National Security

The Bergdahl Bargain Was Just the Beginning

Obama swapped five Taliban for Bowe Bergdahl. What will he trade for the three other Americans being held in Afghanistan?


This story has been updated. 

The Obama administration's controversial decision to swap five senior Taliban figures for the military's lone prisoner of war, Bowe Bergdahl, is putting new pressure on the White House to do more to free the three other American citizens who have been missing in Afghanistan or Pakistan for years but have drawn little attention in Washington.

On Wednesday, the family of an American woman captured with her Canadian husband in Afghanistan in October 2012 released two videos the family said were received last year in which the couple asked the U.S. government to help get them released.  Members of Caitlin Coleman's family said they released the videos now in a bid to bring attention to their daughter's captivity in the wake of the release of Bergdahl.

The Associated Press reported that the videos offer "the first and only clues" about what happened to Coleman and her husband Joshua Boyle after they disappeared from a mountainous region near Kabul, Afghanistan's capital. The AP, which first reported on the existence of the videos, cited government officials as saying they appeared to be authentic but it was not clear when or where they were made. Coleman was expected to have had a baby just a few months after she was captured; although she refers to her child in the videos, no baby appears in either. That child would be an American citizen.

"I would ask that my family and my government do everything that they can to bring my husband, child and I to safety and freedom," Coleman said in one of the videos. The couple were seen as thrill-seeking adventure-tourists who had travelled in other dangerous areas in the past.

"It would be no more appropriate to have our government turn their backs on their citizens than to turn their backs on those who serve," the AP quoted Patrick Boyle, a Canadian judge and the father of Joshua Boyle.  

The other American civilian thought to be in captivity is Warren Weinstein, 72, a government contractor who was doing work in Pakistan when he was kidnapped in August 2011. It was unclear from government officials Monday what the status of these Americans was or if active discussions were taking place to secure their release.

In a letter to President Obama Monday, Rep. Duncan Hunter, Jr., a California Republican, demanded to know why they weren't part of the deal in which Washington agreed to send five detainees from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba to Qatar in return for Bergdahl's release. Bergdahl, 28, had been held by militants since wandering off his tiny outpost in eastern Afghanistan in 2009.

"My understanding is that three other Americans remain in custody of militants aligned with the Taliban," Hunter wrote. "Should this still be the case, I would like to know why these individuals were not included in the negotiation that resulted in the release of five detainees from Guantánamo Bay." Hunter also urged the president to "expedite and exhaust ongoing lines of effort" to ensure the return of the three Americans, but was careful to stipulate that it should not be done by releasing additional detainees from Guantánamo Bay. There was no immediate response to the letter from the White House.

The deal, which has attracted growing criticism in recent days, has also raised new questions about the status of the other three Americans and whether the United States might part with additional detainees to secure their release. Upon hearing of the prisoner swap, the Weinstein family released a statement saying they were happy for the Bergdahls but hoped it would renew efforts to secure the release of their husband and father, grandfather and father-in-law. Weinstein has been held in Pakistan for more than 1,000 days, the statement said. The last "proof-of-life video" was provided to the United States in December, but it shows an ailing Weinstein who will turn 73 in July.

"Warren has dedicated his entire life to working on development and humanitarian aid projects that have improved the lives and livelihoods of countless people around the world," the statement said. "Like all families with loved ones held in captivity, we are desperate for his release before it's too late."

Bergdahl's release also raised questions about other Americans in captivity, including: U.S. contractor Alan Gross, currently held in a Cuban prison; former FBI agent Bob Levinson, who disappeared from Iran's Kish Island while on a CIA mission; and Kenneth Bae, a South Korean with U.S. citizenship convicted by North Korea for trying to overthrow the government. When asked if the prisoner exchange had any implications for their release, the State Department emphasized the importance of Bergdahl's service in the military, a factor that distinguishes his situation from Weinstein's as well.

"It's worth repeating, Sergeant Bergdahl ... is a member of the military who was detained during an armed conflict," State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said. "That obviously is a unique circumstance. In any case, whether it's Alan Gross or Kenneth Bae or others who are detained American citizens, we take every step possible to make the case and to take steps to ensure their return home to the United States."

Despite the euphoria of having Bergdahl back safely in American hands -- the missing soldier is currently at a U.S. military medical facility in Landstuhl, Germany for unknown reasons -- there has been much criticism of the swap. Republicans have derided Obama for in effect trading the five detainees for just one American prisoner of war. In addition, conservatives are arguing that the United States has set a dangerous precedent that could trigger kidnappings of other American service members. And it amounts to a violation of the oft-repeated American mantra that the United States doesn't negotiate with terrorists, they say.

The mysterious nature of Bergdahl's disappearance from a U.S. military base in Helmand province in Afghanistan in 2009, in which it appears he may have wandered off the base or deserted his unit, feeds the storyline that the White House's play was ill-advised.

"I would not have made this deal," Sen. John McCain, the Republican from Arizona and a frequent critic of the Obama White House, told Politico. McCain, a former POW himself, said he "would have done everything in my power" to repatriate Bergdahl, but that he would have stopped short of risking the lives of American troops to bring him back. "There's some really damning things about the reaction of the military on this," he said. That said, McCain added, "it's done."

Some troops also feel deep ambivalence about Bergdahl's return. The facts about his disappearance that day remain murky. But if reports are true that he left voluntarily, perhaps to walk from Afghanistan to India in what could amount to deserting his unit, troops who live by a credo to "never leave a man behind" may begin to doubt if it was all worth it. 

Many veterans have been far more direct. Nathan Bradley Bethea, who served in the same battalion as Bergdahl and was among the troops detailed to search for him, wrote in the Daily Beast that troops had been told to keep their mouth shut about what they really thought about Bergdahl's disappearance. Now that he is free, Bethea wrote, the truth can be told: "And that the truth is: Bergdahl was a deserter, and soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down."

Critics have also seized on the specific Taliban figures included in the deal, many of whom held senior posts in the militant group, arguing, in essence, that the United States paid too high a price for Bergdahl. The freed prisoners are Khairullah Khairkhwa, a former governor of Herat province described by the Pentagon as "an early member of the Taliban" who was captured in January 2002; Norullah Noori, who served as the governor of Balkh province in the Taliban regime and played a role in coordinating the fight against the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance, according to the Defense Department; Mohammad Fazl, who commanded the main force that fought the Northern Alliance in 2001 and served as chief of army staff under the Taliban regime; Abdul Haq Wasiq, the deputy chief of the Taliban regime's intelligence service, which was led by a relative; and Mohammad Nabi Omari, formerly a minor Taliban official in Khost province.

Psaki said Monday that the deal brokered by the Qatari government included special assurances about the detainees that included banning them from leaving the country for a year and regularly sharing information about them with the United States. Beyond that, Psaki said, "I can't discuss all of the special assurances."

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, facing skeptical questions about the deal, said the decision was "backed by an ethos that says we don't leave our men and women in uniform behind."

"It was absolutely the right thing to do for the commander in chief, for this administration, to take action to secure his release, the last prisoner of war from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars," Carney said.

While most experts agree that negotiating with terrorist actors such as the Taliban can involve trade-offs to U.S. national security, many differ on the severity of the risk. 

"There is a cost to showing terrorist organizations that there is a benefit to capturing soldiers," said Seth Jones, associate director at the Rand Corporation. "But I actually think U.S. soldiers are pretty threatened in general." 

He emphasized that many countries, including Britain, France, and Israel, negotiate with terrorist groups in order to free them from captivity.

Others point out that while the United States occasionally engages in discourse with terrorist groups, it rarely offers rewards in situations where U.S. hostages are involved. "The U.S. is pretty tough," said Sarah Chayes, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment. "Certainly compared to many European countries." In 2004, for instance, the Italian government paid a large sum of money for the release of four of its people who were seized in Fallujah, a move that angered Washington for fear that it would incentivize future kidnappings.

She emphasized that the U.S. government typically favors punishing hostage takers rather than rewarding them. "Not only does the U.S. not typically offer carrots to win the return of hostages, it applies a lot of stick," she said, referring to instances where American citizens or soldiers were kidnapped or taken hostage in Afghanistan, which she has studied extensively. "Every example I saw prompted the focus of tremendous resources on locating the hostage, which led to increased intelligence on militant networks, raids, a lot of people get[ting] killed.... It imposes significant costs on hostage takers."

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Snap Poll: Does Obama Need to Put Troops in Ukraine to Prove America Is Tough?

We ask nearly 1,000 scholars about trade, aid, and what really stalled the Middle East peace talks.

When it comes to International Relations (IR), scholars don't agree on much, but on free trade agreements, sending arms to Ukraine, and the United States' global reputation, there is a remarkable degree of consensus. But this agreement among IR scholars -- on many of these issues driving headlines today -- stands in stark contrast to the views of the American public.   

The latest Snap Poll of IR scholars -- conducted by the Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) Project at the College of William & Mary, in collaboration with Foreign Policy -- reveals a widely held enthusiasm for multilateral trade and the importance of Europe's energy dependence on Russia and optimism about diplomatic multi-tasking, while opinions were split on whether the president or Congress has more control over military aid to Egypt. The survey includes responses from 950 out of all 2,882 IR scholars at U.S. colleges and universities giving us a response rate of approximately 33 percent. For a complete list of the questions, topline results, and an analysis of the small differences between the respondent sample and the overall population, see the full survey report here.

On the Ramifications of U.S. Reputation and Resolve

Anne-Marie Slaughter, former director of policy planning at the State Department and current president and CEO of the New America Foundation, made waves recently when she suggested that the U.S. failure to act in Syria last year may have emboldened Russia in Ukraine and concluded that "shots fired by the United States in Syria will echo loudly in Russia." 

In his commencement address to 2014 graduating class at West Point, U.S. President Barack Obama found the middle ground between interventionists like Slaughter and "self-described realists" who argue that "conflicts in Syria or Ukraine or the Central African Republic are not ours to solve." "[T]o say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution," Obama argued. "[S]tanding with our allies on behalf of international order ... has given a chance for the Ukrainian people to choose their future without us firing a shot."

The academy's views align more closely with the president's than with Slaughter's. According to our respondents, foreign leaders do not infer U.S. resolve in one issue area or region by observing America's use of military force in other parts of the world. IR scholars overwhelmingly believe that the United States does not need to use force in Ukraine now to show our allies or rivals that America will stand firm later on other issues or in other regions of the world. [Ed note: Click images to expand.]

These findings hold across gender, ideology, theoretical perspective, and other factors. Identical majorities (87 percent) of women and men reject the idea that our allies will draw negative inferences, while 84 percent of women and 87 percent of men say the same of our international rivals. 

This consensus also crosses ideological lines -- though respondents who describe themselves as conservative are somewhat more likely to believe that allies and rivals alike are drawing inferences from U.S. policy toward Ukraine. About 23 percent of conservatives believe rivals will draw inferences from U.S. behavior in Ukraine, and 20 percent or fewer of conservatives think U.S. allies are watching Ukraine. In contrast, among liberals only 10 percent think rivals will infer U.S. intentions, while 9 percent believe allies will do so.

Scholars of international political economy (14 percent with respect to allies, 17 percent for rivals) are somewhat more likely than scholars of international organization (4 percent for both allies and rivals) or international security (6 percent for allies, 9 percent for rivals) to believe that inaction in Ukraine will have reputational costs. Finally, realists (15 percent for allies and 17 percent for rivals) are more likely to worry about dominoes falling than either liberals (6 percent and 8 percent) or constructivists (9 and 10 percent), but these differences are dwarfed by the across-the-board consensus.

In the aftermath of the recent collapse of Middle East peace talks, Secretary of State John Kerry took his share of the lumps. Kerry, like other members of the Obama administration, has had his hands full with events in Ukraine, Syria, the South China Sea, and the Iranian nuclear negotiations. We asked IR scholars whether the administration's attention to these issues hampered efforts to jumpstart the Middle East peace talks. But IR scholars did not blame an overextended State Department, with just 17 percent believing that heavy diplomatic involvement in these other areas affected the peace talks.  Even scholars who have worked in the policy world, and who may well remember the difficulty of juggling many diplomatic initiatives at once, were no more likely than their ivory tower colleagues to think that the United States was too overextended to succeed in the Middle East.

The Crisis in Ukraine Continues, Now What?

Ukraine held a (mostly) successful presidential election last week, but pro-Russia separatists in the east are becoming more aggressive and Russian troops maintain a substantial presence near the country's borders. When it comes to the U.S. response to the crisis in Ukraine, IR scholars and the American public appear to be on the same page. TRIP survey respondents oppose sending arms and other military supplies to the Ukrainian government at a rate of about 2 to 1, which matches closely the results of a Pew poll of the American public taken in April. It isn't surprising then that IR scholars are largely against sending NATO ground troops, even if the Ukrainians requested the military assistance: fewer than 20 percent support such a move.

Scholars who focus primarily on international law are the most supportive, with 50 percent in favor of sending NATO troops if asked, but they account for only 3 percent of all IR scholars in the survey. And while NATO ground troops are unpopular among IR scholars as a policy response, neither is this the best time to contemplate expanding NATO membership to include Ukraine. Only 16 percent of respondents think NATO should invite the Ukrainian government to begin a Membership Action Plan (which is a necessary step before NATO membership, but which does not imply a mutual defense guarantee) in the next month, likely because this might only worsen the chance for resolution of the current crisis. 

Where do IR scholars stand on the long-run prospects of expanding NATO? Only 27 percent believe that NATO should welcome Ukraine into the fold over the next decade. This may be because IR scholars share the opinion of some observers that NATO's eastward expansion contributed to Russia's insecurity and subsequent takeover of Crimea as well as its support for ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine. But not everyone agrees. Harvard's Graham Allison explained decades ago that the model one employs to describe and explain international relations often colors what we see and what policy prescriptions we advance. We find that a plurality of respondents who describe their research as liberal (41 percent) think that Ukraine should begin the membership process within the next decade. IR scholars from other theoretical paradigms don't come close (26 percent). The takeaway? Where you stand on NATO depends on the theoretical camp in which you sit.

Aid: When the U.S. Should Giveth (and Taketh) Away 

Despite the fact that U.S. law prohibits continued funding of countries "whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup d'état or decree," last week's intervention in domestic politics by the military in both Thailand and Libya did not lead to a cutoff of U.S. support. Large amounts of U.S. military and financial assistance continue to flow to Egypt despite the fact that elected President Mohamed Morsi was removed from office by the Egyptian military in July 2013. In response, some commentators and members of Congress have called for the suspension or cancellation of U.S. military aid to Egypt. IR scholars generally agree with the critics of U.S. aid policy as almost 60 percent believe that aid to Egypt should be decreased or stopped altogether, while only 34 percent believe it should be increased or kept about the same. Those least enthusiastic about the suspension or reduction of aid are realists (50 percent), and those most insistent on cutting aid are constructivist scholars (64 percent) and those who study the Middle East (71 percent). 

While the snap poll suggests that IR scholars are generally supportive of cutting aid to Egypt, a very large majority believes that aid will neither be suspended nor reduced. In fact, 20 percent believe military assistance will be reduced and only 2 percent believe it will be stopped altogether.

All Agree to Agree on Multilateral Trade 

This year NAFTA turns 20 years old. This milestone anniversary comes after the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. In the wake of the crisis, political commentators and presidential hopefuls put some of the blame for the slow recovery of the U.S. economy at the feet of NAFTA. Perhaps as a result of this rhetoric, public support for NAFTA-style agreements declined significantly, but scholarly consensus on multilateral trade arrangements has not frayed. We asked scholars whether NAFTA has been good or bad for the U.S. economy and for the Mexican economy. Eighty percent of IR scholars said that NAFTA has been good for the U.S. economy and 71 percent said it has been good for Mexico. Among the general public, the pattern is reversed. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that more Americans believe NAFTA has been good for the Mexican economy than for the U.S. economy. Just 50 percent of American voters believe NAFTA has been good for the U.S. economy compared to 70 percent of Americans who believe that NAFTA has been good for Mexico.

We also asked about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) -- the multilateral trade agreement that is currently being negotiated between 12 Pacific countries. We found broad enthusiasm for this effort among IR scholars -- 68 percent support the idea while only 12 percent oppose it. However, unlike NAFTA, a large number of scholars (20 percent) are withholding judgment as not all the details of the TPP arrangement are yet public and/or finalized. As one might expect, those scholars who subscribe to the liberal IR paradigm (74 percent) and those who study IPE (75 percent) are more likely to support the initiative. But neither of these groups is as enthusiastic as realist scholars who support TPP at over 82 percent. While realists are typically more skeptical of multilateralism as it restricts the autonomy of U.S. foreign policymakers, perhaps they see TPP as an effort to balance against China, which has been excluded from these talks.

The level of support for multilateral trade agreements among respondents to the Snap Poll is similar to what we found in TRIP's 2004 faculty survey. Then, 77 percent of IR scholars responded that trade agreements "like NAFTA and the WTO" have benefited the United States. In 2006 that positive consensus among IR scholars jumped to 81 percent.  

TRIP Snap Polls are conducted with support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Photoillustration by FP/ Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images