U.S. trades Taliban commanders for solider, and I’m confused

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.




  1. NewEnglandBob
    Posted May 31, 2014 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    I am also confused. I hope there is more to this than already stated.

    • Posted May 31, 2014 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

      Considering the layer upon layer of corruption and thuggery surrounding Guantanamo, you can be absolutely certain that there’s more to this. Thing is, it probably involves Iranian arms dealers making a delivery to the Contras….


  2. CF
    Posted May 31, 2014 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    This may provide some detail about the soldier: http://rendezvous.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/13/new-report-says-captive-u-s-solider-left-his-post-willingly

    However, as to why he’s “worth” five supposedly top-tier Taliban commanders? Your guess is as good as mine. Maybe he sent an email to Edward Snowden one day and the US wants to jail him for it.

    • Diane G.
      Posted May 31, 2014 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

      Thank you for that link.

      • Posted May 31, 2014 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

        Yes, that was an excellent piece. So was the video.

        I don’t know why, but I’m very suspicious. I think something very weird may be going on here.

        And the translation of the Islamist buffoon’s words were just fantastic! It looked like something written by most of the TEAbaggers who circulate those stupid, hateful, bigoted emails that fail every Snopes test!

  3. Posted May 31, 2014 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    5 for 1 is really a bargain compared to Israel’s trade of 1000 prisoners for one soldier a couple of years ago.

  4. Stephen Barnard
    Posted May 31, 2014 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    Bergdahl is a local Idaho guy from Hailey. There will probably be a parade when he comes home.

  5. Alan
    Posted May 31, 2014 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    My guess is that right wing politicians will echo your concern in a more sinister way. Though I share your concerns, I think the right choice was made. It certainly seems better than seeing another decapitation video.

    • Joe L
      Posted May 31, 2014 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

      …which is what the terrorists count on….

      • Alan
        Posted June 1, 2014 at 8:09 am | Permalink

        Of course they do.

  6. Posted May 31, 2014 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    I believe the US was willing to make a “5 dangerous terrorists” to “1 American” swap because (1) in order to close Guantanamo something has to be done with the prisoners held there and US trials are turned into publicity events for Al Queda and (2) if we turn em loose, we can kill em with drone strikes – no trial, no fuss, and far cheaper.

    • Kiwi Dave
      Posted May 31, 2014 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

      My thoughts exactly.

    • sk3ptik0n
      Posted May 31, 2014 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

      I was just thinking to myself that these 5 guys may be at risk of a severe repetitive neck injury in the next couple of years.

    • Joe L
      Posted May 31, 2014 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

      Wouldn’t it be cool if we had inserted a tracking device in each one of them, so when they have their big reunion in Pakistan, KABLOOIE!

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted May 31, 2014 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

        I know I shouldn’t find that funny but I do.

        • walkingmap
          Posted May 31, 2014 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

          Mirth is not an uncommon reaction to confused disgust. Gallows humor …

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted June 1, 2014 at 2:36 am | Permalink

        if we had inserted a tracking device in each one of them

        Such as … ?
        Before replying with something fresh out of Hollywood, remember that there are plenty of scientists reading this blog who are perfectly well acquainted with the laws of physics.
        And, if you can think of it … well surely those brown-skinned idiots in Somethingistan will never think of looking for something like that. And so Mr Released-Terrorist-Homing-Beacon goes and awaits his martyrdom missile sitting at the gates of an US ally’s embassy/ military base/ hospital/ spy headquarters/ mineral exploitation company. Or, given the body count released – all of the above.

  7. Posted May 31, 2014 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    I’m not positive, but weren’t the prisoners remanded to Qatar authorities? (i.e. the Qatar courts / prison system?)

    If so, as awful an outcome as this is (Qatar’s courts are Sunni-based, and one of the thugs was bombing Shi’ites, apparently), it seems better than lots of alternatives (indefinite detention continues, tortured/killed while in custody in Cuba, tried in US courts and either exonerated when truly guilty or sentenced to death [which is why most countries will not remand international fugitives in capital cases back to our custody]). I guess I just don’t know what “travel restrictions for one year” means… if they are being released to the general population, or the Qatar prison system.

    It certainly is politically-expedient, as we wish to bring detainee numbers down somehow, many will not be accepted by any country, and most are truly incredibly-dangerous pricks – except with scant direct admissible evidence against them in a civilian court.

    We’re kind-of between Iraq and a hard place, which is why our present admin would rather just kill people like this out in the field, collateral damage-be-damned.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted May 31, 2014 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

      Too bad we will probably never hear what happened to them in Qatar.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted June 1, 2014 at 2:38 am | Permalink

        Tape recordings will probably be sent to well-wishers in the Pentagon.

  8. Greg Esres
    Posted May 31, 2014 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    Typo: despite = despise?

  9. Greg Esres
    Posted May 31, 2014 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    “we don’t negotiate with terrorists,” but there’s a whisper out of the side of the mouth: “But really, we will.”

    But isn’t that the truth about any principle advanced by man or institution?

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted June 1, 2014 at 2:50 am | Permalink

      But I thought it was the policy of the U.S. government never to negotiate with terrorists,

      Indeed, ProfCC’s confusion will evaporate like the dew in the morning once he gets past the cognitive dissonance inherent in

      … I thought it was the policy of the U.S. government never to negotiate with terrorists …

      Once you get past the evidence-free belief that politicians and diplomats actually speak with un-forked tongues, then there is no reason for cognitive dissonance.
      Personally, as I sat on an island off the coast of East Africa a couple of years ago, contemplating the Somali pirates operating in the area (within at most a few hours boat travel), and viewing the three police cadets, three World-War-One-vintage bolt action death-trap rifles and 20-odd bullets that constituted our security forces … I was reasonably glad that my country’s diplomatic establishment had established it’s nickname as “Perfidious” long before we fought the Germans out of East Africa in WW1. It constituted my best chance for getting home alive if the Somalis did come collecting income.
      Mind you, they’d probably have claimed the ransom for me, then executed me as an apostate under the criminal code of their streets of Somalia. After all, we taught them the meaning of “perfidy”.
      (Actually, on the next job some German-descended engineers saved the corporate posterior. So, “Prost!” to Germany. Or is it “Skoal!”)

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted June 1, 2014 at 2:54 am | Permalink

        Hmm, pasted the quote twice. But it really wasn’t worth repeating.

  10. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted May 31, 2014 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    The spin I hear over here, not based on anything explicit but conspicuous with the timing, is that US is (seeking a way of) finishing the intervention into Afghanistan.

    I do think war vs non-war states differ in the way they treat prisoners (unfortunately re US offshore prisons and torture) and negotiations (fortunately re commoners vs leaders as here). As for the usefulness of this, I’m unaware of statistics saying one way or another is better. I’m aware of strategies, there are always strategies up to and including (ouch) ideologies. But results?

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted May 31, 2014 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

      I forgot the disclaimer:

      I’m from a nation that so far as I know have the policy to _always_ negotiate with kidnappers through embassies (abroad) or police (nationally).

      As I said, I’m not aware that we do worse (or better) than not negotiating.

      I imagine relatives may feel better about at least trying though.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted June 1, 2014 at 3:01 am | Permalink

      The spin I hear over here, not based on anything explicit but conspicuous with the timing, is that US is (seeking a way of) finishing the intervention into Afghanistan.

      Hmmm ,taking that logic further (and I’m perfectly happy following it this far) …
      Putin is going to be working behind the scenes (in a plausibly deniable, arms-length way, probably using Central American rebels as intermediaries just for the symbolism of it) to scuuper, delay and undermine the US withdrawal (and the rest of the west with them) as payback time for the US’s intervention in Afghanistan while Russia was in the boot prints currently occupied by the West.
      Well, if I were in Putin’s boots, I’d be doing that. In a very arms-length manner. The payback to cost ratio is almost certainly going to be huge.

  11. Posted May 31, 2014 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    cowboy scenario. All five of these guys have been converted secretly to Christianity and are a dangerous fifth column into the Taliban….

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted June 1, 2014 at 3:09 am | Permalink

      They;re triple agents. Their guards, when they get leave from Guantanamo, have a date with the Golden Gate Bridge and a truck full of explosives, fertilizer and Timothy McVeigh biographies
      No, that wouldn’t work. There’s not enough structure to the GG to suffer in a manageable amateur blast. McVeigh either chose his target to suit his materials, or had substantial dumb luck. Lessee …
      [REDACTED. Several options that deserve more thought than I fancy before lunch. It ain’t rocket science. And even if it were, rocket science isn’t that difficult : there are thousands of amateur rocket scientists who know that.]

  12. Hempenstein
    Posted May 31, 2014 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    Since this is now almost 13yrs since 9/11, there has to be an element of the scene in Cat Ballou, when she meets up with and casts eyes on what’s left of the Hole in the Wall Gang + Butch Cassidy:
    We used to whisper your names when we were kids – scared to say them out loud. How sad – you got old.
    Better to release them now so everyone can see that they didn’t die in Guantanamo.

  13. Joe L
    Posted May 31, 2014 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    We wouldn’t be negotiating with any of these if we weren’t so intent on saving one group of stone-age fanatic morons from the other group of stone-age fanatic morons.

  14. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted May 31, 2014 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    This is interesting!

    I found out that Sweden, who apparently is legally “dualistic”, meaning we don’t incorporate international agreements automatically but by making laws, have ratified an 1980 international convention on taking hostages. Made in – New York, 17th december 1979!

    I’ll link to it, since it has an english translation.

    “Article 3
    1. The State Party in the territory of which the hostage is held by the offender shall take measure it considers appropriate to ease the situation of the hostage, in particular, to secure his release and, after its release, to facilitate, when relevant, his departure.”

    Presumably this is a UN convention. Are we sure US has refused to ratify it? And if it has is not are we sure it isn’t just interpreting it perversely?

    Because I think US is trying to paddle up the creek without an oar on this one…

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted June 1, 2014 at 3:12 am | Permalink

      “I refer the honourable gentleman to the answer I gave a few moments ago to No.10.”
      (Pomposity from Prime Minister’s Questions most weeks in Britain.)

  15. Alex Shuffell
    Posted May 31, 2014 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    According to the BBC – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-27651690 – the Taliban prisoners have been locked up since at least 2002. In the descriptions of them the words like “accused” “said to” and “alleged” are used which means they have not faced trial. These prisoners will not be allowed to leave Qatar for a year.

  16. madscientist
    Posted May 31, 2014 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    That’s politics. Remember Ol’ Ron and Ollie North and all those weapons that went to Tehran?

  17. E Siegel
    Posted May 31, 2014 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    We traded Colonel Abel for Gary Powers, our U2 pilot.

  18. David Andrews
    Posted May 31, 2014 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, each if those guts has a drone-tracking chip implanted. No problem!

    • Lauren
      Posted June 1, 2014 at 3:18 am | Permalink

      Yeah – that’s my hope (?), that implanted human tracking devices will find their use in these Taliban released prisoners. A brave new world.

  19. krzysztof1
    Posted May 31, 2014 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that our government’s policy is incoherent.

  20. Posted May 31, 2014 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    I’m surprised by a lot of the confusion here. He is a member of the US military and was considered a POW, which is not the same as a kidnapping victim or a hostage. The US does not negotiate with terrorists for civilian hostages, but POWs are another story. As someone mentioned, Israel has repeatedly freed hundreds of prisoners for single military members, so by comparison five for one is a bargain. Also, the military is very big on the concept of not leaving comrades behind. If the official US position was, “sorry dude, we’re leaving the country…you’re on your own,” it would not be good for military morale (to say the least).

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted June 1, 2014 at 3:15 am | Permalink

      But it’s not a war. They aren’t enemy soldiers, due the protections of the Geneva Conventions. They’re “enemy combatants” who can be tortured at will by the Western forces, or their lick-spittle allies.

      • Tones
        Posted June 3, 2014 at 10:42 am | Permalink

        Actually, it is a war and is actually recognised as such. US vs Afghanistan. So the Conventions do apply. The thing Americans should be most worried about is that their ongoing blatant disregard of the Conventions for the past 12 years will likely blow back on them at some point. Which partially explains why they are so desperate to get their combatants out of POW situations.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted June 6, 2014 at 9:15 am | Permalink

          That’s not what you commanders say.
          Of course, the PBI (Poor Bloody Infantry) are well aware that future wars are likely to involve one body bag per officer and several per infantry man – just more and smaller body bags than used to be the norm.

  21. cremnomaniac
    Posted May 31, 2014 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

    So, according to the Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) these guys are ptoential threats. Well, I likely taking a rather unpopular position here , but I actually believe in justice.

    These men served, wht, 13 years without trial. Some use the term accused, bu the accuser is a nameless military organization, and you damn well how accurate their reports can be.

    Not only did they serve 13 years, but it was done in Guanotomo. I’d bet my cat that they suffered abuse while there. What I’m saying they deserve to let free, or tried, or face their accuser.

    What sickens me more than releasing them, is the truth that I live in a country that will put its highest idea aside (fair and expedient trial, innocence before guilt) and instead embrace secret detainment, rendition, and torture, all in the name of so-called national security. When did we become a nation of such quivering and fearful citizens willing to abandon our most fundamental principles for the illusion of security?

    They deserved to be let free with or without a hostage trade. To JC’s concern about release; it might encourage kidnappings, but when has that possibility ever been absent? Nothing has changed, and when these guys go back to their old ways then they can once again targets of war.

    • walkingmap
      Posted May 31, 2014 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

      I admit to not knowing much about who we still have detained in Guantanamo, except that they are “enemy combatants”, or our governments get out of jail free card for skirting the Geneva Convention. Confined for over a decade without being charged with a criminal offense is unjust. I hope these 5 men represented the “worst of the worst”, the ones our government held up as too dangerous to bring into the open for trial in this country (something I’ve never understood, we are either a nation of laws or not, and Gitmo says to me, “we are not a nation of laws”) so that the other detainees can have their day in court, and if we have used torture on them then aren’t we the ones really on trial? We need to close this blight on our collective conscience. Damn I am so angry …

    • Jim Sweeney
      Posted June 1, 2014 at 12:11 am | Permalink

      If they’re prisoners of war, and we’re more or less deciding the war’s over after THIRTEEN YEARS, then we are obligated to let them go.

      We’re the United States, and we have a Fifth Amendment promising a speedy trial to the accused, which we have not provided. The detainees, if criminal suspects, have not been treated the way the Constitution requires.

      Moreover, there’s every reason to suppose they’ve been tortured. Which is not okay, no matter how we feel about the kind of people they are. There’s no way to make this right.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted June 1, 2014 at 3:17 am | Permalink

        We’re the United States, and we have a Fifth Amendment promising a speedy trial to the accused,

        Only applies in America, to citizens.

        • Steven in Tokyo
          Posted June 1, 2014 at 5:18 am | Permalink

          That settles it. Never again will I visit the US.

        • iariese
          Posted June 1, 2014 at 9:22 am | Permalink

          Does the Constitution apply to non-citizens? Well, yes and no. http://scholarship.law.georgetown.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1302&context=facpub

          • gravelinspector-Aidan
            Posted June 4, 2014 at 4:12 am | Permalink

            I’ll avoid US-controlled countries. Seems safer.

        • Posted June 1, 2014 at 10:32 am | Permalink

          It depends.

          The text of the Fifth Amendment is quite clear that it applies to persons, as opposed to citizens:

          No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

          Of course, for quite some time now, the Constitution is just some goddamned piece of paper, and it’s not like it’s a suicide pact or anything, and corporations are people, too, my friend, so what the Fifth really means is that oil companies don’t have to worry about private lawsuits when their fracking and associated operations start causing earthquakes setting well water on fire and turning wetlands into open ocean. Worst case, they might have to exercise their right of free speech and send a few politicians on pleasure cruises ^W^W research expeditions to the Bahamas.

          You want to know what’s really scary?

          The level of corruption here in the States is so breathtaking that I’m really not exaggerating.



          • gravelinspector-Aidan
            Posted June 4, 2014 at 4:27 am | Permalink

            If you’d heard yesterday lunch’s discussion of the events in the last couple of hours on the Deepwater Horizon, you’d know that we’re not exactly a bunch of oilfield ‘yes’-men. But that piece of crap footage about the flaming tap water is pure unadulterated bullshit.
            There are fair grounds to be careful in conducting fracking operations. But the hysteria whipped up by BANANAs and NIMBYs are not fair grounds. Personally, I’ve recommended requiring the people who plan and conduct the drilling of onshore wells to be required to be residents of the area. But I also know that such a requirement would fail because of lack of personnel. And they’d have to pay me comparably with the current job that I’m on, which would infuriate the chattering classes even more.

            • Posted June 4, 2014 at 9:24 am | Permalink

              The burning wellwater is something that I’ve seen reported in multiple locations all across the country from multiple sources, from random YouTube videos all the way up to more than one investigative journalist from more than one network. I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody’s cashed in on the hype at some point in some specific instance, but I’d have an hard time believing that it’s not a widespread (though, of course, not universal) problem.

              I do like your idea of people having to live (for decades, ideally) on the land they drill. And that would include the land underneath the horizontal drilling, not just the acre surrounding the wellhead….


              • gravelinspector-Aidan
                Posted June 6, 2014 at 9:09 am | Permalink

                Wouldn’t in the least bother me – if I were inclined to live in the country, which I’m not. Which would explain why I don’t.
                Burning wellwater … has methane in it. And methane is, as we know, a product of (amongst other processes) bacterial decomposition.
                (I’ll grant the theoretical possibility of it being some other natural gas, such as H2S. But I think the dead TV crews would have raised some comment.)

  22. mattpenfold
    Posted June 1, 2014 at 3:30 am | Permalink

    Saying that they refuse to talk to terrorists is something states feel obliged to say, but thankfully not pay heed to. If they did then we would not have seen the terrorist groups in Northern Ireland, and ETA in Spain renounce the use of violence and bring about the much improved situations to be found in each country.

  23. Daniel del Valle
    Posted June 1, 2014 at 5:36 am | Permalink

    Dazed and confused more like it, there is a slight blemish on this deal. Sgt. Bergdahl apparently was not really captured. It’s alleged that he went over to the Taliban because he was disillusioned with the war.His motives are suspect.
    Now what are we to make of an American citizen, resident of Florida, doing a suicide bombing in Syria on behalf of jihadists. This may have no bearing on Sgt. Bergdahl and the prisoner exchange, but there is something in the woodwork that is troubling.

  24. anthrosciguy
    Posted June 1, 2014 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    We’ve negotiated with terrorists, giving them money, weapons, and prisoners, in exchange for hostages at least since Reagan’s tenure. Nothing new. If it emboldens them that cat is well and truly out of the bag.

  25. GBJames
    Posted June 2, 2014 at 6:33 am | Permalink

    The White House position is that Bergdahl was a POW, not a hostage, and that getting him back was part of the “leave no man behind” military tradition.

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