Why the Bowe Bergdahl Deal is a Disaster for Travelers

Paula Froelich
Editor at Large
A memorial for Bergdahl
A memorial for Bergdahl

A memorial marks his Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s homecoming. (Photo: AP)

Let me get one thing straight before I go any further: I am glad Bowe Bergdahl is home. I am a firm believer in “Leave No Man Behind.” I added my voice via social media to the campaign for his release for years. I am, however, not happy about how it came about and what it means for millions of Americans who travel abroad every year (not to mention the position it puts the members of our armed forces in).

On June 9, the United States government traded five high-risk Taliban prisoners in exchange for Bergdahl. 

Watch: Bowe Bergdahl’s Handoff

This was huge news for many reasons. The Sun Valley, Idaho, native had been held by the Taliban in Afghanistan and the tribal region of Pakistan for five years and, despite efforts, had remained a Prisoner of War. But the bigger news was: The United States had negotiated with terrorists — breaking a longtime tradition of never entering into trade type talks with thugs. 

This is a big deal, people. And it affects all of us with a passport. 

Related: Visiting the Gone-but-Not-Forgotten Syria

In 2012, I took a boat up the Niger River in Mali to Timbuktu, to attend the Essakane Music Festival (also known as the Festival Au Desert). 

On the morning of January 13, the second day of the Festival, Tuareg chiefs and government ministers convened for a conference on security in Northern Mali — ironic, as just six weeks earlier four tourists had been kidnapped, one killed, in broad daylight from Timbuktu by al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb (AQIM). According to eyewitnesses in Timbuktu, it took local police four hours to respond to the scene, a mere half hour walking distance away.

The conference, held in a tent in the sand dunes, was a recipe for disaster. Well-dressed government ministers delivered the final insult by insisting on speaking in French and English — languages not native to the area.

One Tuareg chief was incensed and verbally accosted the government speakers.

According to Mohammed, an Algerian who looked like a young Fidel Castro and spoke Tamashek, Arabic, French and English, the Tuareg chief stood and shouted (in Tamashek), “You come to our part of the country for a festival celebrating our culture and you don’t even have the decency to speak our language. You have done nothing for us since the ceasefire!”

The government ministers gestured for security and a fight ensued. The chief warned, “We are going back to arms.”

As the chief was escorted out of the tent by armed guards he yelled at fellow Tuareg, “Who is with me?” prompting a majority of the tribal leaders to stand up and follow him out of the tent in ominous silence. 

Concerned, I mentioned leaving (I think my exact words were “I’m getting the hell out of here”), to which a Tuareg said, “No. Our fight is not with you — it is with the government,” he said. “And anyway, Americans are too much trouble. You don’t negotiate. It would cost us more to keep you alive — and for what? Now those Irish guys in your group… That government negotiates.” He was joking. I think.

And now, we are negotiable. Any Tom, Dick or psycho Harry in countries with tenuous grips on their government now pose an even larger threat than before.

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“But what about those of us who don’t travel to ‘crazy’ places?” you may ask. It still affects you. 

Take “safe” countries like Turkey — which lies on the edge of Syria.

The border towns of Turkey are porous and well-known smugglers havens.  Because kidnapping is huge business. According to the Institute for Security Studies, AQIM has garnered over $45 million in the last three years.  But they don’t just want money anymore — anyone can give them money — they want a prisoner exchange, Israeli/Palestinian style. And by that I mean one man for sometimes thousands of others. Take the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange. Shalit was captured by Palestinian militants near the Gaza strip in 2006. Five years later, he was handed over in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian and Arab-Israeli prisoners. And think you’re still safe because you travel close to home? Mexico is named the country you’re most likely to get kidnapped in

The Bergdahl Exchange may have been one for five, but those five are said to be the deadliest men. We aren’t too much trouble now. We are currency. And that is a damn shame.

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