be watching the exchange closely. “Our prime concern would be that one,” he said.
Abdullah avoided, however, criticizing the framework of the deal and didn’t comment on whether it was the correct move. “We also know back there in Washington, there are a lot of discussions about it and the security of your forces — your armed personnel here,” Abdullah continued. “We don’t know anything further about the deal and what will be the future of the five people.”
Abdullah’s tight-lipped response is unsurprising given the lack of discussion of the deal during the ongoing campaign. As the Los Angeles Times noted on Wednesday, neither former Foreign Minister Abdullah nor his opponent — former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani — have brought up the exchange on the campaign trail. “In a strange way, the Taliban are not a factor in the elections,” Michael Semple, a former European Union senior official in Afghanistan, told the LA Times. Even though Abdullah last week survived a suicide bombing last week, the “contest between Abdullah and Ghani is over other things,” he said.
Many of those other issues were brought up for discussion during the event on Thursday. Abdullah answered questions about promoting women’s place in society and the economy, increasing the rule of law and fighting corruption, and developing Afghanistan’s national resources. He also downplayed the potential struggle for influence in Afghanistan between India, Pakistan, and China once the United States removes its combat troops at the end of the year. “Relations with one country should not be played against relations with another country,” Abdullah said, promoting the idea of a “win-win situation.”
At one point, Abdullah took a thinly veiled swipe at the current president. Karzai has so far refused to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States, formalizing the role of U.S. troops in the country after combat troops leave. Both Abdullah and Ghani have pledged that they will sign the BSA should they be elected, but Abdullah — who ran against Karzai in the 2009 election — poked at the frosty relations between Karzai and Obama in recent years. “I think the past 3–4 years of contentious relations and lots of rhetorics used here in Kabul weren’t helpful,” Abdullah said. “The sustainability of our national institutions requires long-term cooperation from the United States, as well as the international community, based on the foundation of a new spirit of partnership from both sides.”
The presidential hopeful also declined to say whether he would be willing to renegotiate the American troop pullout — which will see all U.S. forces out by 2016 — to be more based on the conditions on the ground. “Hopefully zero option will not mean zero cooperation,” Abdullah said. Instead, he said, he hoped that the BSA will be utilized in order to maximize the level of cooperation. “We cannot dictate from here the conditions out there,” he said, rather encouraging focus on cooperation and taking action on matters that are in Afghan hands.
Abdullah, however, did not directly answer whether he would include people with records of alleged human rights violations in his cabinet should he win, saying it was a “serious issue” for his country. “The priority of the future Afghan government should be having the issue of human rights and women rights as part and parcel of every decision which is being made in terms of appointments as well as other issues,” Abdullah said. He quickly then pivoted to the need to reform the judicial system within Afghanistan to combat and prosecute current human rights abuses. “The country is not able to deal with current violations let alone violations of the past,” he said.