Best Defense

It’s time to recognize that we negotiate with terrorists, just like everyone else does

By Jim Gourley Best Defense department of getting real, people. Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl was barely repatriated to American forces by his Afghan captors before Republicans began implying President Barack Obama had made a drastic policy error in the negotiation process. By granting the release of five prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Bergdahl, ...

via Wikimedia Commons
via Wikimedia Commons

By Jim Gourley

Best Defense department of getting real, people.

Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl was barely repatriated to American forces by his Afghan captors before Republicans began implying President Barack Obama had made a drastic policy error in the negotiation process. By granting the release of five prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Bergdahl, they argued, the President sent a message to terrorists around the world that there was much to be gained by abducting U.S. service members.

What the critics forget is that the case of Bergdahl is hardly the genesis of that message. If anything, it is the culmination. For decades, and especially during the most recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, America and its allies have negotiated extensively with groups colloquially referred to (though not necessarily legally defined, as in the case of the Taliban and its allies in the Haqqani Network) as terrorists.

According to the available information, hostage settlements amongst various entities during Operation Iraqi Freedom netted approximately $46.5 million, the withdrawal of one country from the conflict (the 51-man contingent sent by the Philippines), the release of four Iraqi prisoners and one notorious leader of Iranian Special Groups operating in Iraq. Afghan groups have arguably been much less successful, netting only $20.6 million (if Taliban reports about the South Korean hostage deal are to be believed) and the Guantanamo detachment. Between 2011 and 2012, Somali pirate hostage-taking operations raked in more than $191 million. If we had a nickle for every time a politician or pundit said “we don’t negotiate with terrorists,” we still wouldn’t have as much money as we’ve given to terrorists in those three countries between 2001 and today.

There are other discomforting anecdotes challenging such universal and absolute notions regarding negotiating with terrorists. Even though Israel cited its refusal to deal with Hamas among its reasons to halt this year’s peace talks with Palestine, it did negotiate directly with the organization it has called a terrorist group for the 2011 release of Corporal Gilad Shalit. Israel finally agreed to release 1,027 prisoners to get Shalit back. Perhaps the most disagreeable case in recent memory is Scotland’s release of Abdelbeset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi. Under investigative pressure from both the U.S. and U.K., British Petroleum ultimately admitted that it had tried to influence the terms of prisoner exchanges between Scotland and Libya in order to gain access to large fields off the latter’s coast. It was implied that al Megrahi was the cherry on top of the offer that closed the deal.

It is therefore very difficult to understand any of the comments made by either the administration’s critics or defenders regarding the Bergdahl negotiation over the weekend. Susan Rice explained that, “Sergeant Bergdahl wasn’t simply a hostage, he was an American prisoner of war, captured on the battlefield.” This distinction hardly seems to matter in light of the above illustrations, and certainly not against the arguments levied against the White House. As House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Rogers explained, the reason he is “extremely troubled” is the nature of the people we negotiated with rather than the person we negotiated for. Things get very murky on this point. As early as 2002, the White House made distinctions between the Taliban and al Qaeda something of a political Schrödinger’s Cat. The Taliban were a nominally organized governmental and military apparatus engaged in a civil conflict within the polity of Afghanistan, which was a Geneva Convention signatory. Al Qaeda was a stateless terrorist group and could not claim rights under the Geneva Convention. President Bush thus made the decision that the Geneva Convention applied to captured Taliban fighters, but not to members of al Qaeda. However, it was explicitly stated in the same briefing that Taliban prisoners in Guantanamo Bay would be treated the same as al Qaeda members. So the Taliban were not terrorists, and would receive recognition denied to terrorists, yet still treated the same as terrorists. This may somehow serve as the foundation for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s response to GOP criticisms, as he told David Gregory: “First of all, we didn’t negotiate with terrorists. As I said and explained before, Sergeant Bergdahl is a prisoner of war. That’s a normal process in getting your prisoners back. Second, as to your bigger question, we are dealing with terrorism and hostage-taking all the time everywhere. I think America’s record is pretty clear on going after terrorists, especially those who take hostages. And I don’t think anything we did in getting our prisoner of war released in any way would somehow encourage terrorists to take any of our American service men prisoner or hostage.”

So, there are terrorists out there, and they do take hostages, and we don’t negotiate with them. But the Taliban aren’t terrorists, even though we treat them just like terrorists… except in cases when we negotiate with them. If this debate continues, we may just see the development of a new metric for the “terroristness” of different groups. Those who are certified less than 50% terrorist can be negotiated with.

The prize for silliest comments goes to Senator Ted Cruz, who first quipped  at the Republican Leadership Conference on Saturday that “if there is one person on earth thrilled about the job President Obama is doing, it’s Jimmy Carter,” then went on Sunday to ask George Stephanopoulos, “And the question going forward is, have we just put a price on other U.S. soldiers? What does this tell terrorists, that if you capture a U.S. soldier, you can trade that soldier for five terrorists we’ve gone after?” It’s for this reason that Cruz advocated making attempts to recover Bergdahl with military force. 

It’s hard to know what to make of Cruz’s comments, since it was Carter who authorized the ill-fated Special Operations mission to attempt to free the Iranian hostages in 1979 and Cruz’s hero Reagan who approved the transfer of weapons to Iran to secure the release of seven Americans held by Lebanese terrorists. All things considered, this is one of the President’s more successful moments as a commander in chief. Negotiating with terrorists is more effective than hash-tagging at them and it’s arguable that five guys from Gitmo to get Bergdahl out of Afghanistan is a heck of a bargain compared to what we’re going to have to spend to find VA administrators who won’t kill him once he’s back in the United States. 

At the very least, history says that we’re not telling groups– terrorist or otherwise– who hold people captive anything new. Parsing through all the commentary, it seems reasonable to suggest that the only people who genuinely know and understand the history of hostage/POW negotiations are the terrorists/fighters/insurgents. Our own officials debate points that have long been rendered moot. Everyone in the world has at some point in history negotiated with actors that engage in terrorist activity. The United States should have accepted a future in which it would have to negotiate with terrorist groups the moment it declared a war against them. We were never going to kill all the terrorists. We certainly weren’t going to scour the notion of terrorism from the face of the earth. This conflict was always going to end with some kind of settlement. Our resistance to that idea may have been partly to blame for the long dela
y in Bergdahl’s repatriation. It is certainly one of the greatest obstacles we created for ourselves in securing better ends to our occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.

If we continue to refuse acknowledging that we live in a world where everyone else negotiates, we hobble ourselves in trying to realistically approach the next conflict.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at

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