The longest war in American history effectively ended in a hurry in the past week.
On May 27, President Barack Obama laid out a timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan, where the U.S. is wrapping up its 12-year military presence. Just four days later, the U.S. reached an agreement with the Taliban that freed the only American prisoner of war from the conflict. And Tuesday, the U.S. relinquished control over Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan, an installation crucial to maintaining supply lines to the American mission in Afghanistan.
The past week demonstrates the depth of the Obama administration’s commitment to its withdrawal strategy. The administration has swiftly moved toward settling some of the thorniest aspects of the U.S.’ over decade-long presence in Afghanistan.
The deal that freed Army sergeant Bowe Bergdahl deal settles three outstanding issues that had to be addressed within Obama’s withdrawal timetable: It frees the U.S.’ only remaining prisoner of war, potentially advances negotiations with the Taliban, and even hints at the future status of Afghanistan-related detainees held at Guantanamo.
The prisoner swap released five high-value detainees, including the former chief of staff of the Taliban’s military and an intelligence official in Afghanistan’s pre-invasion Taliban intelligence services.
They were among the few Guantanamo detainees with clear, established connections to the Taliban. And both the U.S. and the Afghan government have been negotiating with the hardcore Islamist militant organisation since at least 2012, when the Taliban opened a political mission in Doha, Qatar.
In freeing the bulk of its proven Taliban detainees, the U.S. has resolved a potential sticking point in future talks with the group. The five won’t be allowed to return to Afghanistan for another year, but this is partly aimed at keeping them off of the battlefield while U.S. combat operations are ongoing.
Manas wraps up another outstanding, Afghanistan-related issue. Manas was always a major point of contention between Russia and the U.S.: Russia considers Kyrgyzstan to be part of its “near abroad,” while the U.S. viewed the airbase as its “gateway to Afghanistan.” For a time, Kyrgyzstan was the only country in the world with both U.S. and Russian military bases.
In leaving Manas, the U.S. is demonstrating that it’s no longer going to invest its diplomatic capital in keeping supply lines to Afghanistan open. Indeed, it will no longer need to, as this week’s events are the clearest possible sign that America’s longest war is truly coming to a close.
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