Islamist extremists capture a young Westerner, holding him hostage for years. To secure the young man’s release — and his life — the United States sets free a militant responsible for the deaths of American citizens in the Middle East.
If this sketch is ringing a bell, think again. We’re not talking about Bowe Bergdahl, the American soldier released in exchange for five Taliban fighters held at the Guantanamo Bay prison. We’re talking about Peter Moore, a British civilian held hostage and released by Iraqi militants after American authorities agreed to set free Qais al-Khazali, a former spokesman for influential Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Moore was kidnapped in Baghdad after he and his bodyguards were ambushed by Shiite militiamen in 2007. Khazali was implicated in the killing of five American soldiers in Karbala. By January 2010, both Khazali and Moore walked free.
The criticism of and handwringing over the Bergdahl swap was almost immediate. A constant refrain: the United States doesn’t negotiate with terrorists. But that is more Hollywood than history. The Khazali-Moore swap is only a recent — and obscure — example. Probably the best known was the Iran-Contra affair, in which the Reagan administration sold missiles to Tehran to secure the partial release of American hostages held in Lebanon.
Other deals have been less explicit. In 1985, Israel released about 700 prisoners — with tacit American approval — in what Robert Oakley, a former State Department counterterrorism coordinator, described to PBS as a "quid pro quo" for the freedom of Americans held hostage on a hijacked TWA flight. Wary of public perception, the Reagan administration allowed Israel to claim that the prisoner release was pre-planned — and independent of any terrorist pressure — instead of formally requesting a swap.
But negotiations aren’t always about individual prisoner exchanges; they can be integral components of broader peace processes. The list of case studies from U.S. allies is long. Israel’s 2011 exchange of 1,027 Palestinians for Gilad Shalit opened the door to later peace talks. In July 2013, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greenlighted prisoner exchanges seen as a prerequisite for the most recent — and rapidly collapsing — round of peace talks. Spain’s willingness to negotiate with the Basque separatist group ETA in 1989 set the precedent for final peace talks in 2011. Perhaps most famously, the British government sat down with the Irish Republican Army to negotiate an end to "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland.
Such negotiations can be painful. Netanyahu described the release of 104 Palestinian prisoners prior to the 2013 peace talks as "incomparably difficult." And they don’t always work. The Galit exchange and the 1989 talks between ETA and Madrid were both followed by renewed violence.
Saturday’s prisoner exchange with the Taliban was not meant simply to bring Bergdahl home. The swap was initially developed in 2011 as a confidence-building measure aimed at encouraging broader talks with the Taliban. Since Bergdahl’s release, administration officials and the Taliban have poured cold water on the notion that the swap could signal an opening toward more substantive peace talks between the two.
But Bergdahl’s release at least demonstrates that small-scale negotiations are feasible — and that the Taliban’s representatives in Qatar are legitimately connected to its forces in Afghanistan.