Prisoner swaps are always a terrible idea
Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. Army sergeant seized nearly five years ago by the Taliban, is coming home. That’s great news for him, for his family, for President Barack Obama’s standing and for other soldiers who might worry whether the White House would parley with terrorists for their release. Even the Old Testament praises “the redemption of captives” among the highest moral acts. Everyone loves a story with a happy ending.
But in this case, the sourpusses, spoilsports and partisans are right. Swapping five Guantanamo detainees in exchange for Bergdahl was a terrible idea.
The reasoning here is pretty straightforward: When you set up incentives that reward kidnappers, you can count on more kidnapping. And seen from the Taliban’s perspective, the Bergdahl swap was just such an incentive. Afghan commanders made the great American hegemon violate its sacred we-don’t-negotiate-with-terrorists creed. And, more importantly, they showed the world one freed American fighter is worth five freed insurgent fighters.
In other words, they have every reason to rededicate themselves to acquiring more Americans. (Of course, they already had this incentive, but the spectacular Bergdahl results might prod them to shift resources away from, say, assassinating local officials toward more abductions.) Todd Sandler, an economist at the University of Texas-Dallas, studied four decades of data and found for every kidnapper paid, 2.5 more abductions occurred.
This dynamic has played out in Israel, where the government vows to redeem any captive — even corpses — at any price. It’s a deeply noble sentiment, one enshrined in Jewish law as pidyon shvuyim. But it leads to heinously, and increasingly, asymmetrical trades. It got to the point where, in 2004, Israel traded 430 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners (plus the remains of 59) in exchange for three dead soldiers and one live one. In the most famous case of recent memory, Hamas snatched Gilad Shalit, a 19-year-old tank gunner, during a Gaza raid in 2006. First, Israel gave up 20 female prisoners just for proof Shalit was still alive. Then, in 2011, the government redeemed him for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners (who were said to have been responsible, collectively, for 569 dead Israeli civilians).
Incentives aren’t the only problem; it can also be bad for security, even outside Afghanistan. “There is no question that the Iraqi insurgency learns from Hezbollah and that the Taliban learns from the Sunni insurgency,” said Steve Simon, a scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, when I asked him about this in 2008.
And there’s no guarantee released prisoners will settle quietly into retirement. After a 1985 exchange, several liberated Palestinians rejoined the armed struggle. In Bergdahl’s case, the freed Gitmo prisoners already were designated by the Pentagon as “high-risk” operatives “likely to pose a threat.” No wonder Afghan leaders are unenthused about the deal; Republicans are right to object.
None of this means Bergdahl shouldn’t have been rescued; nor that Guantanamo detainees should simply languish there in perpetuity. But a prisoner exchange sets forth a simple equation for U.S. opponents — one that doesn’t help the cause. If the U.S. government truly exhausted every option short of deal-making, and it was wedded to bringing Bergdahl home, it should at least have traded one life for one life. That’s a fair trade.
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