« The Most Thought Prov… | Home | Genghis Khan Would Ha… »

The Five Taliban Exchanged for Bowe Bergdahl...In Context

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of the Year so far", please click here.)

When the US exchanged five Afghan detainees for U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl, the news coverage might have scared you into thinking President Obama made a future terror attack more likely. Senator John McCain called them five “vicious and violent” Taliban who he worries will attack the U.S. again. Dexter Filkins on the New Yorker’s “Political Scene” podcast called them “bad guys”. And Bret Stephens on Fareed Zakaria GPS described them as “five hardened Taliban commanders”.

To all the hand wringers terrified that President Obama released five hardened terrorists who want nothing more than to kill Americans as soon as possible, I ask you this: if I can promise you that these five men will never kill Americans in America, will that make you feel better?

Because I promise, right now, that the five Taliban prisoners will never kill anyone in America.

How can I make such a bold promise when the media has breathlessly repeated rumors and leaks from intelligence officials/Congress persons about these dangerous Taliban? For a couple of reasons…

1. Terrorism is not insurgency. Calling the Taliban prisoners “terrorists” is extremely disingenuous, as we have written about before. And mentioned a dozen times since. When Americans think “terrorism” they think non-state groups attacking civilians--the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, Oklahoma City, 9/11, the London Subway bombings. Only a smaller group--that has included the State Department, the CIA and the DoD--believe that insurgents fighting U.S. forces in their own countries count as terrorists. Doesn’t it seem odd to call an attack on a soldier deployed to a country in the midst of a civil war an act of terrorism?

Beyond semantics, the former Taliban officials released in the Bergdahl deal have very little interest in attacking the U.S. homeland. Al Qaeda conducted 9/11, not the Taliban. Since 9/11--and even after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and propped up a new government--there hasn’t been a single Taliban terror attack on U.S. soil. There hasn’t even been evidence of an attempted attack. The Taliban wants to govern Afghanistan, not attack the U.S.

2. Oh, and for good measure, terrorism is still incredibly rare. The media’s focus on rare and unusual events skews Americans’ perspective on the frequency of terrorism. Looking at the long term trends, I can say with a fair bit of confidence that there won’t be another terror attack on the U.S. just simply because it is so rare in the first place. (And even rarer for Taliban-led terror attacks.) For good measure, check out how many Americans died by gun violence since Bowe Bergdahl was released. The threat to Americans is gun violence, cancer, traffic accidents and other less shocking events.

3. The intelligence on the “terrorists” wasn’t great to begin with. I wrote an entire series on this, but I’ll be blunter with it this time: everyone in America--starting with President Obama and moving down to Joe Six Pack on the street--needs to question the accuracy of U.S. intelligence. U.S. intelligence isn’t peer reviewed, doesn’t use devil’s advocates, and doesn’t correct past mistakes. It often rushes to judgement and is spun to win the PR news cycle. Of course, this is exacerbated by…   

4. The media using “unnamed intelligence sources”. Too many journalists relied on “off the record” intelligence sources to paint the Guantanamo detainees as hardened terrorists. Without having to put their names to it, these same “unnamed sources” could skew the coverage to support their political viewpoints.

And political pressure often distorts the findings, as we’ve discovered multiple times this century.

5. Only one prisoner could be described as a war criminal. As the Afghan Analysts Network has reported, only one of the five has been linked to war crimes and specific violence. The rest were in civilian posts or not controlling ground troops prior to the U.S. invasion. Many also lack terror or insurgent experience, as opposed to government positions. And again, except for one individual, most lack violent histories.

Of course, you could come to this conclusion when the “intelligence” on the five men was poor in the first place. Most of the intelligence was gathered in the invasion by CIA officers without extensive knowledge (yet) of Afghanistan. Most of it contains unsupported assertions, and the Afghan Analysts Network debunked many of the reports. Yet, we never would have seen these reports except for the unauthorized release by Wikileaks. While an outside group debunked the reports very quickly, it never would have happened internally in the intelligence community.

These were five men involved in an insurgency, who weren’t really fighters in the first place, and terrorism is still incredibly rare. Americans have nothing to worry about.

fourteen comments

Most concerningly, we really respect both Fareed GPS and the New Yorker Political scene.

Michael C mentioned things Americans should worry about more than terrorism. I’d add that Ebola isn’t a threat either.

You say none of the five will ever kill anyone in America. Fair enough. Can you say that none of the five will ever be involved in killing Americans?

I’m glad you mentioned Ebola in the comments because that is the first thing I thought of when I read point #2.

It appeared to me the primary objection to the deal was they got back 5 men they appeared to place a lot of value on. We got back a guy we would have preferred never to have heard of again. This was not a good deal for the Americans.

Now for those who live in the taxpayer subsidized Wonderland of the White House it probably seemed a very fine deal. Lofty pronouncements could be made and there some really nifty photo ops. But even for them the thing fell apart about as quickly as it came together. They hadn’t counted on all those ex-soldiers actually paying attention and speaking out.

So a bad deal for the Americans and for the genii inside the beltway, something only the inside the beltway genii could have dreamed up and pulled off.

I am still curious if you think Americans, as in Americans anywhere in the world in the next decade or so, have nothing to worry about with regard to those five.


Given that the “Taliban Five” are all Afghans, and that Afghans don’t have much history in conducting violent acts outside of Afghanistan, most Americans are probably safe from them. US pers in Afghanistan will continue to be at risk of violence, as they always were and would continue to be whether or not these 5 returned. Whether they will be at any greater risk once these 5 are released by Qatar is debatable. I suspect the level of risk won’t change because I don’t see these 5 pers substantially changing the dynamics within the existing militant groups. Moreover, the Taliban’s real enemies are in Kabul. American presence in Afghanistan is just a sideshow to what is an Afghan civil war.

Just out of curiosity, what state house isn’t “taxpayer subsidized”?


I’ll buy all that, and it is an Afghan civil war. But it always must be noted that one side is essentially an arm of the Pak Army/ISI, which has been conducting unconventional warfare against Afghanistan and us for the past 13 years. If only the civil war was conducted by Afghans within Afghanistan but it’s not.

For the life of me I will never understand how we have let the general sahibs in Pindi get away with it.

How about this take on it. What we are doing and have been doing is really serving the interests of the Pak Army/ISI/feudal elites/Punjabi empire. Those interests are best served by keeping Afghanistan in a state of violent turmoil…forever. A unified Afghanistan, even one unified under Taliban & Co, is a threat to them. So they give their people enough to keep fighting but not enough to really win, and we do the same by never really calling them on their game. Meanwhile Afghans die and die. But boys in ‘Pindi are happy. That many of our soldiers have been maimed and killed is just an unfortunate thing. To the genii inside the beltway they are all just a bunch of dumb NASCAR fans anyway and are expendable.

That would be an ineffective recruiting poster though “Be all you can be by doing the bidding of the Pak Army/ISI.”

Eric C:

Every one of those state houses are supported by us taxpayers. But I think most states in the past few years have been paying attention to what is and haven’t insulted their citizens by creating and living in Wonderland.

Besides, I like the sound of the phrase.

Carl – most of what you say may be true (though I suspect that the various Afgh warlords are more independent of ISI than the ISI would like), but it also gets at a larger issue than a prisoner exchange. The Quetta Shura, HiG, and Haqqani Group have never been threats outside of their immediate geographic spheres, so why we have chosen a regional strategy that compels us to fight them is beyond me. I think we’re in agreement that there have been serious flaws the West’s engagement with Central Asia.

I offer a hypothetical situation: Say bin Laden and AQ had launched an attack on the US sometime between ’92 and ’96 (while he was living in Sudan) – an attack of such a nature that the US felt obliged to invade Sudan. Would the West have focused on AQ in Sudan, or have spent a decade fighting the Janjaweed, or some obscure Sudanese fringe militant group? Would those Sudanese fighters be considered threats to US lives? And, while that was going on in Sudan, would we be simultaneously concerned about the risk to western lives from Afghan warlords? We almost certainly wouldn’t, so why do we consider them a threat now?

To get back to the original question, the Taliban Five likely won’t be a threat to Americans outside of Afghanistan (or maybe Pakistan) because they have little interest in the world beyond their borders. They may be a threat to American (or coalition) soldiers in Afghanistan, but that’s in the very nature of deploying troops: a deployment results in a higher degree of risk to soldiers’ lives (and I wouldn’t put it as cynically as you have, but then I’ve never been to any beltway social functions so maybe I’m naive). To link that to the points you touch on, I see a bigger issue being this: if you really don’t want those 5 men to be a risk to Americans, and if the only place where Americans are at risk from them is in Afghanistan, and if it’s tough to figure out how being in Afghanistan continues to be in American interests, then why not eliminate that risk (and a whole lot of associated expenses) by getting out of Afghanistan? Then you could also release all the other Afghan citizens being detained in various shadowy prisons.


We went over there because 9-11 happened the last time Taliban & Co ran the place and they wouldn’t give up the perps. Given their history I figure it is prudent not to let them run the place again.

Also a whole lot of Afghans helped us out and put their faith in us over the years. That is not advisable given our recent history but we asked them to and they did it. So we owe them. That we will almost certainly bug out on them and leave 10s or 100s of thousands of them to get killed is beside the point. We still owe them. Now we could have gotten the Pak Army/ISI out of the picture but we were too stupid and gutless to do that. The fighting goes on. We owe those who had faith in us the means to keep fighting for their lives. If we don’t want to do that we could offer some hundreds of thousands of special visas to people who have put their lives on the line for us over the years. But won’t do that either.

Do you know if that Afghan ‘terp who was just as deep into the fight as Dakota Meyer and Will Swenson got his visa? Last I heard he hadn’t and it has been years.

I really would have preferred that those 5 guys not have been given up for somebody nobody but the photo op arrangers in the White House wanted back. And that was the only reason the deal was made, an opportunity for some photo ops.

Hey, Fazel made it into the US last year. It only took public lobbying by a living Medal of Honor winner and 4 years but at least he made it.


9/11 didn’t happen BECAUSE AQ was being hosted by the Taliban. There’s no evidence for causation there. It happened WHILE AQ was being hosted. There’s a difference. Also, the Taliban offered to turn bin Laden over before 9/11. The US didn’t take them up on that, in part because they didn’t have confidence in the offer, but the offer was made. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/asia/2011/..

Further, if Pakistan’s ploy is to keep Afghanistan in a state of perpetual conflict then the Taliban won’t ever have more than regional control in the south – and they’ll likely have that anyway regardless of who sits in Kabul.

As for the interpreters, informants and simple allies, I agree that we could repay that debt to those who risked their lives for us by granting visas. That would almost certainly be cheaper in terms of lives and $ than continuing to fight. So here’s a question for you: why is that an option neither political party would consider?


As regards to your 1st paragraph-distinction without a difference. They planned and executed mass murder while being hosted by Taliban & Co. Given AQ’s history it was no surprise that they did. Mullah Omar and the boys never warned them off as results show. Then they didn’t give them up.

The point isn’t so much that Taliban & Co may or may not take over the whole country. The point is Afghans will suffer and die at the hands of fiends, Pak Army/ISI, because we are content to be the handmaidens of said fiends.

Neither group of inside the beltway party people will consider it. They won’t because perfidy is part of that culture, at least amongst the bigwigs. There are notable individual exceptions but the culture of the town is poisonous and rotted. The same thing happened before WWII with Jewish people from Europe. There were a lot of visas available but State or Justice, I forget which, wouldn’t approve them and most of them never got used. (I’m pretty sure I have that story right.)

The ultimate motivation is probably bigotry. “Why we don’t need more people like that.”

On this whole discussion, I’m pretty sure America doesn’t play harder ball with Pakistan is because they have nuclear weapons.

@ Carl – I’d be careful writing things just because you “like the sound of the phrase”. It can create a lot of bad writing. In this case, redundant phrases. Writing “tax payer subsidized” to describe the White House would be like describing it as having window, a roof and a wall covered in white paint. It’s redundant. And it actually sounds odd.