By Jim Gourley
Best Defense department
of getting real, people.
Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl was barely repatriated to
American forces by his Afghan captors before Republicans began implying
President Barack Obama had made a drastic policy error in the negotiation process. By
granting the release of five prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay in exchange for
Bergdahl, they argued, the President sent a message to terrorists around the
world that there was much to be gained by abducting U.S. service members.
What the critics forget is that the case of Bergdahl
is hardly the genesis of that message. If anything, it is the culmination. For
decades, and especially during the most recent conflicts in Iraq and
Afghanistan, America and its allies have negotiated extensively with groups
colloquially referred to (though not necessarily legally defined, as in the
case of the Taliban and its allies in the Haqqani Network) as terrorists.
According to the available information, hostage
settlements amongst various entities during Operation Iraqi Freedom netted
approximately $46.5 million, the withdrawal of one country from the conflict
(the 51-man contingent sent by the Philippines), the release of four Iraqi
prisoners and one
notorious leader of Iranian Special Groups operating in Iraq.
Afghan groups have arguably been much less successful, netting only $20.6
million (if Taliban
reports about the South Korean hostage deal are to be
believed) and the Guantanamo detachment. Between 2011 and 2012, Somali pirate
hostage-taking operations raked in more than $191 million. If we had a nickle
for every time a politician or pundit said "we don't negotiate with
terrorists," we still wouldn't have as much money as we've given to
terrorists in those three countries between 2001 and today.
There are other discomforting anecdotes challenging
such universal and absolute notions regarding negotiating with terrorists. Even
though Israel cited its refusal to deal with Hamas among its reasons to halt
this year's peace talks with Palestine, it did negotiate directly with the
organization it has called a terrorist group for the 2011 release of Corporal
Gilad Shalit. Israel finally agreed to release 1,027 prisoners to get Shalit
back. Perhaps the most disagreeable case in recent memory is Scotland's release
of Abdelbeset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi. Under investigative pressure from both the
U.S. and U.K., British Petroleum ultimately admitted that it had tried to
influence the terms of prisoner exchanges between Scotland and Libya in order
to gain access to large fields off the latter's coast. It was implied that al
Megrahi was the cherry on top of the offer that closed the deal.
It is therefore very difficult to understand any of
the comments made by either the administration's critics or defenders regarding
the Bergdahl negotiation over the weekend. Susan Rice explained that,
"Sergeant Bergdahl wasn't simply a hostage, he was an American prisoner of
war, captured on the battlefield." This distinction hardly seems to matter
in light of the above illustrations, and certainly not against the arguments
levied against the White House. As House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike
Rogers explained, the reason he is "extremely troubled" is the nature
of the people we negotiated with rather than the person we negotiated for.
Things get very murky on this point. As early as 2002, the White House made
distinctions between the Taliban and al Qaeda something of a political
Schrödinger's Cat. The Taliban were a nominally organized governmental and
military apparatus engaged in a civil conflict within the polity of
Afghanistan, which was a Geneva Convention signatory. Al Qaeda was a stateless
terrorist group and could not claim rights under the Geneva Convention.
President Bush thus made
the decision that the Geneva Convention applied to captured
Taliban fighters, but not to members of al Qaeda. However, it was explicitly
stated in the same briefing that Taliban prisoners in Guantanamo Bay would be
treated the same as al Qaeda members. So the Taliban were not terrorists, and
would receive recognition denied to terrorists, yet still treated the same as
terrorists. This may somehow serve as the foundation for Defense Secretary
Chuck Hagel's response to GOP criticisms, as he told David Gregory: "First
of all, we didn't negotiate with terrorists. As I said and explained before,
Sergeant Bergdahl is a prisoner of war. That's a normal process in getting your
prisoners back. Second, as to your bigger question, we are dealing with
terrorism and hostage-taking all the time everywhere. I think America's record
is pretty clear on going after terrorists, especially those who take hostages.
And I don't think anything we did in getting our prisoner of war released in
any way would somehow encourage terrorists to take any of our American service
men prisoner or hostage."
So, there are terrorists out there, and they do
take hostages, and we don't negotiate with them. But the Taliban aren't
terrorists, even though we treat them just like terrorists... except in cases
when we negotiate with them. If this debate continues, we may just see the
development of a new metric for the "terroristness" of different
groups. Those who are certified less than 50% terrorist can be negotiated with.
The prize for silliest comments goes to Senator Ted
Cruz, who first quipped at the
Republican Leadership Conference on Saturday that "if there is one person
on earth thrilled about the job President Obama is doing, it's Jimmy
Carter," then went on Sunday to ask George Stephanopoulos, "And the
question going forward is, have we just put a price on other U.S. soldiers?
What does this tell terrorists, that if you capture a U.S. soldier, you can
trade that soldier for five terrorists we've gone after?" It's for this
reason that Cruz advocated making attempts to recover Bergdahl with military
It's hard to know what to make of Cruz's comments,
since it was Carter who authorized the ill-fated Special Operations mission to
attempt to free the Iranian hostages in 1979 and Cruz's hero Reagan who
approved the transfer of weapons to Iran to secure the release of seven
Americans held by Lebanese terrorists. All things considered, this is one of
the President's more successful moments as a commander in chief. Negotiating
with terrorists is more effective than hash-tagging
at them and it's arguable that five guys from Gitmo to get
Bergdahl out of Afghanistan is a heck of a bargain compared to what we're going
to have to spend to find VA administrators who won't kill him once he's back in
the United States.
At the very least, history says that we're not
telling groups-- terrorist or otherwise-- who hold people captive anything new.
Parsing through all the commentary, it seems reasonable to suggest that the
only people who genuinely know and understand the history of hostage/POW
negotiations are the terrorists/fighters/insurgents. Our own officials debate
points that have long been rendered moot. Everyone in the world has at some
point in history negotiated with actors that engage in terrorist activity. The
United States should have accepted a future in which it would have to negotiate
with terrorist groups the moment it declared a war against them. We were never
going to kill all the terrorists. We certainly weren't going to scour the notion
of terrorism from the face of the earth. This conflict was always going to end
with some kind of settlement. Our resistance to that idea may have been partly
to blame for the long delay in Bergdahl's repatriation. It is certainly one of
the greatest obstacles we created for ourselves in securing better ends to our
occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.
If we continue to refuse acknowledging that we live
in a world where everyone else negotiates, we hobble ourselves in trying to
realistically approach the next conflict.
via Wikimedia Commons