It’s been announced in the last few hours that the only U.S. soldier who was held by the Afghans as a prisoner of war—Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl—was handed over to the U.S. this morning. Bergdahl had been held captive for nearly five years (he’s reported to be in good shape). In return, the U.S. released five prisoners from Guantanamo. According to the Daily Beast, these aren’t low-level functionaries, but major Taliban commanders:
The five Guantanamo detainees released by the Obama administration in exchange for America’s last prisoner of war in Afghanistan, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, are bad guys. They are top Taliban commanders the group has tried to free for more than a decade.
According to a 2008 Pentagon dossier on Guantanamo Bay inmates, all five men released were considered to be a high risk to launch attacks against the United States and its allies if they were liberated. The exchange shows that the Obama administration was willing to pay a steep price, indeed, for Bergdahl’s freedom. The administration says they will be transferred to Qatar, which played a key role in the negotiations.
In the initial statements released about the deal, the White House declined to name the detainees who would be leaving the Cuba based prison Obama has been trying to close since his first day in office.
A senior U.S. defense official confirmed Saturday that the prisoners to be released include Mullah Mohammad Fazl, Mullah Norullah Noori, Abdul Haq Wasiq, Khairullah Khairkhwa and Mohammed Nabi Omari.
While not as well known as Guantanamo inmates like 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Taliban 5 were some of the worst outlaws in the U.S. war on terror. And their release will end up replenishing the diminished leadership ranks of the Afghan Taliban at a moment when the United States is winding down the war there.
“They are undoubtedly among the most dangerous Taliban commanders held at Guantanamo,” said Thomas Joscelyn, a senior editor at the Long War Journal, who keeps a close watch on developments concerning the detainees left at the Guantanamo Bay prison.
I’m absolutely thrilled for Bergdahl’s family that he’s coming home: imagine thinking for five years that you’d never see your husband/father/relative/friend again. What a relief that he’s free!
But I’m a bit puzzled and, I admit, slightly disturbed by the swap.
Lord knows I despite the sequestration of prisoners on Guantanamo, and think they should be given a fair trial in the U.S. by civil courts. But I thought it was the policy of the U.S. government never to negotiate with terrorists, and it seems to me that these Taliban bigwigs are terrorists. Or, even if they’re regarded as prisoners of war (in which case swaps are okay), why do we give up five to get one? What is the right ratio? Should release dozens of people who will go back to the business of trying to kill us in return for one of our own? Do we hold the life of a single soldier higher than the potential damage the released prisoners may cause?
The policy of not negotiating with terrorists is supposedly designed to avoid legitimizing such groups, and to prevent the wholesale kidnapping of our citizens as a means of securing the release of criminals. Yet this is what we’ve done. I have to conclude that our government’s policy is a sham: an official policy that is honored in the breach. And I can understand that, for the pressure from distraught family members must be overwhelming. In other words, we always hear “we don’t negotiate with terrorists,” but there’s a whisper out of the side of the mouth: “But really, we will.”
I don’t know the answer, and am willing to listen to readers. All I know is that I’m elated for Sgt. Bergdahl, his family, and his friends, but worried that we’re enabling more of the same. All it will take is a few more kidnappings—even by civilians, and our jails will be emptied of terrorists.