Recently, I asked the U.S. Senate to vote on a straightforward resolution that asks some very simple questions—why did President Obama release five top Taliban leaders from Guantanamo Bay without consulting Congress as required by law, and what steps has the Administration taken to ensure that released detainees do not return to the battlefield to threaten American lives? Unfortunately, the Senate leadership blocked this resolution.
Even in a divided Washington, this should be an issue we can agree on. Not a year ago, in two different pieces of legislation—the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act and the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014—leaders from both parties came together to include a requirement that the President consult with Congress before releasing Guantanamo detainees. On this issue, we spoke with one voice.
And yet, the President ignored that clear legal requirement. He ignored the law. Now many are asking whether his decision to do so will endanger more American lives.
In a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee I attended in 2012, the President’s Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, repeated a 2010 Administration assessment that these same five Taliban leaders posed a high risk of returning to the fight. Director Clapper was clear, saying, “I do not think anyone harbors any illusions about these five Taliban members and what they might do if they were transferred.” The latest intelligence assessment is that four out of five of these men are all but certain to return to the battlefield in Afghanistan, where they will rejoin the fight against the thirty thousand American service personnel still engaged against Taliban forces.
We must not be blind to the fact that the Taliban aims to regain as much power as they can in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That means a return to oppression, human rights abuses, the suppression of women’s rights, and most importantly, the complicit harboring of their ally, al Qaeda. We have just returned to them a leadership team to help achieve that aim.
I think it’s useful to remember why we went to Afghanistan in the first place. Before September 11, under Taliban rule, the country had become a haven for al-Qaeda, a power base for Osama bin Laden, and a place from which to plan and launch attacks against the United States and our allies. We went to Afghanistan to seek justice for those who died on September 11, but we also went to remove the Taliban from power, free the Afghan people, and ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a base for terrorist activity.
When the war in Afghanistan does end, we need to ensure that it ends with sustainable victory, not future defeat. The deteriorating situation in Iraq demonstrates what can happen when we rush to the exits.
Today, the black flag of radical Islam flies over the second largest city in Iraq, and armed militants are advancing on Baghdad. Proclaiming victory in Iraq did not make it so. Many in the Senate made clear that if we failed to maintain appropriate forces in Iraq to help the government transition and establish its authority, the long-term stability of Iraq would be open to threats by radical groups. President Obama did not heed those warnings, and unfortunately, we are seeing those predictions come true.
Whatever we do in Afghanistan, we must learn the lessons of Iraq. The decision to release high-ranking members of the Taliban—while the fight against the Taliban continues—has shaken the trust of the American and Afghan people and opens the frightening possibility that what we are seeing today in Iraq may be a foreshadowing of Afghanistan’s future.
Congress has a responsibility to go on record defending two laws it passed, a responsibility to get to the bottom of how this release of hardened Taliban operatives could happen, and a responsibility to ensure this kind of transfer does not happen again. Although Democratic Senate Leaders blocked my resolution earlier this week, I hope they will reconsider. The stakes are simply too high to do otherwise.
Rob Portman is a United States Senator from Ohio.