Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Trade

The Obama Administration ignited yet another controversy with its recent exchange of  American soldier Bowe Bergdahl for five members of Afghanistan's Taliban. The exchange raised many questions--some unanswered and others answered poorly. Part of the confusion comes from the vagueness of how we define terrorism and the complex relationship between what are commonly called "terrorist organizations" and the states that host them.

Some critics claim that Obama violated a traditional American practice of not negotiating with terrorists.So is this an American tradition? Do we negotiate with terrorists. Of course,we do. You can read about it here.

Is the Taliban a terrorist organization? That depends on one definition of terrorism. Few can agree on what exactly constitutes a terrorist group. Originally, the term terrorism referred to acts of violence or hostage taking committed against civilians by private paramilitary non-state entities in the pursuit of some political objectives. Some terrorist groups expanded their targets to include military and diplomatic facilities of their perceived enemies.

So is the Taliban a terrorist organization?

Historically the Taliban they emerged an Islamic Fundamentalist political movement devoted to securing power and imposing Sharia law on Afghanistan. It achieved power after expelling the Russians with the help of thousands of Arab Muslim foreign fighters, some of whom joined rival militias. Once in  power, it found itself engaged in a civil war against these other militias. Al-Qaeda, a terrorists organization by any definition, supported the Taliban against these rival militias. In fact, some observers speculated that the political viability of the Taliban became dependent upon the support of the foreign fighters affiliated with Al-Qaeda and that the Taliban and the government of Mohammad Omar even had no control over them. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the United States deposed the Taliban and established elections for a replacement government. The Taliban continues its civil war, but this time as the outsider trying once again to regain control over Afghanistan.  In a civil war, of course, EVERYONE is a soldier or a potential supporter of one side or the other. The makes life a living hell for the many Afghans, caught in the middle between two or more fighting forces.

The vagueness can even be seen in the confused way in which US policy makers allude to the Taliban. When the Taliban ( or at least the militias that later coalesced into the Taliban) opposed the Soviet Union, Ronald Reagan referred to them as "freedom fighters." When the Taliban opposed the United States, George W. Bush referred to them as "terrorists." Even today the State Department does not categorize the Taliban as a terrorist organization.

After Bowe Bergdahl went missing, the Department of Defense listed his status a missing or captured. It later updated his status as captured.

That does not tell us whether is considered him a prisoner of war or a hostage of terrorists.

And was the trade an advantageous one for the United States? Not on its face. Yes, as we continue our withdrawal from Afghanistan, we need secure the release of any captives. Whether we consider Bergdahl a hostage or a prisoner of war, however, it seems pretty clear that he became a captive after an act of desertion. In exchange, we traded some very high profile Taliban officials. One-for-one prisoner exchanges during wartime disappeared decades ago, but this exchange seems way out of proportion.

Next up: The Trader

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