WASHINGTON – The exchange of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five senior members of the Afghan Taliban marks the anticlimactic end of what the Obama administration had once hoped would be a bold diplomatic stroke to help broker peace in Afghanistan.
Bergdahl’s return is not, as originally envisioned, a step toward a larger U.S. bargain with the Taliban and the Afghan government. Instead, Bergdahl’s release represented the last major piece of unfinished Taliban business for the United States, as it winds down 13 years of combat and prepares for the departure of all U.S. fighting forces from Afghanistan by the end of this year.
But the successful handover does prove that deals can be made and that the United States has a channel for negotiation that the next Afghan president might be able to use, said current and former U.S officials and people familiar with a classified briefing to Congress on the Bergdahl swap.
The hope is that either of the two candidates vying to succeed Hamid Karzai as Afghanistan’s leader could build on the established contacts to seek political reconciliation with the Taliban.
The United States could play a role in fostering or facilitating talks but would have little or no direct stake, U.S. officials said.
For a long time, it was hoped that the detainee exchange would be accompanied by several other steps, including a Taliban break with al-Qaida and the opening of direct contacts between the Afghan government and the insurgents, a senior State Department official said Friday.
That proved impossible to arrange for a variety of different reasons and within this time frame, so we didn’t achieve as much as we would have liked, the official said. But neither is it nothing. We have created precedent and a basis that might well provide an opening in the future.
Current and former officials requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the secret talks; elements of the negotiation with the Taliban remain classified.
A presidential runoff vote will be held June 14, and the new Afghan leader is scheduled to take over in August. Both candidates have indicated support for the principle of political talks and eventual reconciliation with the Taliban insurgency, but there are no timelines or specific proposals on the table.
The Taliban are expected to fight as usual during the summer months this year and follow their pattern of retreating from heavy fighting in the coming winter.