Speed Reads

Foreign policy

The Taliban fighters traded for Bowe Bergdahl wouldn't have been at Gitmo for long, anyway

US Army/Wikimedia Commons

President Obama's decision to trade Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five senior Taliban members detained at Guantanamo Bay is complicated legally, tactically, and politically. But ultimately the question boils down to: Was it worth it? One solider for five hardened militants may be tough math to some, but it's a little fuzzier than that.

Maybe the Taliban somehow pulled a fast one on the U.S., but the U.S. was probably going to release the five Taliban fighters within a year, anyway. As Ken Gude explains at Think Progress, Obama is essentially ending the Afghanistan War by 2016, and "when wars end, prisoners taken custody must be released." The Taliban may not have complied with that international law, but the U.S. would have to, he argues. "The five detainees that were included in the deal would have to be released soon anyway because the U.S. involvement in the armed conflict against the Taliban is ending."

If Think Progress is too lefty for your tastes, here's George W. Bush national security legal adviser John Bellinger, writing at Lawfare:

In my view, the U.S. would not be able to hold [the five detainees] forever. Indeed, it is likely that the U.S. would be required, as a matter of international law, to release them shortly after the end of 2014, when U.S. combat operations cease in Afghanistan. The administration appears to have reached a defensible, hold-your-nose compromise by arranging, in exchange for the release of Sergeant Bergdahl, for the individuals to be held in Qatar for a year before they return to Afghanistan. [Lawfare]

That's not to suggest this was a cut-and-dry good decision. Some members of Bergdahl's platoon are arguing that Bergdahl was a deserter whose decision to flee the base cost the lives of at least two soldiers trying to track him down. (The Pentagon says there's no evidence that anyone died searching for Bergdahl.) And legally, there's a decent chance Obama sidestepped requirements passed by Congress regarding the transfer of prisoners from Guantanamo Bay (Jack Goldsmith makes that case; Marty Lederman disagrees somewhat).

But strategically, maybe trading Bergdahl for the five Taliban fighters wasn't such a bad deal.