Why is the captured U.S. soldier not part of the strategic release program in Afghanistan?
Update (May 9, 2012): Confirming earlier speculation, the parents of Bowe Bergdahl today announced that he is a focus of now-stalled negotiations between the United States and the Taliban over a proposed exchange of Guantanamo Bay prisoners. The New York Times reports that they are frustrated over what they see as the Obama administration’s lack of political will to go forward with the exchange. The newspaper also quotes Pentagon officials as saying that they are working to gain the soldier’s release. But all of this underscores the question of why Bergdahl was not a focus of the clandestine “strategic release” program in Afghanistan.
The Washington Post reported yesterday that the U.S. military has for several years been secretly releasing senior Taliban prisoners from a detention facility in Afghanistan in an effort to buy peace and influence in unstable areas. According to The Telegraph (London), the “strategic release” program began two years ago and has involved “fewer than 20” persons, who as a condition of their release must renounce violence.
The news follows reports earlier this year that among the concessions that the White House is prepared to make as the political endgame approaches in Afghanistan is the transfer of high-level Taliban commanders from Guantanamo Bay to Qatari house arrest. Although the move is currently in abeyance following the breakdown in negotiations with the Taliban two months ago, the Obama administration justified it as an important “confidence building” measure that would establish its bona fides with Afghan insurgents. At the time, there was some speculation that the gesture would be tied to the release of Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. soldier who is about to begin his fourth year of captivity at the hands of the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network.
U.S. officials acknowledge that the releases in Afghanistan are risky and critics are raising questions about their merits. But it is troubling that they have gone forward at all without any apparent effort to demand Bergdahl’s freedom as reciprocation. As the U.S. military furnishes more details in the days ahead, it should also provide assurances that it is not leaving one of its own behind.