Following 9/11, the Bush/Cheney administration attempted to put this country on a permanent war footing to fight the global war on terror. In doing so, they took actions that go against our basic ideals as a country and called America's leadership in the world into question. That included invading another country based on lies, the use of torture and setting up a prison for indefinite detention in Guantanamo Bay. These actions left legal and foreign policy challenges that - while not as imminent as the financial crisis - were necessary to address.
When President Obama assumed office, he began working on cleaning up the mess from day one. His first actions were to stop the use of torture and re-focus the global war on terror into a war on al Qaeda. The latter action provided for the possibility of specific goals that could be met rather than an open-ended engagement. He ended the war in Iraq and attempted to defeat al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan, Pakistan and eventually Yemen.
A little over two years ago, Vice President Biden articulated the diplomatic work this administration had undertaken to ensure that Afghanistan would never again be a safe haven for terrorists.
We were in Afghanistan for two reasons. One is to deal with, curtail, begin to dismantle, and eventually eliminate al Qaeda. Not only from being able to come back into Afghanistan and control Afghanistan but from the region—to decimate al Qaeda...Over the last few years, attempts to bring together Afghanistan and the Taliban to negotiate towards a stable government have been underway, but have moved forward in fits and starts. Over that time, a successful prisoner exchange between the U.S. and the Taliban has been seen as an opening statement of trust for the negotiations to begin in earnest. I believe that is what happened yesterday with the release of Sergeant Bergdahl in exchange for the 5 detainees at Guantanamo. Notice how President Obama's statement yesterday echos what VP Biden said two years ago.
The second reason for us to be in Afghanistan was to make sure that a country with tens of millions of people and nuclear weapons called Pakistan did not somehow begin to disintegrate or fall apart. That is a hell of a lot tougher job...
That is part of what the reconciliation process is about right now. We are not just deciding that all we are doing is supporting a government and building up their military capability. We’re engaged in a reconciliation process. Whether it will work or not is another question. But we are in a position where if Afghanistan ceased and desisted from being a haven for people who do damage and have as a target the United States of America and their allies, that’s good enough. That’s good enough. We’re not there yet.
Look, the Taliban per se is not our enemy. That’s critical. There is not a single statement that the president has ever made in any of our policy assertions that the Taliban is our enemy because it threatens U.S. interests. If, in fact, the Taliban is able to collapse the existing government, which is cooperating with us in keeping the bad guys from being able to do damage to us, then that becomes a problem for us. So there’s a dual track here:
One, continue to keep the pressure on al Qaeda and continue to diminish them. Two, put the government in a position where they can be strong enough that they can negotiate with and not be overthrown by the Taliban. And at the same time try to get the Taliban to move in the direction to see to it that they, through reconciliation, commit not to be engaged with al Qaeda or any other organization that they would harbor to do damage to us and our allies.
This week the United States renewed its commitment to the Afghan people and made clear that we will continue to support them as they chart their own future. The United States also remains committed to supporting an Afghan-led reconciliation process as the surest way to achieve a stable, secure, sovereign, and unified Afghanistan. While we are mindful of the challenges, it is our hope Sergeant Bergdahl’s recovery could potentially open the door for broader discussions among Afghans about the future of their country by building confidence that it is possible for all sides to find common ground.So this wasn't just a prisoner exchange. It was perhaps the opening step in the reconciliation process between the Afghan government and the Taliban. As such, it was also one more step in this President's efforts to fix the mess that was left to him by his predecessor and take us "off a permanent war footing."
If you haven't already, I highly recommend that you listen to/read President Obama's interview with NPR just after his speech at West Point. Here's how he summarized all this:
...I want to make sure that when I turn the keys over to the next president, that they have the ability, that he or she has the capacity to — to make some decisions with a relatively clean slate...The President has often talked about the slow but steady progress of righting this huge ship of state. He's determined to have it back on course by the time he's done.
You know, these are all parts of what I consider a — a major piece of business during my presidency, which is recognizing we've got very real threats out there and we can't be naive about protecting ourselves from those threats. At times we're going to have to take very tough actions to make sure that our people, our children are protected, but that there's a way of doing it that comports with our laws, our values, our ideals, that gains legitimacy around the world and that is therefore sustainable...
And, you know, we're not done yet, but we've made enormous progress...I'm confident that by the time I'm leaving the presidency, the next president will still have some tough choices to make, but I think they'll have a basis for making them that is consistent with our best traditions.