Let me run through the facts of the situation, then do some rudimentary analysis. On the last day of June in 2009, a US Army Sergeant named Bowe Bergdahl was abducted off a military base where he was serving in Afghanistan (Editor’s note: This much is corroborated by the US Department of Defense, though there are others who dispute the military’s account). The Taliban had taken him as a Prisoner of War and held him indefinitely. Over the next five years, Bergdahl was held prisoner by the Taliban in deplorable conditions, the details of which have still yet to fully be released to the public. He attempted to escape his captors thrice, but always to no avail; he was dragged back to his prison.
A few days ago, Bergdahl was released by the Taliban in exchange for five of their especially heinous prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. The five Taliban prisoners –called the “worst of the worst”– have been transferred into Qatari custody, where they will remain for at least a year. After that time, I presume they will be returned to Afghanistan. Since President Barack Obama’s administration personally negotiated for this prisoner-swap, the deal resulted in all of the vitriolic hatred one would expect from Republicans and conservatives. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the Republican nominee for President in 2008, alleged these prisoners were “responsible for 9/11” and that Obama had come perilously close to treason. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a prominent Republican on the Senate Armed Forces Committee, has asked for a Congressional investigation.
The obsession with the identity of these prisoners is a bit beside the point, though. However, as long as we’re on the topic, the notion that Obama somehow erred significantly in making this decision is patently ludicrous. As The Week reports, rules adopted during the Bush administration would have likely been released next year at latest anyways. You see, in order to avoid trial and due process in the United States, the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, such as the Taliban 5, are considered active belligerents in an ongoing conflict. While the phrase “enemy combatant” was used under the Bush administration, it has fallen out of use with the current administration. Either way, if you are not to be tried for war crimes, you have to be returned at the end of the war. You cannot just hold people perpetually without charging them with a crime.
But this is all irrelevant to the larger point, in my opinion. Republican opposition to Obama has centered on the oft-repeated cliche “We do not negotiate with terrorist,” this being supposed evidence that the President has sullied his commitment to both the military and the American people. However, simply repeating sound bites is not sufficient for examining the complex nuances of this situation.
The idea of not negotiating with terrorists is long-held convention of not only the United States, but most Western nations such as Israel or those in Europe. However, when used in this context, “terrorist” is a descriptor for the current actions of the perpetrators, not their past allegiances. For example, in 1976, Palestinian terrorists hijacked an Israeli airliner, diverting the plane to Ethiopia. The group, the PFLP, demanded the release of some of the most violent of their compatriots from Israeli prisons or threatened to kill every last Jewish passenger on the plane. Israel’s government sternly rebuffed the offer, explaining they did not negotiate with terrorists, and the rest is history. A military operation by the Mossad freed the hostages and killed the terrorists, exemplifying this pledge.
But Israel, if the example is to be taken to its logical conclusion, is renowned for other generous prisoner swaps. When their most famous POW, Gilad Shalit, was released from the custody of Hamas (a group recognized as terrorists by the United States), 1027 prisoners were released. And this does not even account for those released in exchange for videos to prove Shalit’s continued survival during his five year abduction, from 2006 to 2011.
So what gives about this apparent non sequitur on the part of the Israelis? The rationale is actually quite simple. Hamas was not making specific demands in the short-term, and was not immediately threatening to kill their prisoner. They simply held him, just as Israel held their prisoners (Granted, the Israelis use due process and trials). A negotiation with terrorists did not occur, per se, so much as a negotiation with a wartime enemy.
Once one accepts that the United States did not “negotiate with terrorists,” but rather made exchanges with a group they are at war with, the rationale becomes much easier to understand. The Taliban did not demand the release of those five prisoners or otherwise threaten the murder of Bergdahl.
Just as members of our military write a blank cheque to our country, up to including their lives, the country owes something to them in return. We pledge to all those in our armed services that we will bring them home, all of them. Whether that be in a casket or alive, we make a solemn promise that everyone comes home, no matter the price. How dare those rancorous partisan hacks criticize our military and the brave souls who make it up. I, for one, am happy to see one more person coming home from war.