Saving Sgt. Bergdahl

June 5, 2014 by  

Saving Sgt. Bergdahl, Like many of the issues posed by America’s post-9/11 “global war on terror,” the controversy over the exchange of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban leaders held at Guantanamo Bay arises from murky ground where war and t*rror*sm conflate. Even the clash of underlying principles underscores the point: The policy of not negotiating with terrorists was established during the United States’ decades-long battle against terrorist groups, while the credo that no soldier is left behind underpins the U.S. military’s wartime ethos. Neither principle is sacrosanct, nor easy to fully honor in the current hybrid war with al-Qaida and its affiliates.

While the Taliban certainly employs terrorist tactics and has close ties to al-Qaida, for instance, it also represents a brutal former regime that ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s before U.S. and Northern Alliance forces toppled it from power in 2001. All five of the Taliban leaders that the Obama administration recently transferred to Qatar in exchange for Bergdahl were former senior Taliban government officials, including an interior minister, an army chief, a deputy intelligence chief, and a provincial governor. After their capture in 2001-02, the Taliban-in-exile morphed into a brutal insurgency, which U.S.-led military forces have fought in a bloody decade of war. As it prepares to pull the last U.S. combat forces from Afghanistan later this year, the Obama administration has already transferred many Taliban prisoners with the blood of coalition forces on their hands to Afghan authorities, who have released them despite Washington’s strenuous objections. The same thing happened when U.S. forces transferred Iraqi prisoners to the Baghdad authorities before leaving in 2011.

In recent years, U.S. officials have also negotiated extensively with Taliban counterparts, trying to find a political deal to end the conflict, including by dangling the prospect of prisoner releases from the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. Presumably in anticipation of the need to ultimately negotiate terms for ending the war, both the Bush and Obama administrations declined to put the Afghan Taliban on the State Department’s list of officially designated terrorist groups. (It is on the Treasury Department’s list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists.)

“That meant the Obama administration could release some of these Taliban prisoners without technically violating the principle of making concessions to terrorists, because we remain in this curious gray area where those Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo are not convicted terrorists but `enemy combatants,'” said Brian Michael Jenkins, a long-time countert*rror*sm expert and senior adviser to the president of the Rand Corporation think tank. “That’s useful, because [former President Richard] Nixon sealed that principle of not negotiating with terrorists in blood.”

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