June 3, 2014

The U. S. is trying to get out of the Taliban-fighting business

Release of detainees in Bergdahl swap says something about war on terrorism.

It was only a matter of hours before the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, held by the Taliban for five years, became fodder for partisan controversy.

Administration critics, raised questions about whether sufficient safeguards have been taken to keep the five Taliban detainees released from Guantanamo from returning to the battlefield.

Sen. John McCain, Ariz., said it is “disturbing that these individuals would have the ability to reenter the fight.”

Gen. James Jones, Obama’s former National Security Adviser, said previously released detainees have returned to fighting and been involved in attacks against Americans.

The Guantanamo recidivism rate has been a matter of some controversy, with analysts like Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann of the New American Foundation arguing that the Defense Department has significantly exaggerated the number of former Gitmo detainees involved in hostilities against the United States.

But some undoubtedly have, including Said Ali al-Shihri, who was held at Guantanamo from 2001 to 2007 and went on to become the deputy leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula after his release. He was killed by a drone strike in Yemen last year.

According to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the confirmed recidivism rate for the 603 Guantanamo detainees released as of July 2013 was 16.6 percent, with an additional 12.3 percent “suspected of reengaging.”

That sounds high, though it’s significantly lower than the recidivism rate for the U.S. criminal justice system.

Also, the rates are dropping — of the 71 prisoners released between 2009 and 2013, only three are confirmed to have re-engaged. That’s a 4.2 percent rate compared to 18.2 percent before that.

Of course, the five being released from Guantanamo are all former senior Taliban leaders implicated in attacks against U.S. forces, cooperation with al-Qaida and atrocities against civilians. One, Mohammad Fazl, is the Taliban’s former deputy defense minister.

Is the administration simply unconcerned about these five rejoining the fight? More likely the deal is part of a larger push to disengage the U.S. from the war against the Taliban.

Detainee recidivism rates have been dropping, but probably not because Guantanamo has become so much more effective at rehabilitating detainees.

It more likely is that, as the U.S. has drawn down its troop presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are fewer opportunities to engage in hostilities against Americans.

If all goes according to plan, by the time these five can get back to Afghanistan, they won’t pose much threat because there won’t be that many U.S. troops there for them to fight.

Of course, there are still concerns that they could participate in global terrorism. But it seems as if U.S. policymakers have concluded that fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan is no longer a particularly effective way of combating terrorism internationally.

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international news, social science and related topics. www.slate.com

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