Taliban Prisoner Swap: A Fact-Free Controversy

It’s time to ask: Is John McCain losing it? At 77, the irascible Arizona Senator has become the "get off my lawn" cranky-old-man symbol of the GOP’s generational problem, but it’s gotten worse lately, with his most recent pronouncements on the Bowe Bergdahl-Taliban prisoner swap calling into question his mental competence. Commenting on the prisoner swap, McCain said on CNN’s "State of Union" the five released Gitmo detainees are "hardcore military jihadists who are responsible for 9/11″ and “I wouldn’t release these men, not these men. They were evaluated and judged as too great a risk to release."

None of these statements are even remotely true: and, what’s more, the Senator surely has access to information directly contradicting his assertions. So either he’s lying, or he’s gone senile.

First, as to the specifics on the released Taliban prisoners: Anand Gopal, a policy analyst with the New America Foundation, points out here, that, far from being hardcore jihadists, "all five of the swapped prisoners were initially captured while trying to cut deals, and like [former Taliban governor of Herat Khairullah] Khairkhwa, three had been attempting to join, or had already joined, the Afghan government at the time of their arrest."

"You’re either with us," George W. Bush famously averred, "or you’re with the terrorists" – but in Afghanistan, such Fox News-like starkness doesn’t exist and never has existed. Instead, in a society dominated by tribal allegiances, power relationships are negotiated according to clan ties and the convenience of the moment.

Mohammad Nabi Omari, another of the five detainees, was actually working for the Americans – the CIA – when he was arrested by Pakistani border police and shipped off to Guantanamo. Why was he arrested? Because the US government was handing out cold hard cash – lots of it – in exchange for "intelligence," and Omari’s many enemies took advantage of this bonanza to accuse him of harboring pro-Taliban sympathies – when, in reality, he opposed the Taliban because he believed they had provoked the American attack by harboring Osama bin Laden. According to another former jihadist who switched sides "He would sit there and tell me, ‘if I see a Talib, I won’t even let him take a piss, I’m going to turn him in.’" As it turned out, however, he was the one who got turned in. Was he set up, or was he setting others up? We’ll probably never know, but this seems like another case of the US government’s perpetually crossed signals.

As the Americans were driving into the heart of Afghanistan in the winter of 2001, another of the five, Abdul Haq Wasiq, an official in the Taliban’s intelligence agency, tried to make a deal with the CIA, and traveled to meet them: but the CIA wasn’t interested. What they wanted was bin Laden and other top Al Qaeda commanders, and Wasiq had no access to them. So instead of cutting a deal with a top Taliban leader – Wasiq was negotiating on behalf of his boss, intelligence chieftain Qari Ahmadullah – Wasiq was bundled up and sent to Guantanamo.

The other two, Mullah Mohammad Fazl and Mullah Norullah Noori were Taliban commanders who surrendered to Abdul Rashid Dostum, who massacred their footsoldiers – thousands of them – by imprisoning them in airless storage containers. Fazl and Noori were handed over to the Americans, who sent them to Guantanamo. Of these two, only Fazl’s record shows any evidence of "hard-line" views or the commission of war crimes.

And of course McCain’s accusation that these five are somehow responsible for the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon is bonkers: Al Qaeda is not the Taliban. Does anyone really think bin Laden consulted with Mullah Omar and the Taliban before planning and executing the 9/11 attacks? Indeed, the official Taliban response to Washington’s demand to hand over bin Laden was to ask for evidence of Al Qaeda’s guilt. This was ignored, and instead the US invaded the country, failing to get bin Laden or any of the other top Al Qaeda leaders.

What we got instead was Afghanistan itself, a hot coal we’ve been juggling for over twelve years, with no real end in sight. Yes, we’re supposed to be "withdrawing," but that’s only true in terms of Washington-speak. Back in the real world, thousands of US "trainers," "advisors," and unmitigated spooks will be left in the country, holding the line against an insurgency that has only grown stronger with the years.

The fact-challenged opponents of the prisoner swap aren’t really concerned with such minor details as the distinction between the Taliban and al Qaeda, nor do they much care about the histories of the released detainees. This is really about the prospect of a negotiated end to the Afghan war – a conflict that is coming to an end in any event, and not in the way George W. Bush and his successor planned.

What both Bush and Obama envisioned was a US military victory, although they may have defined that elusive condition quite differently. Bush and his neoconservative grand strategists proclaimed that the US invasion of the Middle East prefigured the "transformation" of the region, comparing it to a swamp that required draining: so began the "nation-building" project in both Afghanistan and Iraq that would end in disaster.

In the case of Iraq, we wound up with a pro-Iranian Shi’ite theocracy, which promptly kicked us out and strengthened ties with Tehran. In the case of Afghanistan, we were simply defeated on the battlefield: there is no other way to put it. The nation-building "COIN" strategy backfired in Obama’s face, as did his Afghan "surge," while the Taliban metastasized from a sectarian religious cult widely resented for its fanatical application of Islamic law into a popular insurgency against foreign occupiers.

It’s the Vietcong all over again.

Speaking of which, if we could negotiate with the Communist leaders of that movement, along with the government of North Vietnam, why in the name of all that’s holy can’t we negotiate with the Taliban to put an end to this war? After the bulk of our forces leave Afghanistan, there isn’t much chance the "government" we leave behind can hold out against the insurgency, just as the puppet regime the Soviets left behind in the 1980s collapsed soon after the Red Army’s departure. So we have a choice: we can negotiate a face-saving settlement, or we can see our "advisors" driven out just as they were at the end of the Vietnam war – hanging from the tail of a helicopter lifting off the roof of the American Embassy as the enemy took Saigon.

The neocon dead-enders leading the charge against the prisoner swap don’t want to acknowledge that reality because it would mean confronting the truth about the absolute failure of the US mission in Afghanistan. This, by the way, was never defined to begin with, which is why the war soon became a textbook case of mission creep. Our initial war aim was simply to get bin Laden & Co., but when that eluded their grasp the Bush administration hastily shifted gears and decided the mission was to make sure every Afghan girl learned to read. It was good PR, but bad military strategy.

The Bush nation-building project readily and rapidly evolved into Obama’s "COINdinistas" taking the field with a full-fledged "nation-building" counterinsurgency doctrine that involved building up the legitimacy of our Afghan sock-puppets. It never occurred to the COINdinistas that an occupier could never escape his role and suddenly take up the tactics of the insurgent: we, after all, are the Good Guys, and aside from that, we’re Americans, who, as the whole world knows, are capable of anything. We aren’t really occupiers, they thought to themselves: we’re armed humanitarians bringing the light of civilization to the darkest corners of the Afghan wilds.

It was a classic case of ideological blindness leading to military disaster: the casualty rate jumped sky-high, and back home rumbles of dissatisfaction with the "good war" Obama had pledged to fight and win were heard in Washington. The polls showed plummeting support for the war effort. Indeed, the majority of Republicans now say the Afghan war wasn’t worth the costs in lives and tax dollars.

So why not negotiate an honorable end to the conflict? Because the War Party would have to acknowledge the utter wrongness of their endless "war on terrorism," which is dragging on long after the patience of the American people has expired. In accepting a prisoner exchange, they would have to sanction dealing with the Taliban on an equal basis: something we did with Nazis during World War II. Next month marks the seventieth anniversary of the prisoner exchange that freed 225 Jews from the Bergen-Belsen concentration campaign in return for Germans interned in Palestine. Prisoner swaps were routine during World War II: why should this war be any different?

Because, avers the War Party, the Taliban represents a unique evil, one that cannot be negotiated with or dealt with in any way except by droning them. The same goes for whatever enemy of the moment they conjure out of thin air: Putin, China, the Iranians, you name it. But this is nonsensical: we obviously have an interest in ending the Afghan war in a way that doesn’t further diminish American prestige and interests. And that won’t happen unless there’s a negotiated settlement.

A US peace proposal would split the Taliban, and in the process reduce the military effectiveness of the insurgency. However, this is waaaay too complex a concept for Americans brought up on Sylvester Stallone movies to understand and appreciate, and so we are left with the right-wing radio screamers and John Kerry (as well as Rand Paul) saying the we just may send out a few killer drones to target the released prisoners.

The irony of all this is that, given the fact that at least three of these guys were working for or with the CIA in some capacity, at one time or another, it isn’t hard to imagine how they’ll be received if they venture back into Afghanistan – probably in much the same way Bowe Bergdahl is being received by Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, except their beheading won’t be merely rhetorical.

What’s interesting about this whole controversy – including the Bergdahl brouhaha – is how fact-free the debate has been. As I pointed out on the Alan Colmes Show the other day, we really have no idea what were the circumstances surrounding Bergdahl’s separation from his unit. While the Fox News types are screeching that he went AWOL, or even that he defected to the other side, the Taliban claims he was captured while using a latrine on the perimeter of his base. If he went AWOL, you’d think the Taliban would be touting this for propaganda purposes. And I don’t think someone who tried to escape twice – and was tortured because of it – is any kind of defector.

Yet logic has nothing to do with the McCain-Fox News narrative – nor does it have much to do with the rhetoric of some of Bergdahl’s defenders, who also assume they know how he wound up a prisoner of the Taliban. Americans, an emotional and notoriously irrational people, don’t wait for the facts to come in before they take a position and carve it in stone. Who needs facts when emotional displays are so much more satisfying?


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I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).

You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of Antiwar.com, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].