Global Politics

Ever wonder what Afghans think of the US releasing five Taliban leaders for Bowe Bergdahl?

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REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

An Afghan security soldier holds his rifle on his shoulder near the Independent Election Commission headquarters, which was atttacked by Taliban insurgents, in Kabul March 29, 2014.

Americans are not the only ones questioning the US government's decision to release Taliban leaders from Guantanamo Bay prison in exchange for US POW Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. Afghans are confused at what they see as an American flip-flop.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

And there's good reason, says CEO Saad Mohseni of the Moby Group, one of Afghanistan's largest media companies, because the Afghan government had lived through a similar release of Taliban prisoners.

"There was a prison in Bagram, just outside of Kabul, where a number of Taliban prisoners were freed by the Afghan government. They were much lower-level Taliban commanders," says Mohseni. 

"And the US government — through the military, the embassy and, of course, the folks in Washington — went nuts. They were questioning why the Afghan government would just release these prisoners. And you have the Americans doing the exact same thing with Taliban officials who are much higher in rank."

Mohseni says Afghans see the prisoners released from Guantánamo Bay as being responsible for crimes against humanity and terrorism.

"People are confused as to why the Americans would do the exact thing that they have condemned in the past," he adds. "You have to understand, the Taliban are not popular."

Mohseni says his media group conducted a national survey and asked people about their support for the Taliban. "Their approval rating, if you would call it that, is less than 10 percent nationally. Even in the south, where a lot of Taliban members come from, it's in the 20s. They're not popular at all."

The prisoner deal for Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl has some in Afghanistan wondering if the US has hidden motives, just as the American troop withdrawal continues.

"Afghans tend to believe in conspiracy theories, and in some quarters, the feeling is: Are the Americans looking to strengthen the Taliban movement at a higher level as they draw down?" says Mohseni. "It has caused a lot of confusion, and people are not happy at all."

Others are feeling that, after a long war, the Americans are simply leaving Afghanistan to struggle on its own with the same Taliban it has fought against for many years.

"What the Americans viewed as something very important, those principles no longer apply," says Mohseni. "It's a question now that, 'We're going to pull out all of our people — deserters, normal soldiers, whatever — and you can have your Taliban back and this is your problem going forward.'"

But Mohseni admits the prisoner swap didn't come out of the blue for people like him in the Afghan media. They knew about Bowe Bergdahl.

"We had heard the name. You have to understand that this swap had been discussed for some years now," he says. "It stalled when the Taliban established a pseudo-embassy in Qatar, but we have been discussing this for some years. I think that we were ready and knew that there was going to be some kind of a deal with the Taliban and these five prisoners in Guantanamo."

This story is based on an interview that originally aired on PRI's The Takeaway, the daily news program that invites you into the American conversation.

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