Atlantic Editor: Taliban Five Just ‘Paper Pushers’; Gitmo Detainees ‘Political Prisoners’

Appearing on MSNBC’s The Rundown on Monday, The Atlantic’s Washington editor-at-large Steve Clemons dismissed criticism of the Obama administration trading five Taliban prisoners for Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl: “Well, look, I think we need to turn this on its head. There's been a lot of conventional reporting about the Taliban Five....These are important people, but they were largely paper pushers.”

Host Jose Diaz-Balart countered: “But these guys are clearly not Sisters of Charity workers.” Clemons replied: “No, absolutely not. And we shouldn’t be disillusioned about it, they are affiliated with the Taliban. But in today's world, the Taliban is not Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda is not ISIS. So the Taliban is going to be a feature of Afghan politics well into the future.”

Clemons then proclaimed: “But that's part of the uncomfortable not-discussed-enough part of some of the Guantanamo prisoners, is that they’re political prisoners as much as they are military or national security holds for us.”

After Diaz-Balart noted Bergdahl being charged with desertion, Clemons acknowledged: “Well, clearly, the United States should have not done a high-five that we got Bowe Bergdahl out....we celebrated him as a national hero, we celebrated him in ways that I thought were inappropriate.”

However, Clemons concluded the exchange by continuing to push the notion that releasing the Taliban terrorists was no big deal: “...my sense is covertly we needed to move these Taliban Five regardless of whether Bowe Bergdahl was the excuse. It's an incorrect assessment to think that we gave up something great that we wanted to keep to get Bergdahl back.”

Here is a full transcript of the June 1 segment:

10:15 AM ET

JIM SCIUTTO [HOST, CNN’S STATE OF THE UNION]: Do you have any concerns about the deal that was made a year ago to trade these five senior Taliban leaders for his freedom?

GEN. STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL [U.S. ARMY (RET.)]: Well, I think if you look going forward, getting back an American soldier was important, particularly until he is adjudicated, it's impossible to say what the cause was. So it's important to get him back. I think now we’ve got to move forward, we gotta decide what we deal with. The five that are back, presumably, they'll go back to the battlefield, but they won't change the dynamics, it’s not going to change the balance of effort, they’re five guys, but it's just something we've got to watch.

JOSE DIAZ-BALART: I'm not understanding that answer very well. But that was four-star General Stanley McChrystal, former U.S. commander in Afghanistan, speaking Sunday morning about the so-called Taliban Five, the former Guantanamo Bay prisoners exchanged for Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. He spoke before the travel ban for those Taliban members was extended. Both American and Afghan officials have expressed concerns about the former prisoners returning to the battlefield.

And we just got some developing news from elsewhere in the Mideast, reports that an ISIS suicide attack killed 38 policemen south of the Iraqi city of Samarra.

Steve Clemons is an MSNBC contributor and Washington editor-at-large for The Atlantic. Steve, what a pleasure to see you.

STEVE CLEMONS [THE ATLANTIC]: Good morning, Jose. I wish I were with you in Miami.

DIAZ-BALART: Yeah, I know. Doesn't everybody? But first of all, how long do you think we can get Qatar to keep this travel ban in place?

CLEMONS: Well, look, I think we need to turn this on its head. There's been a lot of conventional reporting about the Taliban Five. I think Qatar will play along with us and extend the ban as long as we’d like but they won't offer other things we’ve asked for, which is more surveillance, more scrutiny, and kind of, you know, more intense coverage of these five people.

The way we need to turn this on its head is to understand that what is going on here, as Stanley McChrystal and others are looking at this as if these were high-value people that we traded to get back a prisoner. These are high-value people in terms of what is going on inside Afghanistan right now with a potential rapprochement or deal between the Taliban and Ashraf Ghani’s government. These were never, to contradict Stanley McChrystal, these were never people that were in the field. This was a former minister of the interior, a former deputy director of intelligence, a former governor. These are important people, but they were largely paper pushers. And there’s no deal that can be done in Afghanistan with the guy we support, Ashraf Ghani, and the Taliban as long as we held them in Guantanamo. So we got rid of them and we would have found another excuse beyond Bowe Bergdahl, had he not been convenient.

DIAZ-BALART: But these guys are clearly not Sisters of Charity workers.

CLEMONS: No, absolutely not. And we shouldn’t be disillusioned about it, they are affiliated with the Taliban. But in today's world, the Taliban is not Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda is not ISIS. So the Taliban is going to be a feature of Afghan politics well into the future. And so they may play along and they may not. They may come in and try to destabilize Ashraf Ghani or they may consent and concede to be part of a government in the future. But that's part of the uncomfortable not-discussed-enough part of some of the Guantanamo prisoners, is that they’re political prisoners as much as they are military or national security holds for us.

DIAZ-BALART: Steve, meanwhile, Bowe Bergdahl faces desertion charges and goes to court next month. How you see that? I mean is there anything that the United States, in hindsight, should have done differently in this case?

CLEMONS: Well, clearly, the United States should have not done a high-five that we got Bowe Bergdahl out. I mean, I think that it’s correct that whether he was a deserter or not, the United States, until it determines that, does everything it can to bring its people home. And I think that’s legitimate. But we celebrated him as a national hero, we celebrated him in ways that I thought were inappropriate.

And as I just said, my sense is covertly we needed to move these Taliban Five regardless of whether Bowe Bergdahl was the excuse. It's an incorrect assessment to think that we gave up something great that we wanted to keep to get Bergdahl back. But the high-fiving, the kind of celebratory nature of getting Bergdahl back now looks like it was a mistake given some of the charges that are gonna be filed on – the preliminary hearing will be in San Antonio on July 8th. And so we'll learn a lot more then.

DIAZ-BALART: Steve Clemons, thank you for being with me.

CLEMONS: Thank you.

DIAZ-BALART: Appreciate it.

NB Daily Foreign Policy Afghanistan Guantanamo Bay War on Terrorism Taliban MSNBC Atlantic Video Steve Clemons Bowe Bergdahl Jose Diaz-Balart

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