Monday, June 2, 2014

It's Complicated

Like nearly everything else involved in the War On Terror, last week's release of American soldier Bowe Bergdahl is very complicated.  The Taliban released Bergdahl after five years of captivity somewhere in Afghanistan (and possibly Pakistan as well).  In exchange the US released the five men who had been held at Guantanamo Bay for the longest periods.

What is proving to be difficult to work out is how to accurately portray this exchange due to the ambiguous nature of this now 13-year fight.  First off, was Bowe Bergdahl actually a "prisoner of war", or was he a "hostage"?  Bergdahl was an active duty Private stationed in-country at the time of his capture--but nearly everyone agrees that he had deserted his post and left his base before the Taliban got him.  It was not like there was a firefight and he surrendered after realizing there was no hope for escape.  His own writings to his parents show his dis-satisfaction and disillusionment with being in the military.

The five men being released by the US are former top Taliban officials--including their defense minister and the former head of the army.  Most of them had been held at Gitmo for more than ten years after they were captured during fighting or in raids on Taliban compounds.  They have alternately been referred to as "terrorists" and "enemy combatants"--leading to legal questions about their status and if the Army can hold them indefinitely (or until the Taliban and Al Qaeda gives up fighting).

Republicans took to the Sunday morning talk shows to criticize the Administration for the swap--saying that it will only encourage more hostage-taking by the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the region--in the hopes of winning more release of their captives.  But they might be better off considering this a prisoner of war exchange.  Trading POW's is a practice that has been common for centuries (Senator John McCain--one of the critics--knows that first-hand).  And by labeling Private Bergdahl and the Taliban officials released by the US as "POWs", it will give some credibility  to our claim that all of those being held in Cuba are not entitled to trials in US courts to argue for their release. They should be held until there is an official end to the fighting.

The one real concern in the Bergdahl swap is that he will return to Idaho and eventually settle into a "normal American life" again.  But the five Taliban prisoners will more than likely return to their efforts to kill Americans again (following a negotiated one-year travel restriction in Qatar).  Of course--like many other decisions in the Obama Administration--that will be left to another President to deal with the ugly aftermath.

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