TSG IntelBrief: Sgt. Bergdahl’s Release: Conventions in an Unconventional War
June 2, 2014
Bottom Line Up Front:
• The release of the only US Prisoner of War from the Afghan conflict—held for five years—was the result of a conventional military tactic and convention in what has long been described as a thoroughly unconventional war on terror
• The history of war—declared or undeclared, overt or covert—is replete with prisoner exchanges, both in the public realm and behind the scenes
• By necessitating dialogue even if under pressure, prisoner exchanges can actually increase base-line cooperation between bitter foes, even if only for a single issue.
After five years of isolated captivity, US Army Sgt Bowe Bergdahl was released by his captors along the Afghan-Pakistan border. His repatriation was the result of extensive negotiations between the US and the Afghan Taliban, negotiations that have started and stalled for several years until the past weekend. In exchange for Bergdahl’s release, the US released five Taliban prisoners who had been detained in Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba since 2004. The five were released into the custody of the Qatari government, which agreed to house the men and restrict their travel for one year before their likely repatriation to Afghanistan.
The prisoner exchange is a long-used conventional tool by militaries and paramilitaries, even in seemingly unconventional conflicts. While rare for the US in recent years and conflicts, prisoner exchanges have a long history with war. Even though the English denied Prisoner of War status to American colonists captured during the American Revolution (1775–83), prisoner exchanges were commonplace, even for captives officially deemed to be traitors. This is analogous to the situation regarding captives in the war on terror, most of who are classified as enemy combatants. On a policy level, enemy combatants might lack official POW status, but from a hybrid strategic and tactical military level, prisoner exchanges remain a valuable tool that not only aids in the return of missing service personnel but also ensures some level of dialogue between two foes.
From Israel to Colombia, most nations either episodically or periodically engage in prisoner exchanges to advance national self-interests. Militarily, such a process provides service personnel with an assurance that the system in which they serve will work for their release, however drawn out and complicated it may be. It also provides, for all sides, a veneer of civilization in what has increasingly become remote conflict, with very little interaction between foes outside of attacks. The parlay serves as an important, if increasingly infrequent, function, as modern conflict not only lacks defined opponents to sit with at an ad hoc negotiation table but also lacks the environment where the table is even considered.
Since the Vietnam War, fewer and fewer American service personnel have been captured, reflecting both the small-unit nature and pervasive infiltration of technology in modern conflicts, which involve fewer in number troops overall and less chances for surrender or capture. Road-side bombs and drone attacks don’t often lead to POW status. Still, capture and eventual release remain part of conflict. In 1993, US Army helicopter pilot Michael Durant was captured during the infamous “Black Hawk Down” battle in Somalia. The action was a progenitor of modern unconventional conflict, with battle lines and opponents morphing as the day progressed. However, Durant’s release was purely conventional, the result of 11 days of US negotiations with the Somali clan holding him. Even in non-traditional conflict (a term that is getting harder to accurately use), the traditions of parlay and exchange remain.
While the lack absence of traditional battlefields has decreased the incidents of detention of uniformed soldiers, the risks for civilian personnel located in the conflict area remain high. As witnessed in Iraq, the absence of military protocols turns prisoners into hostages, which creates a more volatile and lethal situation. There is a perceived lack of quid pro quo—and a lack of clear channels in which to operate—that makes non-uniformed detentions inherently more dangerous and unpredictable.
It is unclear if Bergdahl’s release will lead to broader discussions between the US, Afghanistan, and the Taliban. Networks of dialogue created to discuss a prisoner can be used for other purposes, but that is beside the point. Such potential future gains are usually outside the purview of prisoner dialogue: the goal is the safe return of the prisoner. While they can be complicated by larger political and strategic aims, prisoner exchange talks tend to be single-issue focused and lend themselves to successful resolutions at a much higher rate than the overall conflict. Both sides can get at least something they want, which is the hallmark of conflict resolution. Wars aren’t won or lost by prisoner exchanges, but the negotiations provide a rare opportunity for non-kinetic engagement.
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