In response to news that the Obama adminstration is releasing prisoners who fought against us in Afghanistan, Max Boot presents a thoughtful defense of “tactical” prisoner releases of insurgent fighters. Boot makes the valid point that during the Iraq surge, we released Sunni fighters who vowed to turn against al Qaeda. This policy arguably helped advanced the “Sunni awakening” in Anbar province which, in turn, helped make the Iraq surge a success.
Although our releases of Afghan detainees may be loosely modeled on our Iraq policy, there are important differences. The most fundamental is that in Iraq, we were not negotiating with the main enemy, al Qaeda. In Afghanistan, we are negotiating with the main enemy, the Taliban.
The Washington Post report that broke the Afghan release program story suggested, presumably per the Post’s government sources, that the releases and the negotiations with the Taliban represent two distinct and unrelated tracks. But this is implausible. If the U.S. is in the prisoner release game and the negotiate with the Taliban game, then surely the Taliban is demanding that some of its fighters be released as a gesture of good faith in negotiations. And if we wish to stay in the negotiate with the Taliban game, we cannot blow such demands off while agreeing to the same demands by other insurgent groups.
As Boot points out, the Taliban is seeking the release of five Gitmo detainees as a condition of a negotiated settlement. We have rejected that demand. But the Post article does not claim that releases have not extended to Taliban fighters or that they have been confined, as they were in Iraq, to fighters aligned with groups that have become openly hostile to our main enemy and non-hostile to the government we’re supporting.
If there is some sort of “awakening” going on in Afghanistan, then our government should foster it, even if that means releasing certain prisoners. But there is no evidence of such an awakening.
Moreover, Obama administration policy probably precludes one. The Sunni awakening was predicated on knowledge that the U.S. was fully committed to defeating al Qaeda in Iraq. The Obama administration can hardly claim such a commitment when it comes to the Taliban in Afghanistan. On the contrary, we are committed to removing our troops and, it seems, to trying to cut a deal with the Taliban.
If Aghans are awakening to anything, it’s the realization that the U.S. is “here today, gone tomorrow,” while the Taliban is here to stay.