Why Negotiating With Our Enemies Is Not a Sin

The Taliban swap for Sgt. Bergdahl is just the latest in a long line of occasions when America willingly dealt with bad guys. And like it or not, this is how wars end.

J.H. Owen-Pool/Getty Images
J.H. Owen-Pool/Getty Images

Not surprisingly, President Barack Obama’s decision to negotiate with the Taliban to obtain the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from the Haqqani network by agreeing to release five Afghan Taliban prisoners to house arrest in Qatar has been pilloried by his political opponents.

The list of criticisms is long: that the president didn’t provide adequate notice to Congress, that the U.S. intelligence community identified these five Taliban captives as among the most dangerous being held in Guantanamo, and that Bergdahl was — at best — a complicated individual for whom to strike a bargain with America’s enemies. But at the heart of these attacks is a central complaint: that America never negotiates with terrorists and that it sets a bad precedent for the United States to make deals with enemies who have American blood on their hands.

Sorry, but this claim is without analytic or historical merit, and it completely ignores the positive aspects of the release.

First, a bit of history. The United States has negotiated with unsavory groups before, in order to advance our national interests. For example, beginning in 2006 in Iraq, in order to dampen the outbreak in violence, the United States not only negotiated with, but armed and financed, the terrorist group the Sons of Iraq as part of the Sunni Awakening. In addition to being affiliated with al Qaeda, the Sons of Iraq had slain hundreds of American soldiers and their fellow Iraqis. However, U.S. officials negotiated with them and armed them because they needed their help to fight a greater menace, al Qaeda in Iraq. It was a pragmatic short-term deal that included putting pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to take members of the Sons of Iraq into the Iraqi armed forces.

At the time, there was considerable skepticism about aiding former militants, even if our short-term goals were aligned, and doubts about how the Sons of Iraq would be integrated into a stable, secure Iraq. Indeed, as Iraq’s security deteriorates, many of these Sons of Iraq have re-allied themselves with al Qaeda in Iraq. However, the Sons of Iraq and the Sunni Awakening played an absolutely essential role in stopping Iraq’s slide into all-out sectarian war. A pragmatic partnership with them was the best of limited options available at the time, and stabilized Iraq sufficiently to begin planning an end to the United States’ military role in the country.

Similarly, our major ally in the Middle East, the democratic state of Israel, routinely negotiates with Palestinians who many view as terrorists and has released thousands of Palestinians prisoners who have killed and maimed hundreds of Israelis, in order to gain the release of their soldiers. For example, in order to obtain the release of Pvt. Gilad Shalit, the Israelis negotiated the release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners.

Moreover, critics of the Bergdahl prisoner release deal ignore the fact that at some point, the United States and its Afghan partners will have to negotiate with the Taliban as the war in Afghanistan concludes. Indeed, as Obama has said: "This is what happens at the end of wars." This has ample historical precedent. By July 1951, the United States recognized that a stalemate in the Korean War was the least-bad option and began negotiating with the communist government of China to end the war and return to the status quo ante. Washington didn’t recognize the communist government of China as legitimate, but negotiated with them anyway. The negotiations lasted from July 1951 to July 1953, while bullets were still flying in Korea, and produced an armistice that persists to this day. Similarly, Washington negotiated with the communist North Vietnamese for almost five years to end the American involvement in the war in Vietnam, while the fighting still raged. And a major issue in negotiations to end both of these wars was the release of prisoners in exchange for the release of American prisoners.

During the negotiations with the Chinese to end the Korean War, Beijing insisted that all prisoners on both sides be repatriated. However, the United States could not agree to forcible repatriation, as it had at the conclusion of World War II, as thousands of prisoners of war would have been returned to China and what became North Korea against their will. After two years of negotiations, the U.S. position prevailed. Similarly, during the negotiations with the North Vietnamese, the American public’s main concern was that American prisoners and troops come home, not a security guarantee to the South Vietnamese. Just as Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon did not let South Korean President Syngman Rhee and South Vietnamese leader Nguyen Van Thieu undermine their negotiations, President Obama did not let Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, undermine the negotiations with the Taliban for the release of Bergdahl.

The exchange of POWs is a normal part of ending a conflict, and part of the laws of war. While the Taliban may be a terrorist group, they are also America’s enemy in the war in Afghanistan, just as the communist Chinese were in Korea. As the White House has labored to explain in recent days, the release of five Taliban in exchange for Bergdahl is a POW exchange.

Finally, the claim that the release of five Taliban in exchange for one American soldier has hurt our combat operations in Afghanistan or that it will lead other groups to seize U.S. prisoners for leverage is simply spurious. It ignores the fact that while these five Afghans, who have been in U.S. custody for over a decade, could eventually return to the battlefield after their year under house arrest in Qatar, the U.S. military will have ended combat operations in Afghanistan by the end of 2014. It also ignores the fact that these instances are exceedingly rare: Bergdahl was the only American prisoner of war in Afghanistan, despite over 13 years of conflict. With U.S. forces set to draw down to 9,800 troops by the end of 2014, even if the Taliban were to dramatically change its tactics, it will have very limited opportunities to capture American soldiers. In addition, this argument overlooks the fact that Bergdahl could provide us with a good deal of information about the Taliban, potentially including actionable intelligence.

The negotiations for Bergdahl’s release could also pave the way for direct talks with the Taliban as the United States winds down our role in Afghanistan — talks that the U.S. and Afghan governments have been trying to achieve since late 2010. Since both the United States and the Taliban showed good faith in the Bergdahl negotiations, and since both sides received something valuable to them, it is likely that the groundwork was laid for negotiating over issues critical to the future of Afghanistan, like how the Taliban will become part of the political process, support the Afghan constitution, and respect the rights of women.  

This prisoner-of-war exchange marks the beginning of an end to the war in Afghanistan, just as prisoner exchanges during the end stages of the wars in Korea and Vietnam did. It brought back an American POW from captivity, at the cost of five Taliban detainees who would have had to be released anyway when the war in Afghan
istan ends. Moreover, the successful negotiation process itself could help lead to greater stability in Afghanistan. That’s a good deal for the United States, Sgt. Bergdahl, and his family.

Lawrence J. Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and served as an assistant secretary of defense in U.S. President Ronald Reagan's administration.