Bowe Bergahl, now back in America, and the five Taleban ex-Guantanamo detainees, in Qatar, will all be trying to get used to life after detention. Beyond the personal, what political consequences might the deal have? After years of efforts, it was wrapped up unexpectedly fast and, in the end, was a stand-alone deal, not part of a peace process, conducted in total secrecy, with both Congress and President Karzai informed only after it was complete. The Obama administration cast the swap as necessary to get America’s one ‘POW’ home and hinted only vaguely that it might also open the door to wider Afghan efforts for peace. From a Taleban perspective, however, says AAN’s Borhan Osman, the nature of the deal – its timing, speed and limitations – looks different. After speaking to sources in the Taleban’s political office in Qatar, he offers a fresh perspective on how the Bergdahl deal might actually spur on a peace process. The released Taleban inmates greeted in Qatar - photo by nunn.asia website
US thinking on the Bergdahl deal has been fairly clear. After the news of the swap of America’s only ‘prisoner of war’ in Afghanistan for five senior Taleban detainees from Guantanamo was made public, United States officials strived hard to both defend the deal and inform the nation. Officials explained the rush to seal the deal as linked to Bowe Bergdahl’s declining health, a judgement based on a video clip of him made six months previously. As for the deal having been kept top secret, Obama administration officials were quoted as saying the Taleban had threatened to kill the missing American soldier if the deal was made public before the swap. US officials did not speak about the possibility that the deal could have been used as a confidence-building measure in a wider peace process – nor did they explain why it had not been. President Obama did nod to the issue, albeit half-heartedly, in his White House statement with Bergdahl’s parents by his side:
“While we are mindful of the challenges, it is our hope Sergeant Bergdahl’s recovery could potentially open the door for broader discussions among Afghans about the future of their country by building confidence that it is possible for all sides to find common ground.”
Members of the Taleban, however, have told AAN that for them the urge to conduct the deal in haste and secrecy was driven by another factor: their increasing keenness to minimise the influence of the two governments able to disrupt their interactions with the outside world – Kabul and Islamabad. AAN has spoken to three Taleban sources: two are in the Taleban’s Qatar office and were involved in facilitating the deal and the third is a former Taleban media official still part of the broader Taleban media network, who is also familiar with the negotiating efforts of the group. From their perspective, the Bergdahl deal looks like this:
Why did the swap come at this time?
The sources said the Taleban ‘leadership’ (this usually refers to the Leadership Council – often called the Quetta shura), tasked the Political Office in Qatar earlier this spring to finish the ‘Bergdahl business’ soon, in no more than three months. The impulse to end the headache sooner rather than later was, in part, because the Taleban had been finding it increasingly difficult to keep Bergdahl safe.
Pakistan no longer seemed a reliable place to hold him, the sources said. Suspicion was looming large over Islamabad’s intentions towards the Taleban. The Haqqani network had lost its most active liaison and fundraiser to the Gulf, Nasiruddin Haqqani, in an attack by unknown gunmen in Islamabad in November 2013. More importantly, Pakistan was seen as an increasingly predatory host that did not want to lose control over the Taleban, especially at a time when – in the Taleban’s eyes – the movement may become part of the future political set up in Afghanistan, if all goes well.
In late April, Tayyeb Agha’s twin brothers were arrested by the Pakistani authorities and other family members were threatened with detention unless they forced Agha to return from Qatar, where he heads the Taleban’s political office. The family came to Afghanistan to escape Pakistani government pressure; they arrived in early May 2014. Aware of Bergdahl’s possible release and trade, not only for the five Taleban prisoners, but also for the effective re-opening of the Taleban’s Qatar office, Pakistan had not wanted any deal agreed without its involvement and not on its terms. The sources even believe Pakistan tried to get hold of Bergdahl in order to strip the Taleban of their trump card vis-à-vis the US.
Uneasy about continuing to keep their American detainee in Pakistan and unable to keep him in Afghanistan due to the risk of US forces locating him, the clock started ticking for the Taleban. The order of the ‘leadership’ was taken as a top priority by Tayyeb Agha, who assigned a six-member delegation from the office to negotiate with the Americans through Qatari officials.
Why was it kept secret?
For the Taleban, the main reason for keeping the deal highly secret was the fear that, if the governments of Pakistan or Afghanistan found out the swap was imminent, either might try to sabotage it. The Taleban may or may not have communicated this problem to the American side, but they did make sure the Americans knew that leaking the news would sabotage the deal.
The less the Afghan government could do to scotch the swap, should they find out it was happening, the less problematic Bergdahl’s transfer from Pakistan to Afghan soil and handover to US forces would be. The Taleban, for instance, feared the Kabul government would send security forces to watch likely areas of transfer. In the worst-case scenario, they feared Afghan forces might try to snatch Bergdahl or even kill him during the operation.
While the Afghan government did want to see Bergdahl freed, it only wanted this if Kabul was involved. Most importantly, it did not want the Taleban prisoners ending up somewhere where it would have no leverage over them or access to them. This also explains Kabul’s opposition to the deal after it was done and became public.
For Pakistan, said AAN’s sources, any successful deal without its involvement (and not on its terms) would mean an increasingly independent-looking Taleban, involved in direct business with a major world power. Any attempt indicating that the Taleban may be slipping out of Pakistan’s grip raises alarm in Islamabad, and the ISI had shown as early as 2010 that it is willing and able to disrupt contacts made by the Taleban which it deems undesirable (read here). In the Taleban’s worst-case scenario, Pakistan would have tried to snatch Bergdahl from them and delivered him directly to the United States, claiming they had freed him while he was being spirited across the border into Pakistan (this, in order to avoid the charge that Islamabad had allowed the Afghan Taleban to operate and, indeed, hold a US soldier on its soil).
Pakistan is particularly nervous about the Taleban’s political office in Doha. It sees the office as the Taleban’s most successful move, so far, to deprive it of influence over the movement’s major (political) decisions. A successful swap of Bergdahl by way of the Qatar office is seen as having strengthened the Taleban’s space for independent manoeuvring. Also, Pakistan would have loved to play the host to the five leaders freed in return for Bergdahl. Instead, they have landed in territory far from its influence.
Why was the deal not made part of a broader peace process?
The Americans had previously pushed to make the prisoner swap part of wider efforts to negotiate an end to the decade-long conflict. AAN’s sources said that the Taleban, despite their tight deadline in 2014 to get the deal done, had made it clear to the Americans that the swap was possible only if it remained unrelated to any wider issues. The freedom of the ‘Guantanamo Five’ in exchange for Bergdahl was the Taleban’s only goal and they wanted no other measures to be tied to it. This was not because of (what is widely perceived as) a general lack of interest in talking to Kabul. Rather, Taleban sources said they assumed that if the deal had been tied to a wider peace process, it may well have gone wrong again, given the history of messy ‘peace’ initiatives.
Two such botched initiatives are worth mentioning here, one of them never reported in detail before, but described here by AAN’s sources.
The first mediation effort, the initial contacts of which were established by Germany in 2009, according to the sources, was aimed at a negotiated end to war. The ‘German initiative’, which was later, in 2011, also supported by Qatar, culminated in an agreement between the Taleban and the United States that a written appeal by the Afghan government could immediately kick off an officially endorsed peace process, to which the US and other international major partners would agree. This appeal was to have been in the form of a document released at the Bonn II Conference in December 2011, in which Kabul would have announced its desire for a peace process acceptable to all parties, and would have made an appeal to remove Taleban leaders from the United Nations sanctions list and to release Taleban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay. AAN sources said the Americans had assured both Germany and Qatar before the conference that the Afghan government had approved the plan and would announce the ‘peace process’ at the conference. It turned out that Kabul had, instead, strongly rejected the plan. Clouded by suspicions of miscommunicating the agreement, Germany’s role as mediator ended, as did the envisioned launch of the first peace process. However, our sources said the Taleban (also) held the Americans responsible for failing to deliver on the agreement (see also here).
The second attempt at a peace process was the failed opening of the Taleban’s political office in Qatar in June 2013. The opening had been made possible with Qatar’s mediation. Despite the then failure of the office project, the Taleban were not suspicious of Qatar’s role and kept their trust in the Gulf state as a reliable go-between. The Taleban, instead suspected two scenarios might have led to the office being closed, both indicating a lack of trust in the Americans. They suspected the US had not been honest about the office in the first place and therefore supported both President Karzai’s objection to it and his demand for its closure. Or, they thought, the Americans had reneged on their agreed terms with the Taleban, believing that the Taleban would compromise once the office was open. In any case, the bungled opening and the Taleban’s damaged faith in the US as a straight player made them want to separate the prisoner deal from a wider political process. (For other scenarios for the Qatar office failure, including that the Taleban had broken their side of the bargain, read our analysis here). Had the swap been part of a wider peace process, given the history of previous such initiatives, the Taleban feared it may well have failed or taken too much time – which they did not have.
What are the prospects of peace talks post the deal?
It should be noted that two of these three sources are based in Qatar and how they feel may well represent the general mood among Taleban there, but not necessarily that of those based in Pakistan/Afghanistan or of those fighting. Indeed, based on limited sources who spoke to AAN during the late winter, the mood among young Taleban, who were in Pakistan for ‘R&R’ and training during the winter lull, was rather belligerent; they described how the same wrath felt towards the foreign troops was now turning against the ‘puppet’ Afghan forces. According to these sources, the militarist spirit among ordinary Taleban and their commanders did not indicate an immediate appetite for peace. However, it should be stressed that sources were limited and it is difficult to assess the sentiments of fighting Taleban.
Moreover, AAN’s Qatar-based sources did not talk as if they were presenting a consensual policy, but rather as if they were giving an insight into the political wing’s general thinking which, again, does not necessarily mirror the view of the Taleban leadership in all details. However, their insight does offer some rare clarity on where the Taleban’s negotiating team think things now stand and how they think a peace process might go ahead. They have begun to detail the possible steps they think need now to be taken. In this last section, we look at those steps and assess how the US and the future Afghan government might respond.
Several senior US officials have expressed the vague hope, in the wake of the Bergdahl deal, that the peace process, which has never really taken off, could now start. Apart from Obama’s statement, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel also said: “[M]aybe this could provide some possible new bridge for new negotiations.”
The Taleban sources AAN spoke to were also hopeful of a possible revival of peace talks, partly because of the goodwill they felt the prisoner swap had created. “There is palpable hope that political efforts [to end the conflict] will start soon. The Americans will want to solve their issue with the Taleban [through peace talks],” said one of the sources. “There are indications of compromise on both sides. On this side [the Taleban], there is a bigger consensus than at any other time that peace talks should go ahead. On the US side as well, the announcement of a full exit in 2016 is an indication that they are sort of meeting our condition for talks [ie declaring an end date for the withdrawal of all US forces],” said another source. The pressure from Pakistan, the most recent manifestation of which was the detention of Tayyeb Agha’s brothers, may well, in part, have contributed to what the sources say is a growing consensus among the Taleban.
Once there is an agreement on ending the war with the Americans, the next step, the Taleban sources said, would be to speak to the ‘internal partners’, a reference to the next Afghan government. “Inter-Afghan dialogue,” as one of the Taleban officials put it, was one of the basic aims of opening the Qatar office. In the view of the two sources from the Qatar office, the Karzai government had never shown any willingness or earnest interest in talking to the Taleban. “Once the Afghan government realises that the Americans are solving their problems with the Taleban and are ready to cease supporting the war, [the Kabul government] will immediately feel the urge to talk,” said the Qatar-based Taleban source.
But what do our sources think an agreement between the US and the Taleban would look like? One said they think the US expects the Taleban to end their hostility to the Americans, to stop supporting anyone attacking US interests and to stop harbouring foreign jihadist groups on Afghan soil. The Taleban, he said, are willing to be bound by these terms in return for a pull-out of all US troops from Afghanistan and a stop to military funding for the Afghan government. Any such talks would be conducted through the Qatar office, the status of which has been bolstered by executing the Bergdahl deal. The Taleban negotiators are already taking the successful deal as a sign of renewed recognition of the office’s role in a broader process.
This then, is the vision of how a peace process might pan out, according to our sources. It relies on the willingness of the US to de-couple itself from its Afghan partner and to effectively remove itself from the battlefield before the Taleban and the Kabul government have reached their own deal. At the moment, this scenario looks extremely unlikely. Washington and Kabul may well see the demand as an attempt to weaken the Afghan state and its armed forces at a time when the Taleban are not to be trusted. Still, such a detailing of possible steps towards peace, while imagining what the process might look like, is an important requirement to possibly eventually find common ground between rival parties. More commonly heard is the bloody talk of continuing jihad from the hawks in the movement, with their plans for escalating the war. It at least starts looking like a possible alternative could be emerging from within the Taleban, one that appears to see the future in a negotiated end to the conflict.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020