Commentary Magazine


Topic: prisoners

A Case for Tactical Prisoner Releases

I sympathize with conservatives such as Bethany Mandel who are outraged by reports that the U.S. military in Afghanistan has been releasing some insurgent commanders from its detention facility–as revealed in a Washington Post article. I too am opposed to unnecessary and counterproductive releases of detainees–based on nothing more than wishful thinking–who could return to the battlefield to kill more Americans or Afghans. But that doesn’t mean all prisoner releases are ill-advised.

In Iraq, one of the key elements that made the “surge” so successful in 2007-2008 was both locking up and releasing lots of detainees: locking them up when they were seen as contributing to instability and releasing them when such releases were seen as furthering stability. Specifically, as Sunnis vowed to turn against al-Qaeda, the release of their kinsmen from American detention was a powerful “carrot” that, along with lucrative contracts for security and other services, could reward and encourage their change of thinking. By some lights this might be seen as negotiating with terrorists–and so it was. Or, more specifically, negotiating with former terrorists. Not all such deals panned out–in some cases dangerous men were released, and they did not live up to their word to stop fighting. But this was a risk that Gen. David Petraeus judged worth taking because he understood that U.S. forces did not have the will or ability to lock up all troublemakers indefinitely. Sooner or later the Americans would leave Iraq. Better to release some insurgent leaders on our terms when it could help to win the battle, rather than wait a few years and see them all released anyway.

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I sympathize with conservatives such as Bethany Mandel who are outraged by reports that the U.S. military in Afghanistan has been releasing some insurgent commanders from its detention facility–as revealed in a Washington Post article. I too am opposed to unnecessary and counterproductive releases of detainees–based on nothing more than wishful thinking–who could return to the battlefield to kill more Americans or Afghans. But that doesn’t mean all prisoner releases are ill-advised.

In Iraq, one of the key elements that made the “surge” so successful in 2007-2008 was both locking up and releasing lots of detainees: locking them up when they were seen as contributing to instability and releasing them when such releases were seen as furthering stability. Specifically, as Sunnis vowed to turn against al-Qaeda, the release of their kinsmen from American detention was a powerful “carrot” that, along with lucrative contracts for security and other services, could reward and encourage their change of thinking. By some lights this might be seen as negotiating with terrorists–and so it was. Or, more specifically, negotiating with former terrorists. Not all such deals panned out–in some cases dangerous men were released, and they did not live up to their word to stop fighting. But this was a risk that Gen. David Petraeus judged worth taking because he understood that U.S. forces did not have the will or ability to lock up all troublemakers indefinitely. Sooner or later the Americans would leave Iraq. Better to release some insurgent leaders on our terms when it could help to win the battle, rather than wait a few years and see them all released anyway.

We do not have the full story of prisoner releases in Afghanistan, but based on the evidence presented in the Post article, the program appears to be modeled on the one in Iraq–and to be based, as in Iraq, on a hard-headed calculation by local commanders of what incentives they need to offer to local tribes and factions to come over to the government’s side. The only release actually described in the Post article involved a local leader of Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin in Wardak province whose followers had agreed to start fighting against the Taliban–another insurgent faction. This was precisely the type of “split the insurgency” mentality that made possible the success of the surge in Iraq. Under those circumstances, it would seem reasonable to release a HiG leader as a reward for his cooperation against our mutual enemies.

This type of release, made in return for real cooperation on the ground, is very different from the deal being contemplated by the Obama administration for the release of senior Taliban commanders from Guantanamo in return, it would seem, for nothing more than a willingness of the Taliban to engage in peace talks. That would appear to be a one-sided exchange which would signal weakness to our enemies who are far from defeated–and very different from the type of tactical prisoner releases that make sense when erstwhile enemies are prepared to switch sides or stop fighting.

 

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Why Are We Releasing, Not Exchanging, Taliban Prisoners?

Today, the Washington Post reported,

The United States has for several years been secretly releasing high-level detainees from a military prison in Afghanistan as part of negotiations with insurgent groups, a bold effort to quell violence but one that U.S. officials acknowledge poses substantial risks.

As the United States has unsuccessfully pursued a peace deal with the Taliban, the “strategic release” program has quietly served as a live diplomatic channel, allowing American officials to use prisoners as bargaining chips in restive provinces where military power has reached its limits.

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Today, the Washington Post reported,

The United States has for several years been secretly releasing high-level detainees from a military prison in Afghanistan as part of negotiations with insurgent groups, a bold effort to quell violence but one that U.S. officials acknowledge poses substantial risks.

As the United States has unsuccessfully pursued a peace deal with the Taliban, the “strategic release” program has quietly served as a live diplomatic channel, allowing American officials to use prisoners as bargaining chips in restive provinces where military power has reached its limits.

Almost exactly four years ago, in May 0f 2008 during an address before the Israeli Knesset then-candidate Barack Obama stated,

George Bush knows that I have never supported engagement with terrorists, and the president’s extraordinary politicization of foreign policy and the politics of fear do nothing to secure the American people or our stalwart ally Israel.

Besides a general easing of tension which this policy is trying to foster, there is one very real concession that the president has seemed to ignore in his concessions to the devil (they’re only called deals if you get something in return, which we have not).

On June 30, 2009, almost three years ago, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl of Idaho was kidnapped by the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network. He is the only prisoner of war currently held by the Taliban and recent video releases seem to indicate that he is being kept alive for ransom by the group. A month after his capture the president issued a statement, explaining that he was “heartbroken” over Sgt. Bergdahl’s situation and vowed to bring him home. In three years, this seems to be the only public statement made by the President about Bergdahl.

In December, The Daily Beast was the only outlet to report on a heroic escape attempt by the sergeant. After working for over two years to gain the trust of his captors, Bergdahl jumped out of a first-story window, running into the wilderness. The Daily Beast tells the story,

Mullah Sangin and his brother Mullah Balal, who had been put in charge of the prisoner, organized a search as soon as the escape was discovered. Nevertheless, the sources say, Bergdahl successfully avoided capture for three days and two nights. The searchers finally found him, weak, exhausted, and nearly naked—he had spent three days without food or water—hiding in a shallow trench he had dug with his own hands and covered with leaves.

Even then, he put up a ferocious fight. The two gunmen who found him first were unable to subdue him. “He fought like a boxer,” Hanif was told. It took five more militants to overpower him. Now back in custody, he is kept shackled at night, and his jailers are taking no chances.

This is the caliber of soldier that the United States and its military produces, the American that the president seems to have forgotten about for almost three years.

Shortly before Bergdahl’s kidnapping, the United States was comfortable negotiating the release of terrorists in exchange for British hostages. Andrew McCarthy at National Review made the connection:

And although the administration has attempted to pass off Laith Qazali’s release as a necessary compromise of American national interests for the purportedly greater good of Iraqi reconciliation, the camouflage is thin indeed. Transparently, the terrorist has been freed as a quid pro quo for the release of British hostages. According to the New York Times, Sami al-Askari, another Maliki mouthpiece, told an interviewer:

This is a very sensitive topic because you know the position that the Iraqi government, the U.S. and British governments, and all the governments do not accept the idea of exchanging hostages for prisoners. . . . So we put it in another format, and we told them that if they want to participate in the political process they cannot do so while they are holding hostages. And we mentioned to the American side that they cannot join in the political process and release their hostages while their leaders are behind bars or imprisoned.

In 2008 it was Barack Obama’s policy not to engage with terrorists under any circumstances. In 2009, his administration was comfortable exchanging American prisoners for British hostages. In 2012, it has become clear it was the long-standing policy of the administration to release American-held terrorist prisoners while asking for nothing in exchange, not even an American POW.

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