Foreign Policy Experts Vs. Media On Talking To The Taliban

Since the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, media have scandalized the administration's negotiations with the Taliban, conducted through a third-party, despite the fact that foreign policy experts and military leaders have long acknowledged the necessity of such negotiations.

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl Released By Taliban In Prisoner Exchange

Captured American Soldier Released In Exchange For Five Taliban Detainees. On May 31, The New York Times reported that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier held captive by Afghan insurgents for nearly five years, was released to American special operations forces in exchange for five Taliban detainees held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba:

The lone American prisoner of war from the Afghan conflict, captured by insurgents nearly five years ago, has been released to American forces in exchange for five Taliban detainees held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, Obama administration officials said Saturday.

The soldier, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, 28, was handed over to American Special Operations troops inside Afghanistan near the Pakistan border about 10:30 a.m. Saturday in a tense but uneventful exchange with 18 Taliban officials, American officials said. Moments later, Sergeant Bergdahl was whisked away by the helicopter-borne commandos, American officials said. He was described in good physical condition. [The New York Times, 5/31/14]

Prisoner Exchange Negotiated By Qatari Government. As The Washington Post reported on June 1, Bergdahl's release was negotiated by Qatari government intermediaries:

His release was secured after the Obama administration, working through Qatari government intermediaries, agreed to free five high-profile Afghan inmates held by the U.S. military in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The influential commanders, including the former head of the Taliban's army, were loaded onto a U.S. military aircraft bound for Qatar after U.S. officials got confirmation that Bergdahl had been freed. [The Washington Post, 6/1/14]

Media Scandalize Negotiations Leading To Prisoner Swap

Fox News Host: “Is This The First Entree” To “Befriending The Taliban?” On the June 4 edition of Fox News' Outnumbered, co-host Harris Faulkner incited fear over the motivations for the prisoner-swap negotiation, wondering, “Is this is first entree into us trying to befriend the Taliban, who want to kill us?” : 

FAULKNER: I've been asking since the beginning about this swap. What is going on behind the scenes? What is the real reason why this happened? Why did it have to happen now? We're looking at this push now -- we'll talk about this a little bit more in detail later in the show, about Guantanamo Bay. Is this is first entree into us trying to befriend the Taliban, who want to kill us? [Fox News, Outnumbered, 6/4/14]

Fox Contributor Allen West: “The Taliban Is Our Enemy, And It Is Not A Nation-State With Whom We Should Enter Into Negotiations.” In a June 3 blog post, former Republican congressman and Fox News contributor Allen West accused the Obama administration of acquiescing “to the demands of a non-state, non-uniform terrorist organization -- the Taliban.” He argued, “The Taliban is our enemy, and it is not a nation-state with whom we should enter into negotiations.” [, 6/3/14]

Megyn Kelly: “America Doesn't Normally Negotiate With Terrorists. Did We Just Do That?” On the June 2 edition of Fox News' The Kelly File, host Megyn Kelly claimed that “one of the most contentious issues in this prisoner-swap deal” is that “America doesn't normally negotiate with terrorists” :

KELLY: America doesn't normally negotiate with terrorists. Did we just do that? Back in 2008 President Bush was speaking in Israel when he shared this powerful history lesson on the danger of trying to deal with the devil. [Fox News, The Kelly File, 6/2/14, via Media Matters]

Sean Hannity: Obama Won't Negotiate With Republicans, “But He Negotiated With The Taliban.” On the June 2 edition of Fox News' Hannity, host Sean Hannity criticized Obama for negotiating the prisoner swap, complaining, “So he won't negotiate with [congressional Republicans], but he negotiated with the Taliban, through a third-party intermediary.” [Fox News, Hannity, 6/2/14, via Media Matters]

NBC's Nightly News: “Does The U.S. Now Negotiate With The Taliban?” On the June 2 edition of NBC's Nightly News, Ann Curry reported that Bergdahl's release required “swapping out five Taliban commanders who were being held at Guantanamo,” negotiations which raised “new questions” such as, “Does the U.S. now negotiate with the Taliban?” [NBC, Nightly News, 6/2/14]

CNN's Ana Navarro: Negotiation “Sets A Very Bad Precedent.” On the June 2 edition of CNN's New Day, CNN political contributor Ana Navarro argued that negotiations to free Bergdahl are problematic because, “The thought that Qatar was the one negotiating really stretches credulity. We all know that this was a Taliban-United States negotiation and it sets a very bad precedent” :

CUOMO:  So, Ana, looking at this as a function of history -- why there's outrage -- didn't Reagan do a deal where he exchange arms for POWs? Why is this getting such outcry from the Republicans?

NAVARRO: I think it's getting outcry, Chris, for several reasons. First of all, I want to agree with Donna that it is cause for celebration when an American is returned home, and we should all join in that celebration with the Bergdahl family. That being said, it doesn't mean that there aren't serious concerns for several reasons. Number one, we negotiated with terrorists. The thought that Qatar was the one negotiating really stretches credulity. We all know that this was a Taliban-United States negotiation, and it sets a very bad precedent.

Second of all, at what price did we negotiate? We have just handed over to the Taliban five leaders, as you call them -- five battle-hardened Taliban leaders -- one of them identified by the United Nations as having killed thousands of Shiite Muslims. So these are people who may very well likely go back into battle, and it sets also that bad precedent. And third, what does this mean in the future? Are there going to be more Americans that are taken hostage, more Americans that are imprisoned so that -- in order to get other Taliban released. So it's a very slippery slope that should be of great concern to all of us. [CNN, New Day, 6/2/14]

CNN's Candy Crowley: Can It “No Longer Can It Be Said That The U.S. Doesn't Negotiate With Terrorists?” On the June 1 edition of State of the Union, host Candy Crowley asked national security adviser Susan Rice whether it “no longer can it be said that the U.S. doesn't negotiate with terrorists” :  

CROWLEY: Point-blank, did the U.S. negotiate with terrorists for his release?

RICE: Candy, what we did, was ensure that as always [the] United States doesn't leave a man or woman on the battlefield. And in order to do this -- It's very important for folks to understand. If we got into a situation where we said, you know, because of who has captured an American soldier on the battlefield, we will leave that person behind, we would be in a whole new era for the safety of our personnel and for the nature of our commitment to our men and women in uniform. So because it was the Taliban that had him did not mean that we had any less of an obligation to bring him back.

CROWLEY: Right, I mean, in fact, it was the Haqqani network, which really is listed as a terrorist. And this is not a judgment question, it's just a question. You had to negotiate with terrorists to secure the release of the Sergeant -

RICE: We actually negotiated with the government of Qatar, to whom we owe a great debt. But the point is, he was being held by the Taliban. We had the opportunity to bring him back. He's back safely in the hands of the United States and that's a great thing.

CROWLEY: Yes, and I don't think anyone argues, and I think the question now is, and you point to the kinds of warfare we're having now, that no longer can it be said that the U.S. doesn't negotiate with terrorists?

RICE: I wouldn't put it that way, Candy. I wouldn't say that at all.

CROWLEY: How would you put it?

RICE: Well, when we are in battles with terrorists and terrorists take an American prisoner, that prisoner still is a U.S. serviceman or woman. We still have a sacred obligation to bring that person back. We did so, and that's what's to be celebrated. [CNN, State Of The Union, 6/1/14, via Media Matters]

Foreign Policy Experts, Military Leaders Underscore Necessity Of Negotiations With Taliban

Former Bush Defense Official Charles Stimson: Any President Would Negotiate With Taliban. USA Today reported that President George W. Bush's former Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for Detainee Affairs Charles Stimson dismissed critics of the negotiations, saying any Republican or Democratic president has done and would do the same:

Under President George W. Bush, Stimson helped coordinate the Pentagon's detainee operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and other places around the world. He said presidential administrations of both political parties routinely have been forced to deal with terrorist groups for “information, supplies, personnel -- a lot of different topics.”  

“We have had very quiet negotiations, or discussions at least, with terrorist groups over the years on a whole host of things,” Stimson said. “They just haven't usually come to light.”


Stimson said there are valid questions to ask, such as the conditions the Taliban leaders will face in Qatar, the country that agreed to take and monitor them to ensure they don't engage in actions that threaten the United States. With the war in Afghanistan winding down, the U.S. may have to release all prisoners being held in Guantanamo Bay, which would have eliminated any chance of trading for Bergdahl's release.

Facing a deadline like that, Stimson said, any president -- Republican or Democrat -- could have made the same decision.  

“Anyone who says otherwise ... hasn't been involved in these kinds of negotiations.”  [USA Today, 6/2/14]

Former Senior Bush Adviser: “We Would Have Made The Same Decision.” John Bellinger, former legal adviser to Department of State under George Bush, defended the Obama administration's move, saying “these particular detainees I think could never have been tried in federal court.” He insisted that the Bush administration “would have made the same decision.” Bellinger noted that the Bush administration “returned something like 500 detainees from Guantanamo.” From Think Progress:

“I'm not saying this is clearly an easy choice but frankly I think a Republican, a president of either party, Republican or Democratic confronted with this opportunity to get back Sgt. Bergdahl, who is apparently in failing health, would have taken this opportunity to do this,” he added. “I think we would have made the same decision in the Bush administration. [ThinkProgress, 6/3/14]

National Security Network: “Historically, Negotiating With Bad Actors Has Been Necessary To U.S. National Security.”   The National Security Network called out critics of the prisoner swap negotiation who argue that it “sets a dangerous precedent,” citing the “long history of the United States negotiating with unsavory actors to secure American interests, including bringing home Americans.” They went on: (emphasis original)

Historically, negotiating with bad actors has been necessary to U.S. national security, including bringing Americans home - no new precedent has been set. Despite conservative claims to the contrary, no new precedent has been set, much less a precedent that would incentivize the Taliban to capture Americans. Fact-checker Aaron Sharockman explains the long history of the United States negotiating with unsavory regimes and characters to advance its own interests: “During the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 to 1981, President Jimmy Carter agreed to unfreeze $8 billion in frozen Iranian assets after more than a year of negotiations with the Iranian revolutionaries...President Bill Clinton's administration sat down with Hamas in attempts to negotiate peace with Israel. His administration also worked directly with the Taliban nearly two decades ago on several occasions to see if the group would hand over Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders. One recent example came in 2010, when the United States released Shia cleric Qais al-Khazali in exchange for Peter Moore, a private British contractor, and the bodies of Moore's security officers.”   [National Security Network, 6/2/14

PolitiFact: Experts Say America Has A Long History Of Wartime Prisoner Trades. According to PolitiFact, the U.S. “has a long history of negotiating prisoner trades in times of war.” Former State Department official Mitchell Reiss noted that America's history of negotiating with terrorists dates back to the Founding Fathers:

“There's little that's actually new here,” said Mitchell Reiss, who worked in the State Department under President George W. Bush and served as national security adviser to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. “It may be new to certain individuals. Whether it's new or not is not as important as whether it's sound policy and promotes national security. That's the ground where there's a more legitimate debate.”

In his book, Negotiating with Evil, Reiss wrote that America actually has a detailed history of negotiating with terrorists and rogue regimes that support terrorist activity.


·         After the North Koreans captured the U.S.S. Pueblo in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson apologized for spying as part of negotiations to secure the release of 83 American prisoners.

·         In 1970, President Richard Nixon pressured Israel, Switzerland, West Germany and Britain to release Palestinian prisoners after two airlines were hijacked by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

·         During the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 to 1981, President Jimmy Carter agreed to unfreeze $8 billion in frozen Iranian assets after more than a year of negotiations with the Iranian revolutionaries.

·         In perhaps the most famous swap, after seven Americans were captured in Beirut, Lebanon, President Ronald Reagan agreed to send missiles to Iran in what became known as the Iran-Contra scandal. 

·         President Bill Clinton's administration sat down with Hamas in attempts to negotiate peace with Israel. His administration also worked directly with the Taliban nearly two decades ago on several occasions to see if the group would hand over Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders.

Reiss also noted that President George W. Bush engaged in negotiations with Iran and North Korea even after decreeing them part of the “Axis of Evil.” [PolitiFact, 6/1/14]

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell Laid The Groundwork For Taliban Negotiations. Serving under President Bush in 2002, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell designated the Afghan Taliban an organization authorized for select legal negotiations, unlike the terror group Al Qaeda, as Newsweek pointed out:  

By making this distinction -- a position ultimately adopted by Bush -- then the United States would be preserving its ability to credibly declare captured American soldiers to be prisoners of war. The recommendation, Powell wrote, “maintains POW status for U.S. forces ... and generally supports the U.S. objective of ensuring its forces are accorded protection under the [Geneva] Conventions.”

So, the American government believes that its actions have given it the legitimate right to claim that its soldiers captured by the Taliban, as Bergdahl was, to be prisoners of war. Prisoner exchanges are negotiated on an ad hoc basis in wartime, but the most familiar context of deals struck between governments is not available in the Afghan war. Without allowing for negotiations with the Taliban, all captured American forces would immediately be sent down a legal black hole under which no means exists -- other than the commitment of more soldiers in what might prove to be a fruitless rescue attempt -- for their rescue.  [Newsweek, 6/3/14]

Center For American Progress: Bergdahl Prisoner Swap Is “A Smart Move,” “In Return For Something they Had To Do” Anyway.  Ken Gude, a Senior Fellow at American Progress specializing in issues involving detainees, called the prisoner swap “a smart move by the Obama administration to secure Sgt. Bergdal's safe release in return for doing something they had to do soon anyway.”  CAP reported that as the U.S.'s armed conflict in Afghanistan comes to an end, Taliban prisoners taken into custody might have to be released:

“It is a smart move by the Obama administration to secure Sgt. Bergdahl's safe release in return for doing something they had to do soon anyway,” said Ken Gude, Senior Fellow at American Progress.

The United States is engaged in an armed conflict in Afghanistan against Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces authorized by Congress under the 2001 Authorizations to Use Military Force. It remains controversial whether this armed conflict extends beyond Afghanistan and the border regions of Pakistan, but there's no doubt that of the enemy forces party to this conflict, the Taliban is confined to Afghanistan and Pakistan. President Barack Obama recently announced that the combat role for the United States in the armed conflict in Afghanistan will end this year and all participation will completely cease by 2016.

When wars end, prisoners taken into custody must be released. These five Guantanamo detainees were almost all members of the Taliban, according to the biographies of the five detainees that the Afghan Analysts Network compiled in 2012. None were facing charges in either military or civilian courts for their actions. It remains an open question whether the end of U.S. involvement in the armed conflict in Afghanistan requires that all Guantanamo Bay detainees must be released. But there is no doubt that Taliban detainees captured in Afghanistan must be released because the armed conflict against the Taliban will be over. [Center For American Progress, 6/2/14]