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Yes, We Do Negotiate With Terrorists

Sgt Bowe Bergdahl

One of the common refrains that has been heard from Republican critics of the President in the wake of the deal that resulted in the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is the objection that the President “negotiated with terrorists” in order to get Bergdahl released. Supposedly, this is something that America does not do because it of the incentives that it creates for terrorists to commit more acts that result in more deals. It is indeed true that American Presidents since at least the days of Ronald Reagan have publicly stated that the United States “does not negotiate with terrorists.” In reality, though, negotiating with terrorists is something that we do much more often that we’d probably like to admit:

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.

Unmentioned in Simon Engler’s piece, but obviously highly relevant to this discussion are the negotiations that, principally, the United States and Great Britain engaged in to attempt to secure the safe return of the 96 people who were taken hostage in Lebanon between 1982 and 1992. One memorable part of that, of course, included the U.S. arms sales to Iran that were, at least in part, meant to try to secure Iranian aid in gaining the release of the Americans held hostage be Hezbollah. That was, quite obviously, negotiating with terrorists. However, in the end it was the only realistic way to get the hostages freed, although the whole idea of selling arms to Iran was really quite a dumb idea.

As Engler, the negotiations with Taliban representatives in Qatar that eventually led to the released of Sgt. Bergdahl serve, at least potentially, as an opening to something wider. For one thing, the fact that these people were successfully able to deliver Sgt. Bergdahl confirms that they are indeed linked with, and can speak for, the Taliban forces in Afghanistan, something that has been in doubt from the very beginning of the decision to allow the opening of a Taliban “embassy” in Doha. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that wider negotiations are possible — indeed, the Taliban have shot that idea down — it does suggest that smaller-scale deals might be possible in the future. Futhermore, as I’ve stated in discussions elsewhere online about this whole matter, if we wanted to get Sgt. Bergdahl home then how exactly were we supposed to do that without talking to the Taliban, regardless of whether or not we consider them a “terrorist” organization? They are the ones who had control over him, he was apparently well-hidden in an area that would have proven difficult to extract him from safely, and it wasn’t like there was any indication they were going to give him up voluntarily. If you wanted to get Sgt. Bergdahl home, and as recently as just a few months ago many conservatives were calling for that, then there was really no way to do it that didn’t involve negotiating with the Taliban.

The broader point, though, is probably even more important. There’s something satisfyingly jingoistic about saying that we’d never negotiate with terrorists and, obviously there are some situations where we wouldn’t do that. To rule it out in all circumstances, however, is just foolish and ignores history and the realities of the world that we live in.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Whether we negotiate with terrorists is a moot point anyways: the US hasn’t actually designated the Taliban a terrorist organization to begin with.

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  2. michael reynolds says:

    People just love hard and fast rules that can be reduced to slogans. Of course we negotiate with terrorists. And we also leave men behind. There’s a bunch of dead Americans lying unidentified, skeletons at this point, in places like Antietam and Belleau Woods and Guadalcanal and Chosin reservoir and in the jungles of Vietnam.

    We leave men behind, and we negotiate with terrorists. We also negotiate with Communists. We negotiate with all kinds of people you wouldn’t want to have lunch with.

    People need to grow up. It’s a big, dangerous, wacky world, and it doesn’t mesh with bumper stickers.

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  3. Rob says:

    Jack Bauer isn’t very happy!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  4. John Peabody says:

    Bumper-sticker policies will hurt us all. Also, one-sentence comments on blogs.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  5. Matt Bernius says:

    Doug, there you go again with your “far left” facts and “liberal” history.

    #ThisIsWhyNoOneWhoMattersReadsOTBAnyMoreHah-Rumph!!!!!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 1

  6. Mr. X says:

    I thought the Taliban were considered unlawful combatants because (among other reasons) they are members of a non-state actor terrorist group that does not receive the protections of the Third Geneva Convention. They simply do not satisfy the criteria for POW status set out in Article 4 of the Third Geneva Convention.

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  7. @Mr. X:

    I believe the US has never formally declared what the legal status of the Taliban detainees as a group is, saying rather that it’s a determination made on a case by case basis. As a practical matter, that means they magically morph from PoWs, to unlawful combatants, to criminals depending on which status is most convenient for the US for that particular second.

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  8. CB says:

    @John Peabody:

    Also, starting sentences with also.

    Damn…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  9. @Rob:

    There are several points in the 8 seasons of 24 when Jack Bauer effectively “negotiates with terrorists.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  10. Mr. X says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    That makes sense. I believe the decision on legal status is ultimately up to the president as commander in chief of the military .

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  11. Matt Bernius says:

    @Mr. X:

    I believe the decision on legal status is ultimately up to the president as commander in chief of the military .

    At least until such time that either of the other branches of government actually gets off its ass and does its job to clarify the current laws.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  12. Neil Hudelson says:

    @CB:

    And leaving out subject clauses.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  13. Ron Beasley says:

    I believe the Taliban was the government of Afghanistan until we overthrew them making them a nation state.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  14. @Ron Beasley:

    We never recognized them as the lawful government of Afghanistan.

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  15. @Ron Beasley:

    In fact only thre countries (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE) ever recognized them as the Afghanistan government.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  16. Tillman says:

    @John Peabody: @CB: @Neil Hudelson: I knew I liked this place for a reason.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  17. Hal_10000 says:

    For one thing, the fact that these people were successfully able to deliver Sgt. Bergdahl confirms that they are indeed linked with, and can speak for, the Taliban forces in Afghanistan, something that has been in doubt from the very beginning of the decision to allow the opening of a Taliban “embassy” in Doha.

    This, I think, is the key point. When we leave Afghanistan, the Taliban will either take over or take a large role in the post-war government. I think Obama is trying to prop open a door so that we have some trust with the future Afghan government.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  18. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Which I find rather ludicrous. The actual governing authority of a country, is not a legitimate gov’t because we (or anybody else or everybody else) say so? Talk about denial…

    And just to clarify, being as loathsome as the Taliban were and are does not change the fact that they were the actual governing authority of Afghanistan at the time of our invasion. I suppose there is some legal DUHHH! attached to the issue, but then the law can be an a$$ at times.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  19. Todd says:

    Part of the problem is the misuse of the word “terrorist” to describe every non-westerner fighting in the middle east. This bothered me even during the times I was over there. The way I see it, if an islamic extremist kills me while I’m walking down the street in my civilian clothes here in Arizona, then yes they’re a terrorist. But when I was on active duty, if one of the guys who occasionally launched rockets over the fence at my base in Afghanistan had gotten lucky and hit my tent, I don’t think it would have been semantically correct to say I was “killed by terrorists”. Asymmetric warfare against a military opponent of vastly superior strength is not the same thing as targeting civilians.

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  20. C. Clavin says:

    Here’s a look at the guys McCain and Jenos are so scared of…
    From the GlobalPost:
    In 2012 John McCain called the Guantanamo Five “the worst murderers in human history,” according to Rolling Stone.
    The five men, who are now in Qatar and barred from traveling for a year, do not really live up to their monster billing, however.
    Khairullah Said Wali Khairkhwa, Abdul Haq Wasiq, Mullah Noorullah Noori, Mullah Mohammad Fazl and Mohammad Nabi Omari had been in Guantanamo Bay since the early days of the war.
    Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analyst Network spent weeks researching the five men’s biographies in 2013, and came up with a much more nuanced picture.
    “It is mystifying to know where the Guantanamo Bay authorities got the idea that Khairkhwa was known, in their words, as a ‘hardliner in terms of Taliban philosophy.’ During the Emirate, he was considered one of the more moderate Taliban in leadership circles,” she writes.
    Noori and Fazl had negotiated surrender of Taliban fighters to General Abdul Rashid Dostum in November, 2001, based on what they believed was a promise of safe passage home. Instead, hundreds of Taliban fighters were massacred, and Fazl and Noori were arrested.
    Wasiq was taken in a sting operation — according to Clark, he was cooperating with the US at the time and was trying to arrange reintegration with the new government. Instead, he was arrested and sent to Guantanamo.
    The Guantanamo Docket, a project of The New York Times based on the WikiLeaks documents, also yields some interesting information.
    Omari, for example, was a minor Taliban figure who said he was selling used cars when the war started. He also claimed that he was given $500 and a cell phone by a CIA officer named Mark and told to go find Mullah Omar. When he failed to deliver, he was arrested.
    Not a very impressive background for what the media are calling the “worst of the worst.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  21. Rafer Janders says:

    @Todd:

    But when I was on active duty, if one of the guys who occasionally launched rockets over the fence at my base in Afghanistan had gotten lucky and hit my tent, I don’t think it would have been semantically correct to say I was “killed by terrorists”.

    During WWII, the German occupation authorities described the non-uniformed Resistance forces who launched attacks against them as “terrorists” as well, based on the legal reasoning that the governments of those occupied countries had properly surrendered and so all citizens were required by the laws of war to lay down their arms and cease fighting. Illustrating once again the maxim that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

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  22. Rafer Janders says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Omari, for example, was a minor Taliban figure who said he was selling used cars when the war started.

    I’m sorry, Clavin, but you’re using this as evidence that this guy was NOT “the worse of the worst”?? A used-car salesman, the lowest form of life on Earth? Someone like that deserves to be locked up and the key thrown away….

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  23. Mikey says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    The actual governing authority of a country, is not a legitimate gov’t because we (or anybody else or everybody else) say so? Talk about denial…

    Official recognition (or not) of a nation’s de facto government by other nations goes back pretty far in history. There are usually very good diplomatic and international relations reasons for non-recognition.

    For example: the government of the Confederate States of America was never recognized as legitimate by any nation.

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  24. C. Clavin says:

    @Rafer Janders:
    Well yeah… Total scum…but no worse than McCain or Jenos.

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  25. C. Clavin says:

    Obama:
    “We had discussed with Congress the possibility that something like this would occur,” he said. “But because of the nature of the folks we were dealing with and the fragile nature of these negotiations, we felt it was important to go ahead and do what we did. And we are now explaining to Congress the details of how we move forward. But this basic principle that we don’t leave anybody behind — and this basic recognition that it often means prisoner exchanges with enemies — is not unique to my administration. It dates back to the beginning of our republic.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  26. C. Clavin says:

    @Rafer Janders:
    Keep in mind that Republucans were afraid to try these folks.
    So they are bitching and whining like little babies about a problem they created.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  27. Todd says:

    @C. Clavin: Part of the problem is that informing Congress of just about anything almost ensures that it will be leaked to the press …. and if that had happened the exchange probably wouldn’t have take place, so we’d still be talking about how “incompetent” the Obama administration is because they can’t even negotiate a POW release. ;-)

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