Catch-and-release: US tactical game with Taliban won’t produce a strategic victory

From the initial reports, it looks like another case of mirror-imaging, in which we think the enemy sees and understands things the same way we do.

The Washington Post reports today that the US has been releasing top Taliban leaders to the enemy for years, in exchange for an unenforceable promise to renounce violence.

According to the Post, “As the United States has unsuccessfully pursued a peace deal with the Taliban, the ‘strategic release’ program has quietly served as a live diplomatic channel, allowing American officials to use prisoners as bargaining chips in restive provinces where military power has reached its limits.”

Release prisoners as “bargaining chips”? I thought that was a reason to keep them as collateral until the other side agrees.

“But the releases are an inherent gamble: The freed detainees are often notorious fighters who would not be released under the traditional legal system for military prisoners in Afghanistan,” according to reporter Kevin Sieff. “They must promise to give up violence — and US officials warn them that if they are caught attacking American troops, they will be detained once again.”

Goodness gracious! If we let enemy commanders go free and they kill more of our people, we will detain them a second time.

That’ll show ‘em.

Yup, we’ll detain them some more, right up to 2014, the date our leaders told the Taliban that we would be quitting Afghanistan.

No strategic victory envisioned

Some kind of prisoner deal could make sense if the US envisioned a strategic victory in Afghanistan. But it envisions no such thing. President Obama reassured the Taliban during his recent visit to Afghanistan that he does not seek the insurgents’ “eradication.” Indeed, he underscored that he intends for a withdrawal of US combat forces from Afghanistan by 2014.

So why should we expect the Taliban to cooperate, if the US is providing such a short and friendly timeframe?

The Post explains that official US negotiations with the Taliban are intended to influence the outcome, but the reporter’s careful wording indicates that he and his sources don’t really believe that line. See how Sieff begins the explanatory sentence with a caveat, follows by using the passive voice, and concluding that the “strategic release” program isn’t strategic at all:

“And although official negotiations with top insurgent leaders are seen by many as an endgame for the war, which has claimed nearly 2,000 U.S. lives, the strategic release program has a less ambitious goal: to quell violence in concentrated areas where NATO is unable to ensure security, particularly as troops continue to withdraw.”

“The releases,” Sieff reports, “are intended to produce tactical gains but are not considered part of a grand bargain with the Taliban.”

Loophole allowed secret release of enemy fighters

What kind of track record do we have? Not a successful one, according to the report. The negotiations “have yielded little to no progress in recent years.” Part of the reason, the Post states, is that the efforts “have been stymied by the unwillingness of the United States to release five prisoners from Guantanamo Bay – a gesture that insurgent leaders have said they see as a precondition for peace talks.”

But release of those enemy combatants would require congressional approval, which the White House appears not to want to seek. So the US is using a loophole: “Unlike at Guantanamo, releasing prisoners from the Parwan detention center, the only American military prison in Afghanistan, does not require congressional approval and can be done clandestinely.”

The program could be a smart move as an influence operation

As an influence operation, the “strategic release” program could be a smart military move. “We look at detainees who have influence over other insurgents — individuals whose release could have a calming effect in an entire area,” a US official anonymously told the Post.  “In those cases, the benefits of release could outweigh the reasons for keeping him detained.”

But is it really that smart?

What track record does the US have – military or civilian, under either Bush or Obama – to run successful strategic influence operations in Afghanistan?

Not a very good one.

Tactically, the US military can do very well. But not strategic influence in a counterinsurgency campaign. The US doesn’t think in terms of “strategic influence.” There is no office in the US government that works on such issues.

Senator Feinstein: ‘the Taliban is stronger’ today

Indeed, the chairmen of the Senate and House select committees on intelligence have just returned from Afghanistan with this biting assessment: The Taliban has gotten stronger.

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who chairs the Senate intelligence panel, appeared on CNN and spoke of the trip she took with her House counterpart, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI). “I think we both say that what we found is the Taliban is stronger,” Feinstein said.

Neither Feinstein nor Rogers is convinced that the US catch-and-release policy toward top Taliban commanders is working. According to ABC News, “Despite a Pentagon report just released that found that the Taliban is holding steady in Pakistan but slowly degrading in Afghanistan, both lawmakers said they are concerned that radicals trained in Pakistan could re-emerge as a new generation of fighters even if the current Afghan insurgency were to burn itself out.”

 

Empower the enemy while marginalizing the ally

The secret catch-and-release effort has had the unintended effect of empowering our enemy while marginalizing our ally (let’s table the discussion for now about whether or not the Afghan forces are our “ally” in the way most Americans understand the word). According to the Post report,

“Some Afghans say they worry that although the program might be effective in quelling violence, it marginalizes their role in the country’s reconciliation process. Afghans often provide intelligence that leads to strategic releases, but Americans ultimately make the decision to release detainees. And in some cases, insurgent commanders attempt to broker deals directly with American officials, excluding the Afghan security forces from the process.”

If the Post report is accurate, the US caved in to insurgent demands on this point. A US military commander in eastern Afghanistan tells the Post, “We tried to get the [insurgent] commanders to work with the Afghan National Army, but they weren’t interested.” So instead, we gave in.

That isn’t a projection of American strength, and it isn’t a sign that we are seeking strategic victory. Accurate or not, it is a sign to the enemy that we are going to cut and run.

Strengthening an even older enemy

The military’s approach to manipulating factionalism among the Afghan insurgencies has served the war effort well on a tactical scale, but it has not contributed meaningfully toward a strategic victory.

It’s as though the military lacks the institutional memory or reach-back capability to discern tactical ally from strategic enemy. In my own counterinsurgency work since the 1980s, I have advocated exploiting factions and turning them against one another – but so that they can mutually self-destruct and our side wins.

Apparently not so today, where tactical excellence among our lower-ranking Army commanders has not been matched by strategic excellence at the top.

Here’s an example. The logical and defensible tactical exploitation of insurgent factions became a wasted effort when it gave the tactical ally an advantage that we did not exploit on a larger scale. The Post article discusses a brief tactical alliance the Hezb-i-Islami insurgent group, which is not part of the Taliban. At the local level, American soldiers ran joint operations with Hezb-i-Islami forces against the Taliban, and even allowed them to sleep on US bases.

Hezb-i-Islami, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (pictured), is an Islamic extremist organization that has flirted with all sides, from the CIA to Pakistan’s ISI, to the Islamic Republic of Iran, al Qaeda, and the Taliban. It is only natural that the group would at some point seek a tactical alliance with US forces. Certainly US commanders were aware of the organization’s background and previous alliances, but they apparently did not know how to exploit the tactical opportunity for strategic gain.

When Hezb-i-Islami requested release of a specific enemy combatant from the US-controlled Parwan detention facility, the move opened the door to the “strategic release” program. Again, tactically it made sense. But there was nothing “strategic” about it, and since that time, the US has expanded the release from Hezb-i-Islami to the Taliban – with no real incentive for battle-hardened, ideologically extremist, absolutist forces to abide by their un-secured pledges of peace.

The bottom line

The US now finds itself in a grim situation in Afghanistan, especially in the context of its catch-and-release game with the Taliban:

1. America’s fundamental approach is to facilitate a series of tactical US withdrawals – not to achieve strategic victory.

2. We have no demonstrated successes after years of attempts.

3. We have empowered the enemy as a political and diplomatic actor.

4. We have legitimized the enemy’s demands of us.

5. We have allowed the enemy to trick us into marginalizing our Afghan partners.

6. We have shown the enemy that we are weak in dealing with them face to face.

7. We have told the enemy that he will pay no serious price for breaking the terms of release.

7. We have shown friend and foe in Afghanistan and elsewhere that we do not intend to defeat our enemy: We will let the enemy survive and enable it to continue its war after we pull out in 2014.

If that’s the case, why don’t we just bring the troops home now?

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