Within the U.S. government, over the span of the last four presidential administrations, there has been plenty of blame to go around for what now is happening in Afghanistan. But if there is a specific decision that helped facilitate the Taliban’s shockingly swift reconquest of that country, it was the one made by then-President Barack Obama – and supported, or at least not opposed, by Joe Biden, vice president at the time – to release five high-value Taliban detainees in exchange for the return of U.S. Army soldier Bowe Bergdahl. Mere weeks after being deployed to Afghanistan in 2009, Bergdahl went out of his way to hand himself over to the enemy, deserting his post and being quickly captured by an Afghan warlord.
It is hoped any U.S. president would go to great lengths to secure the safe return of a member of the U.S. armed forces captured in combat or while diligently performing his or her assigned duties in an operational theater. That said, many would argue Bergdahl was not worthy of the initial efforts made to rescue him – efforts that cost the lives and limbs of American soldiers – nor was he deserving of the Obama-Biden administration’s decision to negotiate his release.
Yet, at the end of May 2014, Obama announced the Taliban had agreed to free Bergdahl in exchange for five detainees being held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. These five men were not just fighters plucked from the battlefields of Afghanistan; they were commanders – at least one of whom the Pentagon had classified as too dangerous to release.
The Five Horsemen
The “Taliban five” were sent to Qatar, and it was there they were supposed to remain. But from that tiny Persian Gulf state, these men helped to plan – and perhaps even directly orchestrated – the resurgence of Afghanistan’s fanatical and brutal rulers previously deposed and scattered by U.S. forces after the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
One of them, Khairullah Khairkhwa, even showed up in Moscow earlier this year to take part in negotiations between the Taliban and Zalmay Khalilzad, Biden’s envoy to Afghanistan. While in Moscow, Khairkhwa said, “I started jihad to remove foreign forces from my country and establish an Islamic government, and jihad will continue until we reach that goal through a political agreement.”
Of course, the Taliban has always known that no political agreement would be acceptable, and the offensive it launched to reclaim Afghanistan as the Biden administration dithered over a chaotic withdrawal was, in all likelihood, developed and prepared long before the Moscow summit was arranged.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that the Taliban has reasserted its control of Afghanistan. This was an inevitability even if U.S. and NATO forces had remained in the country for another 20 years. America’s longest military engagement was ill-conceived from the start because former President George W. Bush lacked the resolve to settle for nothing less than the total annihilation of the Taliban. Obama should have brought the war to an end but had neither the courage nor the character to do so.
Although former President Donald Trump began the long-overdue process of extricating the United States from Afghanistan, he deferred too often to incompetent military commanders and fanatical neoconservatives.
A Seven-Year-Old Fatal Error
Now in the White House, Biden wanted to be the man who finally brought this tragic and pointless episode in American foreign policy to an end but clearly lacked the will to continue Trump’s carrot-and-stick approach. After discarding the stick, Biden abruptly realized that a carrot was no defense against the reinvigorated Taliban, and so he promptly took a vacation – later returning to Washington to blame everyone else for the debacle.
It is said by some that Biden’s support for Obama’s decision to trade Taliban commanders for an American deserter is not clear. On May 31, 2014, though, Biden tweeted: “Welcome home, Sergeant Bergdahl. Today we are elated about his return and reaffirm our commitment to recover the warriors still left behind.” Had he not approved of his boss’ decision, Biden would surely not have tweeted such a message.
And so the man who bears responsibility, whether he likes it or not, for the embarrassing collapse of U.S. Afghanistan policy and the surrender of that country to what is arguably the most powerful and fanatical army of terrorists on the planet is doubly guilty. As the supposed commander in chief, he had a duty to ensure a clean and dignified exit from Afghanistan. As the then-vice president, he applauded the return home of a disgraced soldier whose freedom, ironically, was purchased with the release of the men who would sow the seeds of America’s humiliation and Afghanistan’s new dark and vicious future.
Read more from Graham J. Noble.
*Featured image: (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)