Risky business

The US’ release of five Taliban officials being held in the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in exchange for an American soldier, Sgt Bowe Bergdahl, held captive by the Taliban since 2009 has kicked up a storm.

While many in the US and elsewhere in the world are relieved to see Bergdahl safe and return home, there are sections that are critical of the exchange. Several Republican senators have slammed the exchange as marking a shift from the long-held US policy of not negotiating with terrorists. Washington’s willingness to do a deal with terrorists will be seen as a sign of weakness, argue sections of the US military community. The deal could set a bad precedent, encouraging the Taliban and other insurgent groups to abduct more American soldiers with a view to securing the release of their jailed comrades. There is understandable concern in the US, Afghanistan and India that the five Taliban officials, described by Republican senator John McCain as the ‘hardest of the hard-core’ militants, ‘the highest high-risk people,’ will on their release, return to the battlefield to boost Taliban’s military capacity and spurring the violence.

McCain’s description is an exaggeration. The five men exchanged for Bergdahl were mid/ high-ranking Taliban officials, who were taken into custody early in the US’ war in Afghanistan. They were not convicted for any crime. Indeed, no charges were made against them or scores of others at Guantanamo. They were detained because of their positions in the Taliban, not because of ties to al-Qaeda. They and hundreds of others were held illegally at Guantanamo. The US has done no great charity in setting them free now; this should have been done a long while ago. Indeed, as the US war in Afghanistan winds down, all Taliban prisoners of war will have to be released.

Whether Bergdahl was a deserter or not US president Barack Obama did the right thing to pursue his release. In the turmoil of war, soldiers who go missing, die or are taken prisoner are reduced to a mere statistic and often forgotten. In securing Bergdahl’s freedom, Obama has reaffirmed to his soldiers that his administration will bring back every soldier from the Afghan battlefield. What drove Bergdahl, who willingly joined the army to ‘liberate Afghanistan,’ to turn away from it? Is America ready and willing to hear his account?

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