Before we choose up sides, let us look at the facts. We were attacked by a terrorist organization called al-Qaida and roughly 3,000 people died in that 9/11 attack. A local faction in Afghanistan, the Taliban, provided space and support for al-Qaida. We made common cause with the enemies of the Taliban in Afghanistan, notably the Northern Alliance, and fought an undeclared war against both al-Qaida and the Taliban, largely with special forces. For a while we were winning, but resources needed for that battle were withdrawn to assist in the Iraq war. The tides of war went back and forth. Finally our technological capabilities helped to locate Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaida and we sent in Seal Team Six to kill him.
As we continued that war, we took prisoners, some of them al-Qaida, some of them Taliban. We established a prisoner-of-war camp (Gitmo) outside of the United States on a naval coaling station called Guantanamo that we leased from Cuba in 1903. The lease eventually ran out, but we retained possession of the base.
The ostensible reason for keeping POWs on this base was the fear that they would escape from a stateside maximum security prison. The actual reason was to allow for torture of some of them and denial of POW rights to the rest of them. Large numbers were released back to their home countries during the presidency of George W. Bush, and a much smaller number under the administration of Barack H. Obama.
When plans for cessation of American participation in the Afghanistan war were announced, the prospect of releasing these Taliban POWs arose. They had never been put on trial for war crimes. The Taliban had never attacked the United States, nor did they have the capability to do so. There would be no longer any excuse for keeping them in prison. So a prisoner swap was arranged, five top Taliban leaders for one American Army sergeant named Bowe Bergdhal.
The released Taliban leaders were moved to a small Middle Eastern country called Qatar. In a process reminiscent of the exchange and parole of officers taken captive in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, they are placed under some restrictions for one year, by which time all American forces except those who guard the embassy and one airstrip will have been withdrawn from Afghanistan.
Whether the restrictions will actually work is questionable.
Republicans in Congress are as usual talking out of both sides of their mouths simultaneously. Yes, they believe that no soldier should be left behind, but no, we shouldn't have swapped for Sgt. Bergdhal to get our last military POW back.
But when our participation in the Afghan civil war ends, what excuse will we have for hanging on to Taliban POWs? We will no longer be at war with that faction.
The war against al-Qaida continues. They attacked us on 9/11, continue to attack us and most agree that we should still kill or capture their members wherever we can find them. But internment in Guantanamo was always a violation of international law and American standards for dealing with POWs or even hardened criminals.
There was a law passed by Congress and signed by President Obama that among other provisions required that Congress must be given 30 days notice before any more prisoners are released from the Gitmo POW camp. Obama violated this law. But the entire Gitmo operation, including torture of high value prisoners, was and is illegal and unprecedented. Congressional outrage over this failure to notify is a bit like giving a bank robber a parking ticket for double parking his getaway car. We have far more serious illegalities to answer for in Gitmo, and the collusion of both political parties does not make these high crimes any less heinous.