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Column: Prisoners and precedents

Until Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's orchestrated walk to freedom, most Americans — indeed, most of the world — believed that the United States did not negotiate with terrorists, even if that wasn't really the case. The perception mattered.

But after the president's very public announcement from the Rose Garden, the whole world knows differently now. What will be the fallout and long-term implications from the trade for five high-ranking Guantanamo detainees and international war criminals? That is the overriding issue: What will be the strategic implications of the public shift in U.S. counterterrorism policy?

The Taliban are experts at propaganda. Their last words to their hostage were, "Don't come back to Afghanistan. You won't make it out alive next time." That was a message to all Americans, not just Bergdahl.

The fall of Saigon had an iconic image: a Huey helicopter evacuating Americans clambering up a rooftop in chaos. Now the U.S. exit from Afghanistan — the nation's longest war — has one, too: the white-flag video of Bergdahl's leaving captivity. To the West, it will be a reminder of the folly of going to war in the graveyard of empires. To the Afghan/Arab world, it will be a symbol of America's surrender to the forces of jihad.

Presidents and prime ministers rarely speak of their citizens being held hostage overseas by nation states — and never by non-state actors like terrorist organizations. It gives tremendous credibility, especially to terrorist organizations — raising their profile and ability to raise money and recruits to the cause.

Negotiations, when they did occur, were always sub rosa — beneath the surface and usually through third-party intermediaries. But once you make concessions, you are only inviting more of the same. President Ronald Reagan learned this lesson firsthand with the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages fiasco when more than 1,500 missiles were shipped to Iran for the release of three hostages, only to be replaced with three more Western hostages being taken after the first deal was finalized. The secretary of state at the time, George Shultz, called it the "hostage bazaar."

I was in Iraq from 2004 to 2006 during the height of the kidnapping crisis by al-Qaida and many other insurgent groups. Many European powers fueled the industry, paying out million-dollar ransoms. Germany established a dangerous precedent in 2005 reportedly paying out a $5 million to $7 million ransom for the release of a German archaeologist. While Berlin denied making a payment, the German foreign minister implicitly acknowledged the transaction, admitting "the problem is not ransom payments but the reporting of them."

For two years I served as the coordinator of the Hostage Working Group, a partner coalition and interagency organization that served as the intelligence and operational fusion cell for all kidnapping incidents in Iraq. During that time, more than 400 victims from more than 65 countries were kidnapped.

The United Kingdom, Canada and Australia followed the U.S. lead and did not make multimillion-dollar ransom payments. But other nations paid out. Ask France, Germany, Italy and many other countries if prisoner swaps or paying a large, one-time ransoms made the problem go away. It merely made anyone carrying a German, Italian or French passport a future target. Hostage terrorism works.

Kidnapping spread to Afghanistan and other regions of the world. Today in Africa, kidnappings by al-Qaida in the Islamic Magreb, al-Shabaab and Boko Haram are fueling the terrorism on the continent, and the ransoms being paid out largely by Europeans are funding it.

Ultimately hostage negotiations are like an illegal high-stakes poker game. The hostage is the pot, but it is not always winner-take-all when the last hand is played. If the game is played right, the hostage comes safely home, even if the cost is high.

However, the United States is playing Old Maid, a child's card game where the goal to avoid having a particular card or cards at the end of the hand — the Gitmo detainees, in this analogy. But the Taliban are playing Texas Hold'em, a poker game where the objective is to create the strongest hand possible before revealing your last card and win the entire jackpot. They certainly won this hand.

Dan O'Shea, a reserve Navy SEAL officer, coordinated the Hostage Working Group at the American Embassy in Iraq from 2004-06, managing the interagency coordination for hundreds of international hostage-taking incidents. He served as a counterinsurgency adviser for the commander of the International Security Forces-Afghanistan from 2011-12. He is the vice president for Kidnap & Ransom for GROM Technologies, a security and risk management company based in Tampa. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

Column: Prisoners and precedents 06/12/14 [Last modified: Thursday, June 12, 2014 4:33pm]

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