Why Negotiating With Our Enemies Is Not a Sin

The Taliban swap for Sgt. Bergdahl is just the latest in a long line of occasions when America willingly dealt with bad guys. And like it or not, this is how wars end.

Not surprisingly, President Barack Obama's decision to negotiate with the Taliban to obtain the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from the Haqqani network by agreeing to release five Afghan Taliban prisoners to house arrest in Qatar has been pilloried by his political opponents.

The list of criticisms is long: that the president didn't provide adequate notice to Congress, that the U.S. intelligence community identified these five Taliban captives as among the most dangerous being held in Guantanamo, and that Bergdahl was -- at best -- a complicated individual for whom to strike a bargain with America's enemies. But at the heart of these attacks is a central complaint: that America never negotiates with terrorists and that it sets a bad precedent for the United States to make deals with enemies who have American blood on their hands.

Sorry, but this claim is without analytic or historical merit, and it completely ignores the positive aspects of the release.

First, a bit of history. The United States has negotiated with unsavory groups before, in order to advance our national interests. For example, beginning in 2006 in Iraq, in order to dampen the outbreak in violence, the United States not only negotiated with, but armed and financed, the terrorist group the Sons of Iraq as part of the Sunni Awakening. In addition to being affiliated with al Qaeda, the Sons of Iraq had slain hundreds of American soldiers and their fellow Iraqis. However, U.S. officials negotiated with them and armed them because they needed their help to fight a greater menace, al Qaeda in Iraq. It was a pragmatic short-term deal that included putting pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to take members of the Sons of Iraq into the Iraqi armed forces.

At the time, there was considerable skepticism about aiding former militants, even if our short-term goals were aligned, and doubts about how the Sons of Iraq would be integrated into a stable, secure Iraq. Indeed, as Iraq's security deteriorates, many of these Sons of Iraq have re-allied themselves with al Qaeda in Iraq. However, the Sons of Iraq and the Sunni Awakening played an absolutely essential role in stopping Iraq's slide into all-out sectarian war. A pragmatic partnership with them was the best of limited options available at the time, and stabilized Iraq sufficiently to begin planning an end to the United States' military role in the country.

Similarly, our major ally in the Middle East, the democratic state of Israel, routinely negotiates with Palestinians who many view as terrorists and has released thousands of Palestinians prisoners who have killed and maimed hundreds of Israelis, in order to gain the release of their soldiers. For example, in order to obtain the release of Pvt. Gilad Shalit, the Israelis negotiated the release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners.

Moreover, critics of the Bergdahl prisoner release deal ignore the fact that at some point, the United States and its Afghan partners will have to negotiate with the Taliban as the war in Afghanistan concludes. Indeed, as Obama has said: "This is what happens at the end of wars." This has ample historical precedent. By July 1951, the United States recognized that a stalemate in the Korean War was the least-bad option and began negotiating with the communist government of China to end the war and return to the status quo ante. Washington didn't recognize the communist government of China as legitimate, but negotiated with them anyway. The negotiations lasted from July 1951 to July 1953, while bullets were still flying in Korea, and produced an armistice that persists to this day. Similarly, Washington negotiated with the communist North Vietnamese for almost five years to end the American involvement in the war in Vietnam, while the fighting still raged. And a major issue in negotiations to end both of these wars was the release of prisoners in exchange for the release of American prisoners.

During the negotiations with the Chinese to end the Korean War, Beijing insisted that all prisoners on both sides be repatriated. However, the United States could not agree to forcible repatriation, as it had at the conclusion of World War II, as thousands of prisoners of war would have been returned to China and what became North Korea against their will. After two years of negotiations, the U.S. position prevailed. Similarly, during the negotiations with the North Vietnamese, the American public's main concern was that American prisoners and troops come home, not a security guarantee to the South Vietnamese. Just as Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon did not let South Korean President Syngman Rhee and South Vietnamese leader Nguyen Van Thieu undermine their negotiations, President Obama did not let Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, undermine the negotiations with the Taliban for the release of Bergdahl.

The exchange of POWs is a normal part of ending a conflict, and part of the laws of war. While the Taliban may be a terrorist group, they are also America's enemy in the war in Afghanistan, just as the communist Chinese were in Korea. As the White House has labored to explain in recent days, the release of five Taliban in exchange for Bergdahl is a POW exchange.

Finally, the claim that the release of five Taliban in exchange for one American soldier has hurt our combat operations in Afghanistan or that it will lead other groups to seize U.S. prisoners for leverage is simply spurious. It ignores the fact that while these five Afghans, who have been in U.S. custody for over a decade, could eventually return to the battlefield after their year under house arrest in Qatar, the U.S. military will have ended combat operations in Afghanistan by the end of 2014. It also ignores the fact that these instances are exceedingly rare: Bergdahl was the only American prisoner of war in Afghanistan, despite over 13 years of conflict. With U.S. forces set to draw down to 9,800 troops by the end of 2014, even if the Taliban were to dramatically change its tactics, it will have very limited opportunities to capture American soldiers. In addition, this argument overlooks the fact that Bergdahl could provide us with a good deal of information about the Taliban, potentially including actionable intelligence.

The negotiations for Bergdahl's release could also pave the way for direct talks with the Taliban as the United States winds down our role in Afghanistan -- talks that the U.S. and Afghan governments have been trying to achieve since late 2010. Since both the United States and the Taliban showed good faith in the Bergdahl negotiations, and since both sides received something valuable to them, it is likely that the groundwork was laid for negotiating over issues critical to the future of Afghanistan, like how the Taliban will become part of the political process, support the Afghan constitution, and respect the rights of women.  

This prisoner-of-war exchange marks the beginning of an end to the war in Afghanistan, just as prisoner exchanges during the end stages of the wars in Korea and Vietnam did. It brought back an American POW from captivity, at the cost of five Taliban detainees who would have had to be released anyway when the war in Afghanistan ends. Moreover, the successful negotiation process itself could help lead to greater stability in Afghanistan. That's a good deal for the United States, Sgt. Bergdahl, and his family.

J.H. Owen-Pool/Getty Images


Is Ukraine More Like Latvia or Greece?

This question might seem odd, but it's at the heart of what world leaders need to grapple with at the G7 summit this week.

As the leaders of the G7 meet in Brussels to discuss what to do to help Ukraine, the big foreign policy question they face is: "How many Ukrainians consider themselves Russians?"

But in economic policy, the real question is: "Will the Ukrainians prove to be Latvians or Greeks?" The answer to the latter question -- a test of Ukrainians' willingness to engage in meaningful structural economic reform (especially if it involves economic belt-tightening) may determine whether Western aid to that beleaguered nation facilitates a much-needed economic revival.

If the Ukrainians turn out to be Greeks, resisting reform because austerity measures are ill-conceived and the people feel they have suffered enough, then Ukraine's ultimate recovery may be delayed, pushing Kiev into Moscow's waiting arms -- once again with offers of assistance, no strings attached. If Ukrainians are at heart Latvians, rejecting Russia's embrace to endure a deep economic downturn in the short run to facilitate long-term economic integration with the West, then the G7's plans for Ukraine may bear fruit.

A new Pew Research Center survey suggests that Ukrainians may be more Greek than Latvian, however: less than half voice a willingness to cut government spending and social benefits in return for Western financial assistance.

That's depressing news, but a bit of history is in order.

In the wake of the global financial crisis, in 2009, Latvia's economy contracted by 17.7 percent, according to a study by Anders Aslund of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. In response, the government in Riga implemented a comprehensive reform program: spending cuts; a reduction in real unit labor costs; curbing the government budget deficit; while making it easier to register property, resolve insolvency, pay taxes, start a business, and enforce a contract. The results have been striking: 4.1 percent economic growth in 2013 and 3.8 percent expected in 2014.

Greece, on the other hand, has struggled. The economy has shrunk by 26 percent since 2008. And the International Monetary Fund (IMF) expects a meager 0.6 percent expansion in 2014. As Aslund points out, the Greek reform program has been neither radical nor frontloaded. Tax increases have predominated over expenditure cuts and those revenues have proven hard to collect. And while real unit labor costs fell 20.5 percent in Latvia between 2008 and 2013, in Greece they declined by only 10.1 percent, according to Eurostat, suggesting that Greek wages are still too high to spark new investment and a renewal of growth.  

The Ukrainian economic outlook is bleak. The economy is expected to contract by 5 percent this year as the nation faces an overvalued exchange rate, a substantial budget deficit, and big losses in the energy sector that have put Ukraine on a "highly unsustainable course," according to a recent International Monetary Fund report. This report, one should note, came before the recent violence and includes Crimea, so expect an even more negative outlook.

To help Ukraine reverse economic course, the IMF has already approved a $17 billion emergency rescue package that unlocks an additional $15 billion in international financing, including loans and other funding from the United States, Europe, and the World Bank.

In return, the government in Kiev has agreed to substantially increase both retail gas and heating prices. It will cancel pension and public sector wage increases planned for this year and freeze public sector hiring. It plans to abandon a cut in the sales tax, hike duties on diesel fuel, and impose new sales taxes on pharmaceutical and medical products.

But such reforms have a history of foundering in Ukraine. In the past six years, two previous IMF-supported economic restructuring efforts have gone off track.

The success of any G7 initiative to help Ukraine hinges on what the Ukrainian people are able and willing to do for themselves. But support for economic reform is not widely embraced by the Ukrainian public. Just 45 percent say the country should accept economic aid from Western nations if their government must agree to reduce spending and social benefits in return, according to the Pew Research Center survey. Fully 28 percent reject such help if it is dependent on cuts in Ukrainian government outlays. Another 27 percent voice the view that neither option is acceptable, or that they want both, or that they have no opinion. (The Ukrainian results do not include data from Crimea.)

Support for belt-tightening in return for aid is particularly low among Ukrainians age 50 and older. Just 41 percent are willing to accept any such bargain. But more than half (53 percent) of younger Ukrainians support a tradeoff.

The complex politics of economic reform within Ukraine are evident in the regional and ethnic discrepancies in public willingness to suffer additional short-term economic pain in the hope of long-term gain. Six-in-ten Ukrainians living in the western and central parts of the country support cutbacks in public spending and benefits in return for Western financial assistance. But just 33 percent of Ukrainians in the embattled eastern oblasts favor such a bargain. Moreover, 43 percent of Ukrainians living in the East who only speak Russian oppose subsidy losses to obtain international aid, while only 26 percent accept any quid-pro-quo.

So while the geopolitics of Ukrainian aid may dominate G7 discussions in Brussels, it may be the regional and ethnic politics of additional austerity that determine whether such assistance ultimately proves successful. And that's at the heart of whether the Ukrainians turn out more like the Latvians or the Greeks.