Bergdahl a pawn in a bigger game

June 6, 2014.

How, then, to reconcile the relaxed body language of the Americans and Taliban at the handover of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl a week ago, and a suicide bomb attack today on the election campaign convoy of Afghanistan’s likely next President, Abdullah Abdullah?

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl

The circumstances around the release of Bergdahl on May 31 in exchange for five Taliban leaders being held at the United States’ prison camp at Guantanamo Bay contain efforts to move to a political playing field. After 12 years of war since the American-led invasion of Afghanistan late in 2011 and the ouster of the Taliban regime, there is urgency on both sides. A runoff vote in Afghanistan’s Presidential election is due on June 14, with the results posted on July 22. This will likely produce an administration led by former Foreign Minister Abdullah, who is committed to engagement with the Taliban, provided there is an end to violence.

For veteran leaders among the Taliban this offers some hope of a role in government and an opportunity to pursue their puritanical Islamic agenda. It also tends to reassert their authority over the young blood fighters, many of whom believe a battlefield victory is still obtainable.

President Barack Obama has set out a timetable for the withdrawal of almost all American troops by the end of 2016. The credibility of that agenda depends on a steady decline in violence and Taliban terrorist attacks between now and then.

However, the message of today’s suicide bomber attack in Kabul on the Abdullah election convoy, in which six people were killed but the candidate was untouched, gives a different message. It reinforces the Taliban’s contention that these elections are illegitimate, and that its fighters will do everything possible to disrupt the process.

Yet these two pictures are not mutually exclusive. There are strands that bind them together.

The video released by the Taliban of the Bergdahl part of the prisoner exchange on May 31 deep in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, suggested a confident relationship between the Americans and their Taliban counterparts.

As the Blackhawk helicopter lands, two Americans jump out without hesitation and walk straight towards the waiting Afghans, even though the hills around are dotted with Taliban fighters, armed with rocket-propelled grenades and machineguns. And these fighters are clearly not on edge, despite the presence of an American back-up helicopter gun-ship circling overhead.

Then, the Americans, again without hesitation, as they walk up to Bergdahl and his Taliban escort, bring their left arms over their chests in a customary local salute and gesture of peaceful intent. The whole visual atmosphere spoke of a well-established mutual acquaintance, if not by these individuals, at least by the people behind them.

The final enlightening touch was that the Americans gave Bergdahl only cursory pat downs as he was helped into the Blackhawk. There was clearly confidence that Bergdahl had not been set up as a suicide bomber, even though the ultimate sympathies of the young army sergeant are a matter of debate.

The whole episode underlines there is a bigger game at play here. Indeed, the exchange of Bergdahl is an afterthought to a process that began over five years ago when the Americans started trying to make contact with the Taliban leadership at its exile haven around the city of Quetta in neighbouring Pakistan.

But when Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai found out about the talks, he was apoplectic. He saw the U.S. feelers to the Taliban as a personal betrayal by Washington. The Obama administration decided to calm Karzai. The talks were shelved, but not before a blueprint for future contact had been floated. This foresaw the Taliban opening an office in Doha, the capital of the Gulf state of Qatar, in 2013. Karzai threw another tizzy when this became known, but Washington and the Taliban continued their contacts behind the scenes.

Presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah. Photo by Daniel Wilkinson, United States Department of State, Kabul embassy

Kathy Gannon, the veteran Associated Press correspondent based in Pakistan, who was recently wounded in a Taliban attack on her car in Afghanistan, and who is one of a handful of knowledgeable, experienced and reliable journalists in the region, says from the start the Taliban demanded the release of the Guantanamo Five. An exchange for Bergdahl is only an afterthought.

In an article written a couple of days ago while she recovers from the April 4 attack, in which her companion, photographer Anja Niedringhaus, was killed, Gannon questions the outrage by some Washington Democrats and Republicans. The Obama administration has been roundly condemned for agreeing to free men who, political oponents say, will soon be back on the battlefield killing Americans.

Gannon points out there are more intricate matters at issue here. The five are Abdul Haq Wasiq, once the Taliban’s deputy minister of intelligence, Mullah Norullah Nori, a former senior military commander, Khairullah Khairkhwa, a former governor of Herat, Mohammed Nabi, a former local security chief, and Mohamad Fazl, who allegedly presided over the mass killing of Shiite Muslims in 2000-2001.

Gannon says “they were by no means the worst of the Taliban,” and will be detained in Qatar until after the U.S. forces have left Afghanistan. By that time they will have been away from Afghanistan for more than a decade. They have been superseded as both policy-makers and battlefield commanders by a younger generation.

But their release is profoundly symbolic. The Taliban is not a monolithic organization, and the older leaders’ grip on the younger tearaway warlords is increasingly unsure. The elders are more interested in talks, with the hope of salvaging some role in the new Afghan administration from the detritus of war. The young thugs still believe terrorism and guerrilla warfare can bring victory.

The release of the Guantanamo Five tends to reinforce the elders’ argument that negotiations can bring concrete advances.

Today’s attack on Abdullah’s campaign convoy says that the young fighters still have a head of steam. But the story around the Bergdahl handover says that at some levels Washington, the Taliban, and perhaps the incoming Afghan government have convergent interests.

Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014


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