O Say Can You Free Me?

Dozens of Americans are spending this July 4 as hostages in far-off lands. Washington should do more to get them back.

North Waziristan is not where you want to spend July 4. When you hear what sounds like fireworks, it's more likely coming from an unmanned drone than your neighbor's kids. Sadly, this is how some Americans are spending Independence Day this year.

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is certainly happy not to be one of them. He will celebrate his first July 4 outside captivity since 2008, presumably with his family if he is reunited with them soon. Whatever one's feelings about the exchange of five Taliban prisoners for a soldier who may or may not have deserted, it is hard to argue that after five years holed up in a cage in Waziristan at the hands of Taliban militants Bergdahl is not deserving of his newfound freedom. But there are dozens of other Americans who won't make it home for barbecues and fireworks this year -- and likely won't anytime soon. Around the world, American hostages, some kidnapped during government service, are caught in a hostage no man's land. And there are very few options to get them back.

Efforts to free hostages -- whether soldiers, diplomats, contractors, journalists, aid workers, or tourists -- raise questions about how the rules of warfare apply in an era when the lines of the battlefield are blurred, civilians are often on the wrong side, and the hostage-taker is often a nonstate actor. There are very real problems that come with cutting deals with hostage-takers, namely encouraging further kidnappings for ransom and legitimizing the practice. But the edict that the United States "doesn't negotiate with terrorists" has been at best followed loosely by U.S. administrations for decades. (See the Iran hostage crisis, the Iran-Contra scandal, and the 2001 negotiations by George W. Bush's administration to free two American missionaries held by the militant group Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines.) This selective bending of the rules can often seem arbitrary, especially to the families and friends of those being held. Clearly, a more coherent strategy is overdue, especially given the risks civilians face in the complex conflicts of the 21st century.

Given that the United States designated the Taliban a terrorist group in 2003, there is an argument to be made -- one that has been made loudly by President Barack Obama's critics -- that the exchange for Bergdahl could be considered a deal with a terrorist group, with all the potential baggage that would entail. But because Bergdahl was picked up on the battlefield while acting as a combatant, this argument doesn't really have legs; in the context of the war in Afghanistan, the Taliban is more of an enemy state, making Bergdahl a prisoner of war. Nevertheless, the Bergdahl deal is a reminder that the distinctions that dictate such negotiations are often extremely vague and that in a war against amorphous adversaries living in states with little real governance, hard-and-fast rules rarely apply.

Among those on the blurrier side of that spectrum is Warren Weinstein, a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) contractor who served for decades as an employee of the development agency before moving to a private company. Weinstein celebrates his 73rd birthday July 3 in the same place he spent his 72nd and 71st: As al Qaeda's captive, reportedly in Pakistan's North Waziristan region. He was kidnapped from his home in Lahore in August 2011. Weinstein's case has received some press, particularly in the weeks since Bergdahl's release and in response to what appears to be his deteriorating health. But the options available to the Obama administration to negotiate his release remain shamefully few. As a U.S. government official told me, "The United States continues to work with Pakistani authorities to try to secure his release. We remain in contact with Weinstein's family in the United States and are providing all appropriate consular assistance." The truth, though, is that his case is most likely at a standstill.

There is little doubt that fulfilling Weinstein's captors' demands -- an end to all drone strikes and freedom for all prisoners in the Guantánamo Bay prison -- is a non-starter. So is the type of exchange brokered for Bergdahl. Weinstein is not a U.S. soldier, and the outcry that followed the Bergdahl trade would pale in comparison to what would happen if Guantánamo detainees were traded for a civilian, especially one who does not work directly for the U.S. government. But that does not mean all avenues are closed. The Pakistani military could attempt to rescue Weinstein and other hostages in North Waziristan, including several high-profile Pakistanis, perhaps even with U.S. assistance. There are also discussions that could be held by the United States or other actors in concert with or separate from the Pakistani government. If the United States can negotiate with the Taliban for a prisoner of war, it seems possible to at least talk to al Qaeda about the conditions for the release of a prisoner who was working to help prevent future wars through economic development.

Treating civilians as if they were soldiers is clearly a bridge too far, and not only because it's politically infeasible for Obama. Prisoners of war have long been considered a different type of hostage, both under U.S. and international law, and they should rightly be retrieved by their nation at almost any cost. But there is always much gray area to explore. Many in the media, including a number of veterans, have argued that the circumstances of Bergdahl's capture meant that any efforts to secure his release were more than he really deserved. And whether or not Bergdahl was a deserter, it is clear that he left his base willingly and had grave doubts about his mission in Afghanistan. Weinstein, on the other hand, had gone to Pakistan on his own volition to fulfill a development mission. As a contractor, Weinstein was separated by only one degree from the U.S. government, as are many who conduct U.S. foreign policy abroad today, especially in dangerous places where organizations like USAID would rather send contractors than their own personnel. Contractors shouldn't be treated like soldiers, but they are often sent quite far into harm's way.

It's unclear how much the intent of the hostage, his or her ties to a particular government, and notoriety and wealth affect the efforts to gain his or her release. History gives conflicting examples: Two journalists who wandered into North Korea were freed through the efforts of former U.S. President Bill Clinton; two hikers who wandered across the Iranian border spent over two years in jail before being released on bail, allegedly paid by the sultan of Oman (a third hiker had been released a year earlier); Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent captured in Iran and later alleged to have been working for the CIA, remains in an unknown location; and two aid workers kidnapped in Somalia, one American and the other Danish, were rescued by Navy SEALs in a daring airborne raid. There seems to be little rhyme or reason to who makes it out and how.

More important than any other factor are the larger circumstances of these hostages' kidnappings and captivities, specifically the relationship between the U.S. government and the country either holding the hostage or in which he or she is being held. In the case of the Somalia raid, for example, the lack of government control over the vast majority of the country made conducting an operation on Somali soil politically feasible. Pakistan, on the other hand, is so sensitive to foreign military action on its soil that even the raid against Osama bin Laden was met with resistance and outrage in that country's press. But outside these political realities, there still seem to be some significant disparities in how hostage situations pan out. In some cases, hostages' families may even be forced to beg and borrow from friends and benefactors to try to meet captors' demands.

Now that the integration of military and civilian missions has become the norm, especially with a counterinsurgency strategy based on economic development, civilians have often found themselves at as great a risk as many of their military counterparts, often without the same level of training or protection. A civilian hostage will likely never be treated the same as a captured soldier, even though in the most recent conflicts they are acting more like soldiers in the field. Particularly as the United States and its allies draw back from Afghanistan, it may be time to consider how the United States and other countries can better address the inherent challenges of civilian hostage situations, in addition to making sure we leave no soldier behind on the battlefield.

Photo via YouTube


Dark Dividends

Will the murder of three teenagers bring Armageddon to the Arab-Israeli conflict?

Both conventional and unconventional war have been the handmaidens of the Arab-Israeli conflict since its inception. There is violence between Israelis and Palestinians when there is a peace process, and there is violence between them where there isn't one. Proximity, historical trauma, and the passions of the confrontation over land, identity, and religion seem to demand it.

Moreover, the perverse dance between the occupier and the occupied make violence almost inevitable. Israel wields the power of the strong: the superior military capacity that allows it to impose and humiliate at will, with closures, settlement activity, land confiscation, housing demolitions, and targeted killings. Palestinians wield the power of the weak, a terrifying force in its own right. As the weaker party and with a divided house to boot, some Palestinians disavow violence, but others rationalize it as a necessary (and inevitable) response to occupation. There are those who even undertake and celebrate acts such as the savage murder of three Israeli teenagers in June. In their effort to level the odds, many Palestinians can endorse, acquiesce, and even celebrate the violence that denies the Israelis what they need most: a partner capable of silencing the Palestinians' guns, rockets, and other weapons.

That deadly, decades-long minuet is no closer today to ending. Indeed, the murder of the teenagers has taken the conflict to a new, dark place, particularly on the Israeli side. The killings will neither provide a moment of clarity or redemption, nor a trip wire to a third intifada.

"There is a dry wind blowing through the East, and the parched grasses wait the spark," John Buchan wrote in his famous 1916 novel, Greenmantle. But what's happening now isn't the edge of Armageddon. None of the three parties to this particular phase of the conflict -- Israel, the Palestinian Authority, or Hamas -- has a stake in blowing things up entirely. And Middle East wars do not happen by accident.

Rather, the real significance of the killing of these teenagers goes beyond the normal escalatory cycle to which the world has grown accustomed. It will be both practical and psychological; and it will pay dark dividends, likely shaping Israel's mindset toward security, the Palestinian problem, and possible reconciliation for some time to come.


Israel has no good options as it seeks to find an effective response to the brutal murders. Finding those who actually committed the crimes will be a priority. But clearly, the Israelis are struggling to determine whether the killings were orchestrated by Hamas, rather than just applauded by the group -- or whether they were some combination of the two. (For instance, low-level operatives acting without higher approval.)

Beyond figuring out who committed the murders, there is the difficult question of what to actually do. Arresting more Hamas operatives and ramping up deportations, housing demolitions, and closures have all been tried before in response to terrorism, with little success. The Israelis do not want to open a new war in Gaza and trigger a massive barrage by Hamas using high-trajectory weapons, which have increased in range, lethality, and precision over the years. Nor does making the broader Palestinian public pay for organized acts of terror make much sense. Palestinians will always be angrier at the Israelis than they ever will be at their own leaders, no matter how inept and bloody those leaders may be.

In all likelihood, should Hamas be directly linked to the murders, Israel would target the group directly most likely in Gaza, by bombing Hamas military targets or even targeting the leadership. But as it does that, the Israeli government will also need to preempt what could be a determined effort by Israeli settlers to seek retribution on their own, and that means a broader effort in the West Bank against Hamas infrastructure, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu laid out on Tuesday, July 1.

And what might Hamas do? It is weak right now and under great pressure from Palestinians in Gaza who are suffering from unemployment, unpaid salaries, and bad economic management. The group doesn't want a war with Israel right now; it could not handle a full confrontation that caused significant Palestinian suffering.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians themselves don't seem seized with the idea of a new intifada. Indeed, according to recent polls (from early June) by Palestinian analyst Khalil Shikaki, the public is much more focused on social and economic issues. Before this latest crisis, most believed that the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation would improve economic conditions. Almost 58 percent opposed a return to an armed intifada, while 41 percent supported it.

What's more, to wage an intifada, Hamas and Fatah groups would have to cooperate very closely on the ground. Palestinian unity has always been a fraught, fictional, and phony enterprise. That's true now more so than ever. There's too much bad blood and history between Hamas and Fatah for the unity agreement to be what it would really need to be: an agreement that centralized under one authority all Palestinian guns and a negotiating strategy that abandoned violence and accepted Israel based on a two-state solution.

The agreement was not designed to achieve this; it was too limited from the start. It also carried the risk that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would be put in the dock by Hamas's actions and statements. Abbas is now tarred in the eyes of the Palestinian public by cooperating too closely with Israel on security, and he is also tarred by Israel for getting into bed with Hamas. His stock, in short, has been diminished. For now, he is resisting Israeli calls to break the unity accord, which Israel opposes more than ever after the murders. If there's a significant escalation with Israel, and Hamas and large numbers of Palestinians are killed, he'll be marginalized and sidelined only further -- unable to end the occupation through either diplomacy or violence.

More broadly, the entire Palestinian national movement is stuck, unable to find an effective strategy to build a state. And if the Israelis don't overplay their hand in response to the killings, they just might gain a bit of moral high ground in the eyes of the international community -- only further undermining Palestinian influence.

As for the impact of the murders on the formal peace process, the question has been pretty conclusively answered: The notion that violence and terror could provide a clarifying moment and lead to a breakthrough is as illusory as using a prayer summit to produce a two-state solution. Netanyahu's recent statements after the murders, hardening Israeli security requirements in the Jordan Valley, strongly suggest that this process is closed for the season.

That said, it is also a willful denial of reality that the murders were caused by the collapse of the peace process and the failure to release prisoners. This kind of logic is specious and dangerous. The murderers' motives may never be known, but over time, some of the worst Palestinian terror has occurred when there were actually serious hopes and prospects for negotiations. Consider the spring of 1996, when four bombs in nine days, orchestrated by Hamas and others, claimed the lives of 60 Israelis in a clear effort to prevent Shimon Peres's election -- and therefore halt the continuation of the peace process after the murder of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.


Ultimately, the trauma and memory of these killings are likely to endure and rival those that took place in Maalot and Kiryat Shmona during the 1970s or perhaps -- more recently -- the killings of Koby Mandell and Yosef Ishran, two Israeli boys who went missing in May 2001 and were found beaten to death in a cave in the West Bank.

Israeli views of Palestinians will harden. Hamas will be seen more than ever as an enemy. And Abbas will be seen as feckless. To be sure, Palestinian security forces are limited in where they can operate, and they cannot be seen to act as Israel's policemen. But those nuances are lost on much of the Israeli public, which will be less inclined than ever to give Palestinians the benefit of the doubt.

Palestinians won't feel much sympathy either. Many already believe that an Israeli who lives in the West Bank is a fair target. At the very least, they will most assuredly argue, when they have their own losses to mourn, why should we care about Israel's?

Maybe one day peace, or something like it, will come to this land. But that day is not today.

Photo by Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images