Afghan Leaders Caught Off-Guard, Feel Misled Over Bergdahl Deal

Monday, 09 Jun 2014 11:23 AM

By Sandy Fitzgerald

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Afghan officials say they were caught off-guard by the Obama administration's plan to swap five Taliban prisoners for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, and sources say that many in the Afghan government believed the swap would not be completed without a wider peace effort.

The larger commitment was part of original discussions with the Taliban in 2011 and early 2012 about the prisoner swap, reports The New York Times, but was abandoned last year when the Taliban no longer showed interest in a broader deal.

As a result, officials are asking in both Kabul and Washington if the deal gives the Taliban more power than the Afghan government at a time when President Barack Obama is planning for America's role in the war in Afghanistan to come to an end.

Urgent: Approve of Obama's Taliban Swap? Vote Here

Like the senior members of Congress, Afghan officials said they were caught off-guard by the prisoner swap for Bergdahl. According to one Afghan security official and another former official who maintains close ties to the presidential palace, many in the Afghan government believed that American officials misled them into thinking that the prisoner swap would not be done unless it was connected to a broader peace effort.

Bergdahl remains at a military hospital in Germany, where he Sunday refused to speak with his family, although medical personnel said physically he is able to travel.

In Washington, administration officials admitted they had abandoned the plans last week to make the prisoner swap part of larger negotiations that could improve the chances that Kabul's new government could survive. One official said Obama determined the Taliban would not engage in talks, and that "you couldn't let the hopes of an eventual peace deal get in the way of the objective of getting Bergdahl home."

But what happened is "worse than nothing," the unnamed Afghan security official told the Times. "Even if they were keeping it a secret — the peace talks — and pretending that the trade was just a trade, we could be fine with that. But what has happened is worse than nothing: We are made to look weaker, and the Taliban is stronger."

The Afghan government also would have liked to keep the released Taliban prisoners in guest houses run by the country's National Directorate of Security instead of giving them relative freedom in Qatar, citing cases of other former Taliban leaders who are in Kabul under similar arrangements.

Indirectly, the United States would still be paying the prisoners' expenses, since Afghanistan's National Security Council, which funds the program, is financed by the CIA.

"We would have used them to try to lever another approach to peace," the former Afghan official said. "Could you imagine what it would have done to Taliban morale to see the five come to Kabul and have to live under the Afghan government?"

Meanwhile, the former official, who says he's pro-American, said his government is seeking ways to open peace talks with the Taliban, who still show little interest in negotiating.

"What does this say to every Afghan that has spent their entire adult lives fighting violent extremism?" he said. "What does this say to all the Afghans that have already died or that will die next year?"

Afghans find Obama's talk about ending the war "extremely insensitive ... it ends for Americans. But it's not ending for Afghans. Their intellectual dishonesty here is astounding. If all you want to do is leave, then just say it. We all know it."

American lawmakers are also continue to question Obama's decision.

"We have made a serious, serious geopolitical mistake," Republican Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, said on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday.

"We've empowered the Taliban," he said. "The one thing that they wanted more than anything was recognition from the U.S. government."

Rogers and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein argued in 2011 that the discussion was couched to allow a more broad reconciliation with the Taliban.

Feinstein, who on Sunday's "Face the Nation" continued to pose questions about the deal, said she wrote letters in 2011 opposing the swap, saying "if you release them up front, there would be no reconciliation; if you release them after progress or at the end and had the agreement to do so, that you might get a reconciliation agreement."

Urgent: Approve of Obama's Taliban Swap? Vote Here

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