WASHINGTON (CNN) — While most in Washington fret about the potential return of five former Guantanamo detainees to the front lines in Afghanistan, the former head of U.S. operations in the war-torn country says the Taliban is now worse off after the swap for U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
Retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, the former chief of the U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM, said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” that President Barack Obama’s decision to trade five Taliban hardliners for Bergdahl should give the United States military more latitude to combat the Taliban.
Despite frequent criticism from both sides of the aisle that the move puts five hardcore jihadist back on the battlefield, Mattis said American commanders no longer have to fear that an operation against the Taliban will cost Bergdahl’s life.
“We no longer have that concern they have this pawn they can play against us,” Mattis said.
Mattis, who helmed CENTCOM, a command that includes Afghanistan, from 2010 until 2013, recounted how the chief military officers there were always uneasy over launching strikes against the Taliban or the Haqqani network so long as the Taliban had Bergdahl in their custody.
“Every time we did so, we were concerned Bowe Bergdahl would end up dead,” Mattis said.
While the general conceded the administration paid a high price for Bergdahl’s return, Mattis suggested the White House ultimately won the chess match with the Taliban over negotiations for Bergdahl’s life.
“It’s also a military vulnerability the Haqqanis now face,” Mattis asserted, “the Taliban now faces, because they no longer hold one of the U.S. soldiers in captivity.”
The Republican chariman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, disagreed with Mattis’ assessment.
“We’ve made a serious, serious geopolitical mistake,” Rogers said on ABC’s “This Week.”
Rogers said the swap was not the only course of action available to the Obama White House and painted the President’s choice as the least attractive item on a menu full of unsavory options. The Michigan Republican joined the collective consternation over the security assurances offered by the Qatari government, doubting its ability or willingness to prevent the five former prisoners from meeting with Taliban fighters. Even if there is a lull in the coming months, Rogers warns that the U.S. security apparatus shouldn’t be fooled — these men will rejoin the fight.
“I don’t think you’ll see any operational activity right now by them,” Rogers said. “They’re smart enough to know better. But it allows them to prepare for what’s next.”
“We’re going to pay for this decision for years,” he added.
But Retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton said Rogers and other Republicans like Sen. John McCain are over-estimating the value of the five Taliban prisoners on the battlefield.
“These are not super-villains,” Eaton said on CNN. “We’re releasing five Joes out there who are not super-villains.
“They can be captured or killed in the future, so I’m not sure why we’re so afraid of these guys.”