Taliban Prisoner Swap For Bergdahl Was To Be Part Of Bigger Deal

The exchange of detainees for Bowe Bergdahl was supposed to be part of a bigger peace process. Renee Montagne talks to Marc Grossman, former U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is back in the U.S. He flew from Germany to San Antonio, this morning, where he will be treated and reunited with his family. The controversial prisoner swap that brought him home was not the first attempt to free him from a Taliban-affiliated group known as the Haqqani Network.

In 2011, discussions began over a swap that would have been part of a much bigger peace deal. But the Taliban eventually walked away from it. The man who initiated those talks is Marc Grossman. He was then the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Ambassador, welcome to the program.

MARC GROSSMAN: Thank you very much for having me.

MONTAGNE: You engaged in talks with the Taliban and in particular, the man who is now head of the Taliban office in Qatar back in 2011. And those talks involved the situation of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

GROSSMAN: They absolutely did.

MONTAGNE: What was on the table at that time?

GROSSMAN: Bowe Bergdahl was always on the agenda. But our objective was to try to create something a little bit larger than just an exchange for Sgt. Bergdahl. And that was to see if we could get the Taliban to issue a statement dissociating themselves from international terrorism - a statement saying they were prepared to participate in the politics of Afghanistan. And as part of that larger arrangement, we were going to transfer some of the detainees, these five from Guantanamo, and then Sgt. Bergdahl would of course be returned to our custody.

MONTAGNE: At the time, how did you assess something that's been a big issue in this particular swap, which was the likelihood that these Taliban detainees would return to the battlefield?

GROSSMAN: Well, we assessed it in exactly the same way. As near as I could tell, the administration has assessed it at the moment, which is to say that they were not being released. They were being transferred to Qatar - that Qatar undertook a series of obligations to us about their travel, about what they would do - no recruiting, no fundraising, no getting on Al Jazeera to make a lot of propaganda. And I can only imagine - I don't know - but I can only imagine that the current administration has done exactly the same thing.

MONTAGNE: At the time, how did you envision presenting this prisoner swap to the American public, a sizable percentage of which does not see releasing prisoners from Guantanamo as a positive?

GROSSMAN: Well, we were just going to tell our story. We used this exchange as part of a larger arrangement, and lots of people were going to oppose it. I briefed the Congress quite a lot during this period, and many, many, many people there were absolutely opposed. We debated it with them. We debated in our own councils, you can imagine. But we decided that in the end, if it would have worked, we would've been able to say statement against international terrorism from the Taliban - statement that they were prepared to participate in the political process in Afghanistan. Afghans talking to other Afghans about the future of Afghanistan - and then a sequence, where these detainees, again, not being released, but be transferred to Qatar in a way that everybody could have tested the proposition that everybody was doing what they were supposed to be. And there would've been enormous opposition. I understand that. But the fact that there would've been a peace process and Sgt. Bergdahl was home seemed to us worth the gamble.

MONTAGNE: You know, something that really hasn't come up much, but I'm curious about, which is this - the Haqqani Network has been said to have deep ties with Pakistan's intelligence. In fact, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mike Mullen has called the Haqqani Network a veritable arm of the Pakistani intelligence. When you were in discussions about the release of Bowe Bergdahl, why wouldn't Pakistan, our ally, do more to get him out?

GROSSMAN: Well, we kept the Pakistanis informed of what we were trying to do so there were no surprises. But I took the position that it was the Taliban who had the responsibility to deliver Bowe Bergdahl, and how they got him and where they got him from was their problem.

MONTAGNE: Ultimately, what is the difference between releasing these detainees and transferring them to Qatar for a year?

GROSSMAN: I recognize all the controversy about the year - fair enough. And maybe this is too speculative, but I'll give you this thought anyway. If all goes positively here, the Taliban will look up a year from now - what will they see? - that there's been two successful Afghan elections, a new Afghan president, a signed bilateral security agreement with the United States of America, 9,800 U.S. forces still in Afghanistan and maybe 3,000 or so foreign forces to support the Afghan national security forces who are fighting. And it's possible that a year from now, Taliban will look around and say we're not going to win this militarily. Maybe, it's time to have some conversation with the government of Afghanistan. And then I think it's a different set of circumstances. We'll see. I don't give that high percentage, but I think it's possible.

MONTAGNE: Ambassador Grossman, thank you very much.

GROSSMAN: Thank you for having me.

MONTAGNE: Marc Grossman is the former U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is NPR News.

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