Dear GOP: The US has negotiated with Terrorists and Amnestied Them all through History

By Juan Cole

The GOP talking points in response to the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in a trade for five former officials of the 1990s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (Taliban) focused on a few basic premises. !. You don’t negotiate with terrorists; 2. such a swap would encourage terrorists to capture Americans; 3. these officials are the worst the worst.

Tagging movements as “terrorist” and then refusing to deal with them is frankly stupid. The Taliban in Afghanistan are not a small terrorist group like, say, the Italian Red Brigades of the 1970s and 1980s. They are guerrillas belonging to a movement that at one point had captured the state and run it. The Taliban are now a guerrilla group, holding territory.

The US has all along negotiated with the guerrillas it has fought on the battlefield. William Howard Taft (later president) in the Philippines was all for negotiation with Filipinos who rejected US rule, and he created “attraction zones” to win them over. At the conclusion of the Aguinaldo resistance to US occupation in 1902, Teddy Roosevelt declared a general amnesty for the resistance fighters. These resistance fighters had committed some atrocities, including on captured US troops, but Roosevelt just let them walk free. Talk softly, carry a big stick, and let all the terrorists go, seems to have been his motto.

The US negotiated with the Viet Cong in South Vietnam, who were very much analogous to the Taliban and whom the US would now certainly term “terrorists.” In 1973, the US used intermediaries to negotiate with the Viet Cong for release of captured US soldiers at Loc Ninh. Americans on the political right made a huge issue about 1300 US soldiers never having been released by the Viet Cong (only about 400 were), and the shame that these men were left on the battlefield by the Nixon and Ford administrations. Conservatives seem to want to have it both ways. If you negotiate the release of US captives with the enemy you are “negotiating with terrorists.” If you don’t, then you have left soldiers behind on the battlefield. The fact is that the only way to have freed them was to have offered something for them in detailed negotiations. As for the Viet Cong “terrorists,” many of them are in government now and the US has cordial relations with them.

In the 1980s radical Shiites in Lebanon took American hostages. In order to free them, the Reagan administration not only negotiated with Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini but actually stole T.O.W. anti-aircraft munitions from Pentagon warehouses and shipped them to Tehran, receiving the money for them in black bank accounts and sending it to right wing death squads in Nicaragua. Khomeini and his government were listed as terrorists by the State Department at the time, and selling weapons to Iran was highly illegal. Not only that, but the US was allied with Iraq at the time, so Reagan screwed over Baghdad this way. Reagan did it, in part to free US hostages in Lebanon (Iran put pressure on its clients for their release).

As for encouraging groups to take US hostages, if the GOP really is so worried about this outcome they should stop putting the idea in the minds of terrorists by trumpeting it all over the news media. There was no rash of hostage-taking of Americans after Reagan bribed Iran to have them released, so the expectation is ahistorical.

The Israelis did a prisoner swap, at 1000 to one, for Gilad Shalit, and it hasn’t caused more Israelis to be captured. Why do right wing Americans only hold up Israel as a model when it acts unwisely, rather than when it (as it often does) acts pragmatically?

In fact, groups like the Taliban are always trying to take US personnel captive. Every day all day. This agreement changes nothing. The reason they only had one American in captivity was not the US policy of not negotiating. It is because guerrilla groups find it difficult to kidnap people from hardened bases and other such relatively secure facilities.

Finally, as for the 5 Taliban officials being the worst of the worst, that is probably true. However, there are other worst of the worst out there– big Afghan warlords of the 1990s with massive amounts of blood on their hands– whom the US has left alone to operate freely in Afghanistan. Gen. Rashid Dostam was even a vice presidential candidate, and Abu Sayyaf serves in parliament. Look them up. US politicians appear not so interested in who committed massacres but in whether they are presently cooperative with the Karzai government.

Related video:

ABC: “Bowe Bergdahl Freed From Taliban After 5 Years in Captivity”

37 Responses

  1. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if each one of those guys that was released didn’t have a tracker implanted in them at some point during their stay in Guantanamo and now they have a Hellfire armed drone floating around above them like a kite waiting until they attend a gathering of 10 or more people in a “tribal area”….

  2. But wait! There’s more! The missiles of Iran Contra were TOW wire guided anti tank weapons, and Hawk antiaircraft missiles. To h3lp the Iranians against the Iraqis who we were also supporting in their mutual Great War. And the Contras that Ollie North and his band of Merry Men wanted to ” support” to overthrow a democratically elected Socialist government were called “freedom fighters” for being death squads and terrorist s as bad as any, and our “conservative” rulers not only negotiated with them but armed and funded those oligarchy supporting thugs. Maybe somebody else cares enough to list all the other terrorist bunches, like UNITA or terrorist initiatives like the Phoenix Program, that we Exceptional Empire dudes have raised up, supported, underwritten or conducted. And note how all those stratagems have undercut Democracy ™ abroad and at home.

    • And I almost forgot one of the fun pieces of Iran-Contra: those Hawk missiles and TOWs and artillery shells (not the ones that we directed to Saddam’s military, of course) were laundered through good old Israel! For those who don’t want to think about the “complexities” of the bullsh_t that is done sub rosa and “in our names” and for what purposes, again? here’s a nice little time line of sorts from the NY TImes, back when it pretended to be the world’s greatest newspaper:

      link to

      For all you folks who believe, or want the rest of us to believe, in Exceptional Imperialism under the Stars and Stripes, I got a bunch of other little snapshots in a plain brown envelope that will curl your toes, in bliss or in shame…

      And gee, how did it happen that somehow, in the furious War on Drugs, cocaine and stuff got mixed into the Milo Minderbinder transactions by our burly, foggy Syndicate that conducts War As A Racket?

      • The irony is that Israel has vilified Iran as a danger to world peace, yet they happily sent some of THEIR missiles to Iran as long as the U.S. replenished the Israeli government’s supply.

        The use of fronts is nothing new to Israel. They paid a commission to the Norwegian company Noratom to purchase twenty tons of heavy water in Noratom’s name from Great Britain for use in Israel’s nuclear weapons program. The heavy water was delivered straight to Israel from the U.K.

        The purchase contract contained a proviso that the heavy water was only to be employed for peaceful purposes – which it was not after being received from the British government.

  3. The only bad thing about this trade is that we did not give them all prisoners in Guantanamo. Had the President done that he would have solved a second problem as well.

    To solve a third problem we should give Guantanamo back to Cuba and remove that temptation for future presidents. Guantanamo is a place for the US government where anything goes, our little gulag. We should have no such thing.

  4. There is a legitimate concern about the future actions of the released Taliban prisoners, but one has to look at a conflict from both sides: should Sgt. Bergdahl have been required to pledge to abstain from future hostile acts against the Taliban as a condition of his release?

  5. The release of five senior Taliban prisoners is just one side of War Party’s rants about the deal to free Sgt. Bergdahl. The other side of the coin is Bergdahl leaving his post unarmed and just walking into the Taliban arms. War Party members can’t be happy about any of this.

    Sgt. Bergdahl comments about the war in Afghanistan and the Taliban will be very interesting.

    • No, they love the POW/MIA flag because it could only occur in a war where the United States did not obtain Total Victory, like in the old wars, and thus did not have all the enemy’s territory under its control. This lack of Total Victory was made into the meme that liberals “let” the Commies win because they secretly ARE Commies – the Hitler “stabbed in the back” myth updated. That meme of “Good” Americans betrayed by liberals, blacks, etc. is the cornerstone of the entire conservative movement.

      That’s what the POW/MIA flag really means. Actual POWs have no value other than how they can be used by the right-wing movement. Just like actual Marines killed in Lebanon don’t count because Reagan was never wrong.

  6. There is always talking point blather like exit strategy which only gets invoked when the other guy takes action. Now it’s the don’t negotiate with terrorists. Whatever stated with due solemnity is only a pronouncement from the mouth of the speaker to the ear of the listener and through the brain of neither.

  7. This event is another example of the decadence of the fawning corporate media, especially television. The robots from the right (in this case) recite the party line about it being wrong to negotiate with terrorists, blissfully ignoring St. Ronnie’s history with Iran. At the same time, talk show hosts let them get away with such claptrap.

  8. “Finally, as for the 5 Taliban officials being the worst of the worst, that is probably true.”

    However, if they have to get a job working in Qatar they may be better off back in Guantanamo:

    “Qatar government admits almost 1,000 fatalities among migrant workers: Report details deaths of 964 workers from Nepal, India and Bangladesh from cardiac arrests, falls and suicide” by Owen Gibson – link to

  9. We are the strongest country on earth and the GOP is worried about the release of five guys? Besides when they return to Afghanistan there wont be any Americans there to shoot at. If the GOP is really concerned about the life and limb of Americans, they only have to look to our inner cities where jobless youth gather in gangs to commit crime and sustain themselves…..and will shoot you if you look at them cross-eyed. This is a real concern to our population a thousand times greater than five guys on the other side of the world. Do you think the vocal GOP has any concern for dealing with the social issues that have created this condition that threatens the lives of our citizens?

  10. MSNBC’s C hris Matthews did a segment on his release. He went bonkers about who the Obama administration had released. Matthews kept trying to point out that Berghdal had allegedly deserted…sort of a ‘we should have left him there”attitude. This is the second time in a week that Chris Matthew’s has been picking on Vets. He had a guest on from Vote Vets on and they were discussing the Shenseki resignation(that Matthews was basically pushing for for about a week) the man from VoteVets challenged Matthews and the absence of coverage about the VA until this latest issue hit the headlines. Chris Matthews really got huffy and puffed up about his alleged coverage of these issues (he has not) and began really putting the Vet down in many ways. Pathetic just as Matthews coverage was tonight of the Berghdahl release.

    • Motormouth is a compulsive yapper who ignores most of what his guests say if he disagrees, and when he can no longer contain himself he overrides their comments with his usual banalities.

  11. Very well said, Professor Cole. I would like to add a side bar to your historical reference to our negotiations with VC guerrillas during the Vietnam War. Being a Vietnam veteran, I’m sensitive to the political gambit of using Vietnam veterans as pawns to score points with voters. It recalls the toxic atmosphere during the Vietnam War. So it is ironic that while waving the flag the Republicans again trying to muddle the waters and condemn President Obama for the release of this young soldier who was held as a POW by the Taliban. The Taliban reminded me of the VC guerrillas in their organization, military tactics and resolve if one would obviously substitute communist ideology for their Islamic faith. And as a medical corpsman, we treated wounded VC guerrillas at the base hospital where I served my tour of duty. Does that make me a communist sympathizer? Of course not. But we have definitely left political discourse and entered the theater of the absurd.

    • “And as a medical corpsman, we treated wounded VC guerrillas at the base hospital where I served my tour of duty. Does that make me a communist sympathizer? Of course not.”

      It means that you and other medical personnel in Vietnam that I know of and who acted similarly have kept a candle of hope alive that some day we will have a civilized society.

      • The ultimate irony about how politics swing back around is that after the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, the luxurious Cam Ranh Bay military installation came under Communist control and leased to the Soviet Union, but after the fall of communism there, the Russian government could no longer afford the $200,000,000 per annum rent and vacated the base after it had become a major counter-balance to the U.S. naval presence in the Phillippines.

        In 2012, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was given a tour of Cam Ranh Bay by the Vietnamese government who was willing to lease it back America – who no longer wants it.

        More Vietnamese died in the Vietnam War than all American servicemen in all U.S. wars put together since the Revolutionary War.

        The Viet Cong’s political arm, the National Liberation Front, had a seat at the Paris Peace talks, and after the fall of Saigon, the Viet Cong complained bitterly that the North Vietnamese government never gave them control of the conquered south, but put their own cronies in place as an occupying government.

  12. six marines were killed trying to find Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. And apparently Bergdahl abandoned his post and deserted the army. Will we see treason charges?

    • No. does not meet the definition of treason in any way shape or form. The definition of treason was a key concern of the framers as “treason against the king” was a a common way, in their day, to dispense with anyone for most any reason. (And if charged with treason then you had to defend yourself because a lawyer would also be found guilty of treason if that lawyer represented you and lost the case.) So treason is specifically set out in the US Constitution — that means the US is highly limited in its ability to try for treason.

      Section Three Article 3: “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.”

      Less than 20 convictions most having to do with the CIvil War. Also Axis Sally and Tokyo Rose (pardoned by Gerald Ford.)

  13. I question Cole’s buying into the “worst of the worst” argument about the five men released from Gitmo in this prisoner swap. They’ve been held by US without charge or trial for years. Don’t you think if there were any credible evidence about how “bad” they are they’d have been charged with something by now? Just how bad can they be if no credible evidence exists to charge them with anything after all these years?

    • Oh, come on. The Interior Minister of the Taliban regime? The worst. Knowing that somebody bears responsibility for deaths and proving it in court are not the same thing. Is a government in power putting down an insurrection a massacre? It is a prosecutor’s nightmare.

  14. Perhaps, if the GOP President at the time did not invade and occupy Afghanistan and Iraq, US soldiers would not be kidnapped?

  15. It is my understanding that Taliban are not listed as “terrorist organization” but as “enemy combatants” (aka POWs) therefore these 5 would be released anyway under the Geneva Accords. If the were accused of “war crimes”, then marched off to the World Court as was done with several Serbs.

  16. It is my understanding that Taliban are not listed as “terrorist organization” but as “enemy combatants” (aka POWs). Therefore, these 5 would be released anyway under the Geneva Accords. If the were accused of “war crimes”, then marched off to the World Court as was done with several Serbs.

  17. Where the 5 exchanged, though, considered “terrorists” or “enemy combatants”, were they part of the group that held the Sgt?

    • Good point. They were former high officials of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. It doesn’t even make any sense to call them “terrorists” since they were state actors.

      • State actors are exempt from a terror organization designation by the U.S. government.

        Furthermore, Afghanistan was a signatory to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, and the Taliban, as one-time ruling power in that country, has the protections of that document extend to its armed forces members.

        By contrast, the Al Qaeda militants are “enemy combatants” who have no such Geneva Convention protections.

  18. Could the Taliban really be called state actors? Their atrocious “government” was recognized only by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, while in the UN the pre-Taliban (e.g. Northern Alliance) government still was recognised until 2001/2002. And I think Lynmarenjensen has a point. You just cannot hold people indefinitely without charging them of a crime at some point!

    • Being a “state actor” does not immunize one from a war crimes prosecution, but only gives the prisoner protections granted members of a regime’s armed forces.

      Panama’s Manuel Noriega, for example, had Geneva Convention protections as a captured general during Operation Just Cause, but was prosecuted by several governments and has spent decades behind bars.

      The Taliban, although diplomatically unpopular and undemocratic, was the de facto ruling power over Kabul and most of Afghanistan since 1996.

  19. Speaking as an Israeli, I see this as an official step off a cliff as far as U.S. foreign policy is concerned and I will use Israel as an example.
    Israel started it’s first prisoner trades with people labeled as terrorists with trades of 1 for 1. At last count, the trade was 1 Israeli soldier for 1027 terrorists including people responsible for some of the worst terrorist attacks the country has ever seen.
    The bottom line is that this prisoner swap system is getting more and more expensive and terrorists fighting against Israel have made it one of their highest priorities. Every year we capture more and more cells with specific mission instructions to capture and hold hostage Israelis to be used in prisoner swaps.
    I fear that by making this public trade, Obama has put a bounty on every American in the world when he publicly announced that America will now go into open trade with terrorists.

    • Both the IDF and Shin Bet leadership recommended that PM Olmert agree to a prisoner exchange right off the bat when Gilad Shalit was first abducted – he refused.

      At the time that Shalit was released, 79% of Israelis polled supported the prisoner swap.

      IAF navigator Ron Arad was never exchanged after being captured by Hezbollah in the 1980s. Would it have been better in retrospect if his release had been negotiated?

      Were more Americans captured and held hostage in Lebanon after the Reagan administration negotiated for their release? Not at all.

      I do agree with you that there were reports that Gazans attempted to abduct IDF soldiers during Operation Cast Lead – but none were actually taken.

  20. Would this even be an issue if we had never gotten involved in this cluster in the first place? And exactly how long can you hold people without charging/trying them with/for something? If you capture someone is it just a free pass to do whatever you would like and if that’s the case do we still think we hold the moral high ground and feel like we should be the model for democracy?

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