The US, Israel and other countries have long said, “We don’t negotiate with terrorists.” But that’s not exactly true. After all, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. And there have been many exceptions to that rule. For example, Israel once exchanged more than a thousand “terrorists” for one of its soldiers. And, of course, there is the most recent exception in which the US exchanged five Taliban leaders for US Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl.
Where this case gets murky is the fact that the Taliban is considered a military enemy, not a terrorist organization. The US has recognized the role of the Afghan Taliban since the Clinton administration and has negotiated with the Taliban going back to the early days of the Bush administration. Officially, Taliban captives at Guantanamo are POWs. Not terrorists.
Further complicating the issue is that the Taliban prisoners had a “sell by date.” Once the US ceases the combat role of our military in Afghanistan beginning in 2015, the prisoners will have to be released under the Geneva Conventions anyway. If we were ever to get anything in return for the prisoners, we would have to do it this year. It’s clear that the administration engineered the best deal for Bergdahl’s return that it could get. The prisoners we exchanged will be monitored closely by the Qatar government and they will not be allowed to leave Qatar or participate in any military planning for one year. By that time, our combat role in Afghanistan will have ended.
Of course, the president is once again being accused of being an imperialist and a lawless dictator for authorizing the deal without consulting Congress. Yes, Congress had passed a law requiring the president to seek permission for releasing prisoners from Guantanamo at least 30 days in advance. The law was pushed by conservatives in order to prevent President Obama from following through on his campaign promise of closing Gitmo (an internationally-despised prison on land claimed by the US in a country with which we have no formal relations). But that law is clearly unconstitutional. It violates the separation of powers and the president’s authority as Commander-In-Chief. While Congress has sole authority for declaring war, once we send our troops into battle, the president has final authority over any military decisions. That has been true since George Washington was president.
Then there is the controversy over the actions of Bergdahl. No one knows why then Private Bergdahl had walked away from his unit the night of his capture, but it wasn’t the first time he had done so. As a result, he was not guilty of desertion or treason. He was AWOL. A military investigation into the matter following his disappearance never mentioned desertion. In fact, the report raised many questions about the lack of discipline in his unit.
Further adding to the confusion are charges that the search for Bergdahl resulted in the deaths of six American soldiers. Those charges are in dispute. Once the evidence revealed that no one was killed as a direct result of the search, those making the claim changed their story to say that, had Bergdahl not disappeared, the soldiers killed would no longer have been in the area. Only the military command knows the truth and we’re unlikely to learn the facts until later.
So here’s the conundrum: Those who hate this president…who suffer from Obama Derangement Syndrome…are certain that our administration traded dangerous terrorists for a deserter. They not only believe that Bergdahl should have been left to rot in Taliban captivity. They believe that his parents are Taliban sympathizers and Muslims simply because Bergdahl’s father grew a long beard and learned the Pashto language in hopes of obtaining the release of his son. The Bergdahls have received death threats as a result. And the Bergdahls’ hometown has been forced to call off an event celebrating Bowe Bergdahl’s release.
So that’s what defines treason and patriotism in the minds of the far right these days?
If growing a long beard makes one a terrorist and a Taliban sympathizer, then why haven’t Phil Robertson and the entire cast of Duck Dynasty received death threats? Why haven’t the stars of Mountain Men been vilified? More to the point, why haven’t the very real terrorists who populate the Hells Angels, Mongols and other biker gangs not been labeled Muslims and Islamist fanatics?
In reality, the exchange of prisoners for Bergdahl was some necessary housekeeping in preparation for the end of combat in Afghanistan. The deal had been under consideration since 2011 and, for years, conservatives had been accusing the president of dragging his feet in attempts to free an American soldier. Indeed, there have been unconfirmed reports that 500,000 protest signs were found by sanitation workers next to dumpsters behind Republican National Committee headquarters. The signs read, “Impeach Obama For Leaving An American Behind In Afghanistan.”