Fox News reports that the Obama administration decided back in December to try to secure Bowe Bergdahl’s release through a prisoner exchange rather than a cash payment. Having made that decision, Team Obama never asked the intelligence community for a formal assessment of the risk of releasing the five high-value Taliban commanders. Fox also reports that Defense Secretary Panetta and Director of National Intelligence Clapper opposed the swap when the idea was first discussed in 2012.
Presumably, Obama did not fully consult with the intelligence community for the same reasons he did not consult with Congress — he knew he wouldn’t like what he heard and he wanted to keep the deal a secret.
But why was Obama so determined to do a prisoner swap in the first place? Some have speculated that he wanted to free the five commanders as part of his effort to close Gitmo, and used the swap as a pretext.
That’s a possibility, but I think the real driver was Obama’s desire to make a deal with the Taliban that, in his view, would pave the way to improved relations. A ransom, even assuming the Taliban accepted it, would not have made the Taliban as happy as getting its commanders back. Therefore, it would not “open the door for broader discussions. . .about the future of [Afghanistan] by building confidence” with the Taliban, as Obama has said he hopes the prisoner swap will.
Obama’s desire to make deals with America’s worst enemies is a unifying theme of his presidency. He made one with Iran over its nuclear program; he made one with Assad over chemical weapons (brokered by our adversary Putin); he brokered a ceasefire deal with Hamas (through Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood man). Indeed, Obama has long sought deals with the Taliban. The five commanders at Gitmo were the main stumbling block. No longer.
Accordingly, Obama didn’t need to hear an intelligence assessment of the security impact of releasing the commanders. No matter what threat they pose, Obama was going to release them. In his mind, he’s playing chess while the likes of Panetta and Clapper are playing checkers. In the game Obama imagines himself playing, Afghanistan enjoys a satisfactory future thanks to the confidence and trust Obama engenders through his deal making.
The release of the commanders may not be the only “confidence building” gift Obama has bestowed upon the Taliban. According to Fox, since Obama opted to pursue the prisoner swap at the end of last year, the U.S. has cut back significantly on operations against the Taliban, including the drone strikes our enemy so dreads. And now, of course, Obama has assured the Taliban that we will be out of Afghanistan before long.
All of this should give the Taliban plenty of confidence.