It had all the trappings of a soon-to-be-iconic photograph — a tall American Commander-in-Chief dressed in a smart black suit, his arms reassuringly around the shoulders of the mother on his left and the father on his right, all three walking away from the camera down a flowery White House pathway.
However the announcement that Barack Obama made a few minutes before that photograph was taken on May 31, flanked by the parents of U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl, has since sent ripples of consternation across both a bitterly partisan Washington and a South Asia that is jittery from watching Washington’s rush for the exit in Afghanistan.
The unprecedented decision by the White House to hand over five senior Taliban commanders held in Guantanamo Bay to the Amir of Qatar in exchange for the release from captivity of Sergeant Bergdahl, is being seen by many, including Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill, as one of the strongest plays by the American President to consolidate his second-term legacy.
According to the deal, the five men have been banned from leaving Qatar for at least a year and Mr. Obama said that he had received security guarantees from Qatar “that it will put in place measures to protect our national security.”
However, with Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar saying the exchange was a “big victory,” there is real reason to fear the consequences of the release of the men described as the “Taliban Dream Team,” and comprising the outfit’s intelligence chiefs, chief of army staff, interior minister, provincial governor, and one prisoner linked to a joint Taliban-al Qaida cell.
Unsurprisingly, within days of the prisoner swap being announced, the move was condemned by Mr. Obama’s political opposition as a case of “negotiating with terrorists.”
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard McKeon and the ranking Republican on the Senate committee, James Inhofe, said in a joint statement that in executing this transfer, Mr. Obama had “violated laws which require him to notify Congress 30 days before any transfer of terrorists from Guantanamo Bay and to explain how the threat posed by such terrorists has been substantially mitigated.”
Although the White House said in response to such criticism that it had to act despite the legal requirement for the transfer due to the “unique and exigent circumstances” of the case, Mr. Obama’s position has been further weakened by the fact that at least six U.S. soldiers, some from Sgt. Bergdahl’s 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment were said to have been killed while looking for the missing man.
Further undermining the administration’s justification for this high-stakes exchange is the uncanny resemblance of Sgt. Bergdahl’s Afghan adventures to the plot of the TV series “Homeland” – in which a U.S. soldier captured by a terror group gradually becomes a double agent and turns on his motherland with terrifying effect.
Although no such drama has yet unfolded in Sgt. Bergdahl’s case, after Mr. Obama’s plan was announced, evidence has surfaced suggesting that the soldier may have been an Army deserter, that the U.S. intelligence community had compiled “a major classified file” after investigating him, and Pentagon sources have noted that he “may have been an active collaborator with the enemy.”
Some of Sgt. Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers also mentioned his “stated desire to walk from Afghanistan to India.”
The White House’s embarrassment deepened into a borderline PR crisis when it was then revealed that the soldier’s father, Robert Bergdahl, had apparently been tweeting supportive messages to a Taliban spokesman.
Via his account @bobbergdahl, he said in a tweet that has since been deleted — but was captured in numerous screen grabs — “I am still working to free all Guantanamo prisoners… God will repay for the death of every Afghan child, ameen.”
When asked about this conversation, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney declined to comment on those reports but defended the administration’s handling of the release.
Leaving aside the political ramifications of the deal within the U.S., the prisoner swap blows dark clouds over the Afghanistan-Pakistan-India region in the form of heightened uncertainty regarding America’s designs for a troop-free Afghanistan in 2016.
One precedent that has been set with this prisoner swap is that all manner of new transactions may emerge in the space for “reconciliation” with the Taliban after Western forces scale down.
For New Delhi this may mean that its diplomats may have to get accustomed to engaging with the Taliban as a neighbourhood political force to reckon with and drop any former notions of abhorrence.
In the light of Mr. Obama’s demonstrated mono-vision in his approach to the Bergdahl affair, India’s new government led by Narendra Modi may be best served by a new paradigm that goes beyond the trilateral mentality with Washington, perhaps bringing in Pakistan instead.
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