One of my pet peeves about President Obama is his lack of formal communication with the American public. Social media posts and viral videos mixed in with short afternoon press briefings are not sufficient for a sitting President. Occasionally, the American people want to hear from their Commander-in-Chief in a time of war outside of the annual State of the Union Address. Prime time speeches are reserved for important conversations between a President and the citizenry and this President rarely uses them.
The deal to exchange five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay for one American POW who allegedly deserted his squad in Afghanistan may not rise to the level of a prime time address, but it should require at least an address during the network evening newscasts. The deal creates pressing questions of national security that only a President can adequately address.
The prisoner swap that allowed Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl to return to the United States is one of the more bizarre foreign policy moments in recent memory and deserves a full explanation, in plain language, from the Commander-in-Chief to the American public. Any prisoner swap with a terrorist organization is controversial. By definition, it means America is negotiating with terrorists. This is not usually a prescription for peace since terror organizations are led by insatiable ideological values, not rational ones that sovereign states consider.
However, this was no ordinary prisoner swap. This was a five for one deal and the five were not low value prisoners who were caught up in some misguided late night raid. Khair Ulla Said Wali Khairkhwa, Mullah Mohammad Fazl, Mullah Norullah Nori, Abdul Haq Wasiq and Mohammad Nabi Omari were high to mid level Taliban officials who have been in U.S. custody for nearly 13 years. Fazl is still wanted by the U.N. for charges of war crimes.
It is not just the numbers that seem odd: five high value prisoners for one American Sergeant; it is the context in which the swap was made. President Obama just announced that U.S. forces would be completely withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2016, assuming that an agreement is reached with the new Afghan government to keep a residual force past the end of this year. With firm timelines in place, the Taliban and their allies can simply run out the clock. There is no real need for them to negotiate and integrate into the new government if they seek to return to power someday. So if the prisoner release was meant to set the stage for high level negotiations with the Taliban leadership, it is unclear how this would improve the bargaining position of either side.
Further, we know the Taliban leadership wanted these five men back badly because Mullah Omar, a man who has been at the top of the U.S. most wanted list for more than a decade and who has proven to be nearly untraceable, popped his head up to make a rare statement rejoicing in the release of his comrades.
I have to believe there is more at play in this scenario than a simple five for one prisoner swap; but, why should we be left guessing? The President owes it to the nation to explain as much of the context of this decision as possible, leaving out whatever top secret information he feels is appropriate do to sensitive national security issues. Since this decision could prove to have a major impact on the war against Al Qeada, either for war or for peace, and thus the national security of the American people, the Commander-in-Chief must provide leadership and spell out the strategy so that we can evaluate it and consider the consequences.
I think we need to reserve our full judgment on the President's decision until we have all the facts. However, we must continue to demand those facts from the President, who felt so compelled to make this deal that he totally disregarded Congress and the spirit of constitutional separation of powers.
The test of a good leader is not just making good judgments, it is also the ability to explain your decisions to earn support for your choices. President Obama is failing at the later and the former is still to be determined.
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