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U.S.-Taliban prisoner swap: Five points the critics are ignoring

by Stephen Saideman

Globe and Mail
June 4, 2014

The latest controversy in U.S. politics is over the trade of five Guantanamo detainees for one American soldier – Bowe Bergdahl. The strange thing about this is how ordinary it is: swapping prisoners is normal in war, even in unconventional wars. So, what is really going on here? Mostly, it is about blame-casting – criticizing the Barack Obama administration no matter what it does. The best illustration of this is John McCain, who is currently blasting President Obama for this trade after advocating it a few months ago. So, what is going on here?

First, there is the concern that the five released Taliban leaders will go back into the fight. Sure, that is a concern but thus far the reports indicate that 29 per cent of the people released from Guantanamo join the Taliban again and engage the U.S. and its allies in combat. Is that high or low? It is a mighty low number. How so? Well, in the U.S., roughly two-thirds of the people released from prison are picked up for crimes within three years. So, I do not want to say that there is much rehabilitation going on in Gitmo, but that we need to be clear that it is unrealistic to expect a recidivism rate of 0 per cent. If we understand that, then 29 per cent does not look so bad. Even if the numbers are off somewhat, we need to think seriously about what these five guys would mean to the war effort. Would they turn the tide of the war? Well, since the U.S. and its allies are leaving in 2016 – with most out by the end of this year – this particular pebble is not going to make big waves when compared to the other dynamics in the Afghan war.

The second confusion is about whether the U.S. in this case negotiated with terrorists. Well, sort of. That is, the Taliban are not coded as terrorists by the U.S. since they are not attacking U.S. interests outside of the civil war in Afghanistan (and it is a civil war – outside actors involved just makes it an ordinary civil war). The more important thing is this: The U.S. and its friends have often bargained with terrorists. Jimmy Carter bargained with the people holding American hostages in Iran, who agreed to let them go as soon as Mr. Carter was no longer president. Ronald Reagan bargained with those holding hostages in Lebanon in exchange for arms being sent to Iran. Israel swaps prisoners all the time, often hundreds of Palestinians for a handful of Israelis. If the bad guys have something you want, either you take it or you bargain for it.

Third, will this encourage more kidnapping of American prisoners? Probably not, since the U.S. has already shown a great interest in getting its folks back. More importantly, the Taliban and its ilk already have plenty of incentives to take U.S. soldiers hostage for the propaganda gains. It is not the lack of willingness that accounts for how few prisoners of war are taken by the opposing side these days, but opportunities. Pilots are not getting shot down, unlike in the Second World War and Vietnam. Battles are smaller, so the Americans, or whoever, are not being surrounded, and so on. But any insurgency would seek to capture troops from their adversary – this event is not going to set any significant precedents that will change behavior down the line.

Fourth, Mr. Bergdahl is especially controversial since he seems to have wandered off his post. Maybe. But in the past, we did not investigate the worthiness of who we sought back in a trade of prisoners, such as during the swaps at the end stages of Vietnam (Mr. McCain), so it is not clear we should be doing so now.

Finally, Mr. Obama may have exceeded his authority since Congress has passed restrictions on Gitmo prisoner releases. This is the one issue that is really legitimate in terms of qualms. Of course, the fact that Congress is micro-managing Gitmo is bad, but bad laws need to be obeyed until the courts rule or Congress changes its collective mind. Mr. Obama says he issued a signing statement for just such a possibility. This made him a hypocrite since he opposed such weaseling efforts before he was President, but also makes the GOP in Congress hypocrites for not minding George W. Bush’s abuse of this.

The reality is this: the actual swap is quite normal business-as-usual in the end stages of a war/intervention. It just gives the opponents of the President a chance to blast him for being weak in foreign policy. There are good reasons to criticize Mr. Obama for his handling of the Afghanistan war and for his foreign policies, but this event really is not one of them.

Stephen Saideman is the Paterson Chair in international affairs at Carleton University and a CDFAI fellow.


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