Of all the premises floating in American heads, the idea that the U.S. had the initiative in the 5-for-1 prisoner swap of Taliban officials for Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl may be the most delusional.
Americans have been accustomed for decades to being in charge. It is inconceivable to most of us that we might be simply an exploited party in someone else’s game. But the larger context of the Bergdahl Caper (let’s give it a Ludlum-esque name, by all means) suggests that that’s exactly what we are. It isn’t the U.S. that decided the timing or purpose of the Bergdahl Caper. A strong circumstantial case can be made that it’s Pakistan – and that the whole exchange isn’t about getting Bowe Bergdahl back, but about rebuilding the Afghan Taliban.
Certainly, the Obama administration has been trying to make talks with the Taliban come off for several years now (since at least 2011). A release of Taliban detainees has been at the center of that negotiation throughout the period. I tend to endorse Catherine Herridge’s finding, stated during the Hannity show on Wednesday evening, that the Bergdahl swap didn’t enter the picture until sometime in late 2011 or early 2012. But some kind of detainee release has been on the table all along.
That said, the U.S. has been steadily dealing away our leadership role since Obama announced the date certain – December 2014 – by which our troop presence in Afghanistan would be drawn down so far that we would no longer have the capability to make any security guarantees there. (War-‘n’-peace rhetoric aside, that’s the most accurate way to put Obama’s proposition.) Once we no longer have a controlling say in security objectives or precautions in Afghanistan, someone else will. The feeding frenzy to decide who that will be is well underway, and it’s that feeding frenzy, and not American judgment about either domestic politics or the health of Bowe Bergdahl, that’s driving the timing of new developments now.
The dynamics of deciding Afghanistan’s future
Pakistan, which basically created the Afghan Taliban, supports it still, and intends to exert the principal outside influence over its composition and orientation. India supports the elected, U.S.- and NATO-backed central government currently headed by Hamid Karzai, and has been making quiet preparations to arm it. Iran, on Afghanistan’s western border, is something of a wild card: never enamored of the Taliban, willing to deal with Karzai, but not firmly committed to any one party. China has had a similar stance, although China has become particularly interested in who rules Afghanistan because of the links between Uighur insurgents and the terrorists who roam eastern Afghanistan.
Given these factors, the basic dynamic of the situation is and will continue to be a rivalry between the Taliban, supported by Pakistan’s military and ISI (intelligence service), and the shaky Western-backed central government, which by the end of the year will be under new management.
It may seem obvious to many Westerners that – simply on principle, given historical percentages – the Afghan central government almost certainly can’t survive. But that’s not the only issue for Pakistan, or even the main one. The main issue is unifying the Afghan Taliban around a consortium of leaders who owe something to the military-intelligence axis in Islamabad. That’s never a given; the Taliban are notoriously fractious. And, as students of the region are aware, one of the key Taliban factions is the grouping known as the “Pakistan Taliban,” which the Pakistanis did not create, and which opposes their central government, and makes their northwestern territories, on the border with Afghanistan, largely ungovernable.
Geography matters greatly in this mix. Northern Pakistan is a relatively short stretch of territory filled with disaffected tribes, which create vulnerabilities to both the east – on the border with India – and the west, on the border with Afghanistan. Pakistan’s longstanding strategy has been to exert as much control as feasible over the northwestern region, by cultivating a client presence on the far side of it, in Afghanistan.
As tough as the northwest territories of Waziristan and the “Federally Administered Tribal Areas” (FATA) are, what lies on the eastern border is even less tractable: India. Pakistan’s view is that she is driven to maintain a stable strategic footing vis-à-vis India, and that means not having a soft, squishy, exploitable western rear in the north. Her options are different on each direction of the compass: from a very simple but controlling perspective, Pakistan can bomb Waziristan, FATA, and even eastern Afghanistan with relative impunity, but she can’t bomb across the border with India.
India’s interests are better served, however, if Pakistan is not emboldened by confidence about the reliability of her northwest territories. That doesn’t mean trying to destabilize Pakistan; it just means preventing Pakistan from settling everything to her liking in Afghanistan. Pakistan is much more likely to stay on her side of the line with India, if Afghanistan is governed by (relative) moderates who have no intention of functioning as Pakistan’s safe strategic rear, but instead plan to look out for their own interests.
Campaign maneuvers and the Bergdahl Caper
It should be no surprise, therefore, that bolstering the Western-backed central government is what India has been planning to do, as the U.S. draws down our forces and ceases to be a decisive factor. In fact, India had seemingly pulled off the coup of bringing Russia into this strategy. Reports in early May, nearly a month ago, indicated that India would finance the provision of arms to the Afghan central government, which Russia would undertake as Delhi’s agent.
By mid-May, regional media were reporting that the arms deals would include Russian helicopter gunships for Kabul, along with small arms. Speculation naturally ran rampant about the implications of this initiative for “the region” – meaning for Pakistan.
But Pakistan, although wary of the Indian move, has been focusing on her own strategy. And that’s where the Bergdahl Caper comes in. Connecting the dots among the various elements of the larger regional context, the Bergdahl Caper prisoner swap looks mainly like a way to bolster the standing of Mullah Omar and the “old line” Afghan Taliban, and encourage the Haqqani network to make common cause with it, while Pakistan simultaneously goes hard after the Pakistan Taliban. This multi-pronged effort is a good description of what Islamabad’s enduring power brokers – her military and intelligence service – have been doing over the last month.
Pakistan’s activities have gone all but unnoticed in the Western media, which no doubt suits the Pakistanis just fine. Weirdly, at least some of the activities seem to have gone unnoticed by the U.S. military in Afghanistan as well.
One of the chief lines of effort involves rocket attacks from Pakistan, against opposition insurgents who operate from eastern Afghan territory. Such barrages have occurred in previous years during the spring and summer campaigns conducted by the Taliban (e.g., here and here); this year they are being mounted in conjunction with other efforts to undermine the Pakistan Taliban and its affiliates.
The week of 25 May, the Karzai government met with U.S. officials and asked for help in getting the attacks stopped. Reportedly, the U.S./NATO force commander in Afghanistan, General Joseph Dunford, told the Afghans he was unaware of the attacks. No positive construction can be put on this statement: if he was truly unaware, that’s inexplicable; if he was lying, it’s unthinkable; if he was engaging in some form of diplomatic evasion, it’s indefensible.
Nevertheless, the cross-border attacks on Afghan soil are one key feature of the Pakistani campaign. Islamabad is also making direct attacks on the Pakistan Taliban in the territories of Waziristan and FATA, inside Pakistan’s border. The Pakistani authorities have usually been sparing with this kind of effort, because it tends to provoke upswings in terrorism against Pakistani targets. The fact that they’re doing it now is considered noteworthy by local commentators; in context, it seems to be part of a full-court press against the Pakistan Taliban.
It’s worth pointing out that going after the Pakistan Taliban factions in Waziristan and FATA helps Islamabad kill more than one bird with a stone: it answers the mail, at least in part, on China’s concern for Pakistan to prevent the Taliban from harboring Uighur associates. But Pakistan’s main motivation in May and June of 2014 is shaping the overall Taliban situation as the U.S. drawdown proceeds. The drawdown is by far the most important strategic change looming over Central Asia right now.
The other prong of the attack on the Pakistan Taliban is divisive manipulation of the factions by the ISI. This byzantine, in-the-weeds effort has been reported in Western media hardly at all, and explained even less. But Pakistani observers have taken sometimes-startled note of it in the last few weeks. (See here and here for more on the remarkably timed “break-up” of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, faction in mid-late May.)
Ajai Shukla, the Business Standard author featured at the Broadsword link (last paragraph), outlines succinctly the import of this campaign:
Pakistani generals, irked by years of fruitless negotiations, short-lived peace agreements and a spiralling casualty count, want to crack down on the TTP. With the US pulling out of Afghanistan, the Pakistan army is gearing up to support the Afghan Taliban as it confronts the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF). The generals know they cannot project power into Afghanistan while a hostile Pakistani Taliban controls the tribal agencies on the border, especially South and North Waziristan.
Rocking the Afghan Taliban
But the generals have no intention of supporting just any old configuration of Taliban. They want to shape what they’re supporting, and the circumstantial evidence suggests they envision the old warhorse Mullah Omar as the linchpin of a client Taliban for the future.
In mid-May, for example, the Afghan Taliban named a new military commander: Ibrahim Sadar, who was released from detention in Pakistan in early 2013, and who, not coincidentally, was one of Mullah Omar’s top lieutenants from the early 1990s on. Observers of last year’s “wave” of Pakistani releases perceived a connection at the time with the ranks of the old-line Afghan Taliban (see Daily Beast link above).
The Gitmo 5 represent just such a connection, all of them having histories with the pre-9/11 Afghan Taliban and Mullah Omar. While U.S. lawmakers are by no means wrong to be concerned that these detainees will pose a renewed threat, their history isn’t one of plotting terrorist acts in the West on the al Qaeda model. They were lieutenants of Mullah Omar in the provincial rule of Afghanistan. The threat they pose now is one of trying to reconquer Afghanistan, and in the process, potentially putting any Americans still there at risk.
The principals in this prisoner swap were proposed as early as mid-2012, and possibly earlier. We’ve been talking about exchanging these five Taliban detainees for Bergdahl for a long time now. In fact, the move by Congress to require notification of such a proposed release was prompted precisely by earlier attempts at negotiating this selfsame deal (which is why even Senate Democrats are so angry at having been bypassed last week. They weren’t speaking generally when they demanded to be consulted. Their concern was the long-percolating release of the Gitmo 5).
But in May 2014, with the U.S. drawing down in Afghanistan, the urgency of restoring Mullah Omar’s old staff has increased – for Pakistan (where Omar, incidentally, is thought to be lurking) – and the final “interior” piece of the puzzle appears to be the impressment of the Haqqani network into turning Bergdahl over, and thus agreeing to give Omar his “great victory.”
The Haqqani network, which has been holding Bergdahl for most of the last five years, is an affiliate of the Afghan Taliban, but is distinct from it and operates independently. Nevertheless, it is closely connected with the Pakistani ISI. It would be wrong to call it a puppet, but it would also be wrong to think that at critical junctures, the Haqqani leadership would choose to defy the ISI on a key matter like the Bergdahl swap.
We can speculate about the reasons why neither the Haqqani network nor the ISI suffered this swap to happen in 2012 or 2013; my own conclusion is that the Obama administration was still pressing for the one concession the Haqqani leadership would never give: a renunciation of ties with al Qaeda. In earlier negotiations, Obama officials emphasized that point and swore we’d never make a deal without it.
In 2014, clearly, we have a made a deal without it. There’s been no mention of a Haqqani, Taliban, or any other group’s promise to dissociate itself from al Qaeda. Did it take anything other than some urgent, unilateral pressure from Islamabad to get the Bergdahl Caper deal finalized? Did Obama just cave, for no consideration other than that?
Outside interests: Russia, China…and a fading United States
In answering that question, “exterior” factors are of particular interest. Some remarkable moves have been made in the last few days. One is that the Russians, who two weeks ago were thought to be plotting with India, announced on Monday that they would end their effective “embargo” on arms sales to Pakistan (a long-time client of the U.S. and China). Not only would the Russians suddenly – after decades without such connections – begin selling their most modern Mi-35 combat helicopters to the Pakistanis, but they are anxious to improve defense cooperation across the board.
Russia isn’t transferring her affections from India to Pakistan; she’s hedging her bets and setting up a competitive situation in which Russia occupies the catbird seat. Russia wants in on the future of Afghanistan, and in typical Russian fashion, plans to maintain ties with both sides and play them off against each other. What’s to stop her? Certainly not any counterweight from U.S. policy.
China may or may not want to block Russia in Afghanistan. China’s designs on Central Asia work through her own direct access to the border of northern Pakistan, where Beijing’s inroads on the province of Gilgit-Baltistan continue to cause alarm. The Chinese don’t perceive themselves as “needing” Afghanistan the same way the Russians do. Instead, they envision having clientele and friendly territory near and around Afghanistan. Position, rather than direct control, is important to China in Afghanistan.
This is partly, I think, because establishing a high-profile Chinese stake in Afghan politics would create an unnecessary pretext for Muslim insurgents to attack from within China. Beijing is happy to let Russia take that particular bullet (again).
But it’s also because from a cost-benefit standpoint, it’s preferable to China to back her long-time client Pakistan, and reap the rewards while letting Pakistan do the heavy lifting. China backed Pakistan in a big way two weeks ago when she took the very unusual step of halting all dollar transactions with Afghanistan, thus putting a serious damper on Afghan trade (and hence dealing a blow to the Karzai government).
Reuters gamely frames this move in the context of international regulators’ concerns about Afghan banking practices. Yeah, right. Raise your hand if you think that has ever prompted China to cut off dollar-denominated trade with anyone. This was a political move, and the clear beneficiary is Islamabad – and, by implication, the Afghan Taliban. The timing of the move, just under two weeks ago, coincides nicely with the demonstration of Pakistan’s commitment to cracking down on the Uighurs’ safe haven in northern Pakistan and extreme eastern Afghanistan.
China is also consolidating her fraternal ties with Pakistan, with the prospect of a long-awaited deal to supply six new submarines to the Pakistani navy. Pakistani sources disclosed that the deal was near in the same week that Beijing cut off dollar-denominated transactions with the Afghans.
Other oddities portend the continued ignominious slide of U.S. influence in the region. One is the almost fanfare-free departure of U.S. forces from the air base at Manas, in Kyrgyzstan, this week – over a month ahead of schedule. Sometimes things do happen ahead of schedule, but frankly, they rarely do when the military is as desperately cash-strapped as it is today, and if the same departure plan is being adhered to. There’s a very good possibility we’re cutting our losses by removing our annoying presence in Kyrgyzstan before Russia does something precipitate.
Or, I should say, something else precipitate. In May, the Russians announced that they would suspend operation of the GPS receivers on their territory (actually, cease making the data available to outside users) unless the U.S. agreed to host ground stations for the Russian system – Glonass – on our soil. (The CIA and the military oppose that idea strenuously.) In terms of effective GPS operation, this is merely symbolic; it’s the political import of it that matters. Putin’s Russia is looking for reasons to deemphasize or even sever links with the United States, especially as they relate to arrangements – of every kind – in Asia.
All the interested players in Asia are approaching Afghanistan today as if America’s interests there don’t matter and won’t be defended. They have good reason to do that, of course. Obama has made it clear he’s lost interest.
Strategists in Asia perceive much more accurately than Americans do what just happened with the Bergdahl Caper. This is partly because they have a much more accurate view of what the negotiating process has looked like than Americans do. Reports like this one from five weeks ago, outlining the general disorganization and haplessness of the Obama administration, rarely make it into the American public’s news cycle.
The following passage is particularly striking:
In late February, the Taliban said they had suspended “mediation” with the United States about swapping Bergdahl for the five Taliban detainees, blaming the “current complex political situation” in Afghanistan. There also is some congressional opposition to the prisoner swap. According to military documents, one of the five served as interior minister during the Taliban’s five-year rule of Afghanistan and had direct ties to Osama bin Laden.
“That’s dead,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said when asked about the prison swap idea. “It hasn’t gone anywhere for a couple of years.”
The Reagan administration took a big hit when it betrayed similar (if not identical) congressional expectations in the Iran-Contra affair. Obama’s media supporters, on the other hand, are out looking for excuses for his administration’s unreliable and faithless dealings. This has a lot to do with why Obama keeps getting away with it, and America is rapidly losing stature and credibility abroad.