By Brigitte L. Nacos
It is hardly surprising that the one-for-five prisoner swap that freed US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from his captivity in the Pakistani-Afghan border region and five high-ranking Taliban officials from the American detention facility at Guantanamo has led to another clash between President Obama and his detractors in the Congress and elsewhere. For the extreme right, as expressed on a number of web sites, the deal with the Taliban amounts to another act of “treason” on the part of what these circles have long attacked as an illegitimate president.
While the official line of Washington since the Nixon presidency has been that “we do not negotiate with terrorists,” this position has been abandoned repeatedly with the objective to free American hostages.
This was the case during the Iranian Hostage Crisis that lasted 444 days and was finally resolved through negotiations. With Algerian officials acting as go-betweens between the US and Iranian governments, the release of the American hostages was achieved in exchange for the release of large sums of Iranian assets that had been frozen in American banks since the early days of the hostage crisis.
Far more violations of the "no negotiations with terrorists" policy happened during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and H.W. Bush in the 1980s.
Although President Reagan had come to office with the warning that terrorist violence would result in swift and effective retribution, he decided otherwise, when a Hezbollah group hijacked TWA Flight 847 in 1985, killing a young US Navy diver, and eventually holding more than fifty Americans in and around Beirut. When the hostage-takers asked for the release of hundreds of Lebanese prisoners from Israeli prisons, the Reagan administration looked to Israel for working this out. With the excuse that the release of more than 700 Lebanese prisoners had already been decided, the hostage-prisoner swap was smoothly carried out.
And then there was, of course, the secret arms-for-hostages deal negotiated by Reagan’s emissaries and their Iranian counterparts that sent mostly spare parts for military equipment to Iran in exchange for the release of hostages by Hezbollah. Starting point was Hezbollah’s kidnapping of foreigners in Lebanon, among them 25 Americans. Two of those, William Buckley, CIA station chief, and William Higgins, a US Marine colonel, were brutally killed by their captors, several hostages managed to escape.
Tehran, after much delay, finally got Hezbollah to free two American hostages. But soon thereafter, two other Americans were kidnapped by the same terrorist gang.
The long Lebanon hostage crises was finally resolved on President Herbert Walker Bush’s watch, when Terry Anderson, the last American hostage, was released after Israel agreed to free Lebanese prisoners. Moreover, Hezbollah received a hefty sum of money from Iran when the Tehran government got as part of the final deal more of its frozen assets from US banks.
We have seen it all. Negotiations. Deals that exchanged victims of terrorists for imprisoned terrorists. Ransom payments.
So, the latest swap of Sgt. Bergdahl for five Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo Bay is nothing new.
Indeed, the one-for-five swap was a modest ratio compared to other deals. The probably most uneven one was struck between Israel and Hamas that freed one member of the Israeli Defense Forces, Gilad Shalit, after 5 years of captivity in 2011. To win the release of Shalit, Israel freed 1,027 prisoners—almost all of them Palestinians plus a few other Arab nationals, 280 of which had been sentenced for life for terrorist attacks in which more than 500 Israelis were killed.
In spite of those precedents, I have grave reservations against the latest swap. But not because the president did not involve the Congress; these sorts of initiatives work only if kept secret; after all, there were and are opponents of any deals between the US and the Taliban. I am critical because paying ransom or negotiating prisoner exchanges encourages terrorists to grab more hostages for more such deals. On this point, I agree with President Obama's critics.
We have seen this in the past, for example, in Lebanon and Colombia. We see it now again and again in Africa, where Islamists kidnap for ransom money and/or the release of imprisoned comrades.
And chances are that we will see more of this in Afghanistan and/or Pakistan with American victims.
Of course, one sympathizes with the parents of a son held hostage for years who was in declining health according to propaganda videos released by his captors.
Yet, rereading Michael Hastings’ 2012 story about Sgt. Bergdahl in Rolling Stone Magazine, one wonders about the circumstances of his reported walking away from his unit’s post and his capture by the Taliban. One wonders why he forgot to speak English, his native tongue. And one wonders about his father’s shaggy beard that looks just like the beards of his son’s captors. I, too, would have appealed to those religious fanatics if they had held a member of my family. But embracing their appearance code, say, by wearing a burqa? I don’t think so.