ESSAY: Obama’s Bergdahl-Taliban Gamble Is All About Timing

Screen grab from a video released this week by Al-Emara and posted on the official website of the Taliban. It appears to show US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl (R) waiting at an undisclosed location beside one of his Taliban captors. (AFP PHOTO / Al-Emara)

Screen grab from a video released this week by Al-Emara and posted on the official website of the Taliban. It appears to show US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl (R) waiting at an undisclosed location beside one of his Taliban captors. (AFP PHOTO / Al-Emara)

Buried beneath the nasty political brawl over the Obama administration’s swap of five senior Taliban prisoners for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is Obama’s cold-blooded strategic thinking. And President Barack Obama’s big gamble already has deepened Republicans’ frustrations with him, which could make easing sequestration a political impossibility.

There are times when the Senate side of the Capitol can feel more like a shark tank in the midst of a feeding frenzy. This was one of those weeks, as reporters jockeyed for position to ask senators about Obama’s five-for-one trade.

At Defense News, our Military Times colleagues ran point for our newsroom’s coverage of what some began calling on Twitter #BergdahlGate. So your correspondent mostly was a spectator caught in the middle of the chaos.

Republican senators, joined by a few Democrats, criticized President Barack Obama for trading several former — and perhaps future — Taliban commanders for Bergdahl, whom they called a deserter.

Answers to questions about whether the president orchestrated a bad trade and over whether Bergdahl indeed is a deserter will be answered later, when we all have more facts after the Army completes an investigation.

Lost in the GOP and media fury is much — if any — serious discussion about Obama’s true gamble in green-lighting the trade. In short, the commander in chief’s rolling of the dice is all about timing.

GOP lawmakers, like Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., this week said bringing Bergdahl home was a mistake. They warn sending the Taliban commanders first to Qatar then to places unknown at this point was a huge strategic mistake.

“The details are that they went to Qatar, where the Taliban has an office, and in a year, they are going to be out,” McCain said Thursday on CNN. “I mean, it’s just totally unacceptable. These people would be back in the fight. Our troops will still be there.”

But will they?

Obama seems to be calculating — and, yes, gambling — that most of them won’t still be there when and if any of the Taliban commanders make it back to the Afghanistan-Pakistan area and resume some kind of role(s) in that organization.

Obama clearly intends to stand by his plans to have all US combat troops out of Afghanistan at some point in 2016.

“By the end of 2016, our military will draw down to a normal embassy presence in Kabul, with a security assistance component, just as we’ve done in Iraq,” Obama said on May 27, while announcing his plans to shrink the US military footprint in Afghanistan to 9,800 by the end of 2015 — and then to almost zero 12 months after that.

Under terms of deal US officials worked with Taliban leaders — with Qatari officials as the intermediaries — the former Taliban commanders will remain in Qatar for one year.

But wait. Explore the wording of White House officials’ statements about the terms of the deal and one finds the phrase “at least one year.” Meaning the freed former Taliban commanders would be banned from traveling outside Qatar for at least 12 months.

That would put the US combat-troop level steadily headed toward 9,800 in late May 2015.

According to reports, around 2,000 US special operations forces are expected to among those remaining American forces — meaning they potential could have to deal with any tactical adjustments or battle plans hatched by the potentially returning former Taliban commanders.

To that end, Obama and his top aides have made clear in recent weeks that Afghanistan security forces — not US or NATO ones — will deal with the Taliban. US forces will support them, but primarily will be there to target al-Qaida leaders and operatives, Obama and his aides say.

(More on how Obama no longer views the group as a threat to the US in my weekly column, available Sunday evening on our CongressWatch channel and in our June 9 print issue.)

But that doesn’t mean, for 2015, that all US combat forces would be clear of anything the returning former commanders might order. McCain and his camp have a point.

But this is where US influence comes into play. Take a telling portion of an exchange this week between reporters and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.

“The secretary of defense in consultation, in coordination with the full national security team made the conclusion that the mitigation efforts were sufficient when it came to … the assurances we received from the Qataris and the communications we’ve had with them that these five detainees do not and will not pose a significant threat to the United States,” Carney said.

Mitigation efforts. Assurances.

Lost in the week-long sound and fury over Bergdahl is Obama’s calculation that by the time the swapped Taliban commanders return to the group — if they do — he will have largely carried out his Afghanistan withdrawal plans.

To be sure, it’s a big gamble.

The last time Obama rolled the dice on a national security issue, it was May 2011. He green-lighted the risky mission that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil.

Then, he was roundly applauded by even his most vocal GOP critics for siding with possible conclusions from a set of facts.

This time, the gambler in chief is banking that a set of facts will emerge. And he’s hearing few applause — from foes and friends.

The Bergdahl flap is not about defense spending, sequestration and domestic fiscal policy. But it could have major ramifications on it.

John T. Bennett

John T. Bennett

Bennett is the Editor of Defense News' CongressWatch channel. He has a Masters degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University.
John T. Bennett