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 terrorism 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 counterterrorism 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.”
Indeed, Nixon originally established the principle of non-negotiation with terrorists in 1973 after U.S. Ambassador to Sudan Cleo Noel Jr. and charge d’affaires Curtis Moore were among 10 diplomats taken hostage in Khartoum by the Palestinian terrorist group Black September. Nixon refused to negotiate and insisted that “no concessions” would be made to terrorist blackmail. In response, the Palestinian terrorists murdered the two American diplomats and another Western hostage.
Even Nixon’s tough policy of non-negotiation, however, failed to deter hostage taking by terrorists. When Iranian militants took hostage 52 Americans at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979, President Jimmy Carter’s administration engaged in months of difficult negotiations seeking their release, but Carter refused the Iranian demand for the return of the deposed Shah of Iran. Operation Eagle Claw, launched to rescue the hostages, ended in ignoble failure and the death of eight U.S. service members in the Iranian desert, the lowest point of the Carter presidency.
When Libyan agents bombed a disco in Berlin frequented by U.S. service members in 1986, President Ronald Reagan ordered a U.S. military airstrike on Tripoli. Was that an act of war or counterterrorism? For its part, the Reagan administration not only negotiated with representatives of the Hezbollah terrorist group in the mid-1980s for the release of seven U.S. hostages, but it also arranged to trade arms to the Iranians for their release, a deal that led to the Iran-Contra scandal that nearly brought down his administration.
While deeply engrained in the fighting ethos of the U.S. military, in practice the principle that no soldier is left behind also comes with caveats. “Leaving no man behind means we will never give up looking for and trying to bring home a fellow soldier. It does not mean we will launch a suicide mission likely to get a lot of other soldiers killed to retrieve one of our own, or trade a bunch of enemy prisoners who might rejoin the fight and create incentives to take other soldiers hostage,” said a retired general with multiple combat deployments. “Once again the problem is that prisoner exchanges historically have come after armistices are signed and peace is declared. But this is a conflict like none other in our history, and no one believes that hostilities are about to end.”
In the end no set of principles, no matter how noble or worthy, can spare a commander in chief from agonizing decisions in the often ambiguous fight against terrorism. With U.S. combat forces leaving Afghanistan, U.S. leverage on the wane, and Sgt. Bergdahl’s health apparently declining, the administration made the call to reinforce the principle that no soldier is left behind, at the cost of freeing five very dangerous men who are supposed to remain in Qatar and away from the battlefield for at least one year. Now everyone will have to live with the consequences.
“With the window for reaching a deal rapidly closing, the Obama administration reasonably decided to stay true to the credo of ‘no man left behind,’ which is important enough that the Israelis have freed hundreds of prisoners they consider terrorists just to retrieve the body of a fallen Israeli soldier,” said Bruce Hoffman, a counterterrorism expert and director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. “No one likes to talk about it, but the alternative to bringing Bergdahl home may have been watching another snuff film of an American being beheaded for jihadist propaganda.”