The House hearing on the deal swapping five Taliban members held in Guantanamo for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has been mostly unenlightening. But a few things seem clear from what has been learned since the exchange occurred.
First, a lot of critics don't seem to understand the difference between a soldier going Absent Without Leave (AWOL), deserting, and committing treason. Bergdahl definitely did the first, but it's a huge leap to say he did either of the others. Going AWOL is a serious offense, but some 7,000 U.S. military personnel did it in 2003, the first year of the Iraq war. So Bergdahl's offense does not make him uniquely awful.
Second, President Obama's decision to make the deal without notifying Congress is a close call. This is the sort of situation, involving the direct fate of American military personnel (including those who took risks to make the physical exchange), where the president is entitled to maximum discretion. But if he avoided notifying Congress merely because he knew it wouldn't approve, he was deliberately circumventing a sound law. I'm slightly inclined to give Obama the benefit of the doubt. But more information would be useful.
Third, it's easy to inflate the danger posed by the detainees we sent to Qatar. They are all 12 years older than when they were captured, and they've been out of action and completely unaware of what their confederates have been doing. Years of confinement have not improved their skills in plotting or executing sophisticated attacks.
"It's a boost in terms of morale, but I doubt whether this would make any kind of practical impact, at least in the short term, to the conflict inside Afghanistan," said Alex Strick van Linschoten, who has co-written three books on the Taliban, according to The Los Angeles Times, which also notes that "not all were hard-core militants. Three held political positions in the Taliban government that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 and were considered relative moderates. A fourth was a mid-level police official, experts say."
In the long run, this swap is not likely to have any significant impact on American security or the fate of Afghanistan. But as material for political theater, it's hard to beat.
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