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A prisoner swap might sink peace talks with the Taliban
The Taliban wants five Gitmo detainees released in exchange for U.S. POW Bowe Bergdahl — before peace talks start. This might backfire...
A still taken from video footage released in 2010 of a man believed to be Sgt. Bowe Berghahl, who has been held by the Taliban since 2009.
A still taken from video footage released in 2010 of a man believed to be Sgt. Bowe Berghahl, who has been held by the Taliban since 2009. AP Photo/IntelCenter
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iplomats are scrambling to mend diplomatic fences with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in an attempt to salvage progress toward peace talks with the Taliban. But there is another big obstacle standing in the way of the negotiations: The Taliban want the U.S. to agree to exchange five high-ranking prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the only known U.S. prisoner of war in Afghanistan. It would "build bridges of confidence" before talks begin in earnest, according to the Taliban.

The U.S. has been negotiating for years to free Bergdahl, who was captured in 2009. But the prisoner swap — if the Taliban insists on it as a pre-condition to talks — has the potential to derail the peace push. A similar proposal collapsed in 2011 after the Taliban walked away because of strict security restrictions the Obama administration imposed to satisfy Congress, which has to approve transfers from Guantanamo, that the detainees would not be able to return to the battlefield.

The Obama administration reportedly has suggested that the five Taliban detainees could be sent to Qatar and placed under watch. A spokesman for one of Congress' leading skeptics on the swap, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard McKeon (R-Calif.), says that might not be enough. "Absent any actual details, the chairman remains very concerned that these five individuals should never be allowed to re-engage," McKeon spokesperson Claude Chafin tells The New York Times.

The Taliban prisoners in question are reputedly a dangerous crew — two were senior commanders linked to the murders of thousands of rival Shiites; one was an intelligence chief. Here is how Patrick Edaburn at The Moderate Voice sums up the Obama administration's dilemma:

Obviously we want our prisoners to be brought home and peace talks if successful would make things much easier in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the rest of the Middle East.

On the other hand there is considerable doubt as to whether the Taliban would honor a peace agreement and if not returning key operatives to them would obviously be a bad thing. [Moderate Voice]

Five-to-one might appear to be a lopsided deal. But, as Jason Ditz notes at Antiwar, it would be a more even exchange than other governments have gotten when trying to free prisoners held by insurgent groups.

Israel traded over 1,000 prisoners for Gilad Shalit, though they later reneged and recaptured a large number of them.

But while Shalit's capture remained headline news in Israel for years, America has all but forgotten Bergdahl since his capture. This will certainly lessen the pressure on the Obama administration to seriously try to negotiate his release. On the other hand, if President Obama is serious about salvaging the peace talks, making this deal would be a good way to give it some momentum. [Antiwar]

Bergdahl's family back home in Idaho knows the whole thing is a long shot. But Nate Rawlings at TIME says the fact that his case has returned to the forefront of talks again has given them hope. They recently received a letter through the Red Cross that they believe was written by their son, convincing them he is still alive. Now, Rawlings says, the fact that he is being discussed in negotiations to end the fighting — a top diplomatic priority — is the most optimistic development they have seen in some time.

Because similar talks have begun and stalled in the past, there's little reason to believe that things will be different this time. But for Bowe Bergdahl's family, the hope of getting back their son looms larger than the frustrations of geopolitics... As they wait for new negotiations to start, the Bergdahl family undoubtedly hopes that this time, the political calculus will offer a different resolution, one that will eventually bring their son home. [TIME]

Harold Maass is a contributing editor at TheWeek.com. He has been writing for The Week since the 2001 launch of the U.S. print edition. Harold has worked for a variety of news outlets, including The Miami HeraldFox News, and ABC News.

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