Misdefined ‘Terrorism’ Hurts US POW

By definition, “terrorism” applies to attacks on civilians for political ends. But the U.S. government has revised the term to cover any attack on Americans, including soldiers fighting anywhere in the world, a misuse of the concept that is hampering a deal to free a U.S. POW, writes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

The only current American prisoner of war, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, remains in captivity largely because of the mistaken equating of war fighting with counterterrorism. That false equation has contributed to the suffering of many other Americans in uniform and their loved ones.

It lent believability to the Bush administration’s rationale to launch the Iraq War, and it has underlain continuation of the Afghanistan War for a decade after Operation Enduring Freedom achieved its immediate counterterrorist objectives. The hardship of Sergeant Bergdahl and his family simply adds to that toll.

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Mick Miller shows an Afghan villager how to place his finger on a handheld identity detection device to scan his fingerprint in Afghanistan's southern Ghazni province, May 4, 2012. (Defense Department photo)

The exact circumstances of Bergdahl’s capture in Paktika Province in Afghanistan in June 2009 are somewhat in doubt, but not in doubt is that he was a combat soldier in a military unit conducting counterinsurgency operations. His capture was not some block-the-street-with-a-car terrorist kidnapping in a city. His captors were insurgents against whom NATO is waging its counterinsurgency campaign.

Secret talks reportedly have pointed to a possible deal under which Bergdahl would be released in return for transferring five Taliban prisoners now at Guantanamo to the custody of the government of Qatar.

Such a deal would have multiple advantages for the United States. It would free Bergdahl. It would help build mutual trust with the Taliban and thereby aid the negotiation of further agreements, which are essential if Afghanistan ever is to have even a modicum of stability. And it would mean five fewer Guantanamo prisoners the United States would have to find a way of disposing of.

The talks have snagged over the conditions under which the Taliban prisoners would be held in Qatar. The Obama administration evidently is taking a hard line to ensure that the Taliban involved do not return to militant activity. It is almost certainly taking that hard line not because of whatever difference five guys from Guantanamo could make but instead because of the reception any such deal would get back in the United States.

That reception would be based on a loose and unbounded use of the term “terrorist.” It would be based on the notion that continued counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is somehow safeguarding Americans from terrorism, whereas it instead has become a nation-building effort.

It would be based on the tendency to label the Afghan Taliban as terrorists, even though they are not an international terrorist group and instead are interested in the distribution of power in Afghanistan. Because of such confusion, the kind of deal that has been discussed mistakenly would be seen as violating the longstanding U.S. policy of not making concessions to terrorists.

That policy has been observed fairly consistently (except in the Iran-Contra affair, which is remembered as ignominy). The policy has a sound basis in not encouraging more terrorist kidnappings. But the principle doesn’t really apply to the military foe in Afghanistan — the Taliban — who do not have some wider terrorist agenda and have no interest in taking captives except insofar as it might help to get foreign forces out of Afghanistan.

With these conflations, Democrats and Republicans alike, anxious to maintain tough antiterrorist credentials, are poised to denounce any deal that contains even a whiff of unfettered freedom for prisoners now at Guantanamo. The U.S. election campaign only worsens the situation. Mitt Romney has opposed the proposed transfer, saying “we do not negotiate with terrorists.”

Amid the politicking and the conceptual and terminological confusion, Sergeant Bergdahl remains indefinitely in captivity.

A postscript for those who are guided by asking themselves, “What would the Israelis do?”: We should recall that last year the Israeli government released 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, many of whom the Israelis very much consider terrorists, in return for the release by Hamas of a single Israeli soldier, Sergeant Gilad Shalit.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

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7 comments on “Misdefined ‘Terrorism’ Hurts US POW

  1. incontinent reader on said:

    The lunacy of all of this is that we trained and used the Taliban in Central Asia for years to advance our geopolitical agenda. On the fear that US has that released Taliban would return to fight so that the invaders of their country (us?) would have to leave (or maybe cut a good deal on TAPI), negotiations are stalled? Maybe they could pay them off to go fight in Syria and Lebanon where we also have no business being, so that they could repatriate the dollars they earn for it to go back to help their fellow “terrorists” at home. It is all so complicated that only the geniuses at Rand and the “mothers of geopolitical invention” (so nicely summarized by Colleen Rowley) know how to navigate through it all.

    Mr. Pillar, thank you for your sober analysis and sensible advice. I hope someone in the Administration is listening.

  2. incontinent reader on said:

    Sorry, too late to send the Taliban to Libya, unless it is to keep that country secure against its people.

  3. F. G. Sanford on said:

    I occasionally look at my old Geneva Conventions Category III card. I wonder. Now that we have completely destroyed our credibility as a signatory to those articles, do they still bother issuing those cards? Torture, extraordinary rendition, solitary confinement, isolation from humanitarian agencies and writing off civilian casualties as “collateral damage” are all things we have tried, convicted and executed our enemies for in the past. We could claim the “moral high ground”, because Americans didn’t do those things. We have proclaimed a “War on Terror”, but have hypocritically used jargon to avoid the laws of war. It’s a war but it isn’t. Otherwise, invading a sovereign nation would be “War of Aggression”, the supreme international crime under the Nuremberg principles. We label our opponents “enemy combatants” in order to deny them legal protection under international standards. This, despite the fact that there never was any such thing as an “enemy combatant” until we invented this Orwellian double-speak term. Using this label, they are denied both civil and military legal protections. We are supposedly fighting a “war”, but the enemy has no soldiers. Clever, isn’t it? They are insurgents or combatants or terrorists, and when they get to Guantanamo, they are high value or low value “targets”. We call them everything but human beings and soldiers.

    I have no sympathy for these “enemy combatants”. But by squandering the moral authority we garnered at Nuremberg, we have betrayed our Soldiers when they are captured. By calling our enemies POW’s, we could detain them indefinitely until the end of hostilities. Legal disposition of these issues then becomes a simple matter. Under the circumstances, anything we do will be scoffed as a “kangaroo court”. Nazi defendants at Nuremberg ridiculed the proceedings as, “victor’s justice”. But adherence to sound legal principles and the absence of secrecy robbed this argument of legitimacy. Not so at Guantanamo.

    The most precious protection any American Soldier in captivity could rely on was the full knowledge that America would stand by the Geneva Conventions. God help the enemy that breached those standards. What has that Soldier now? A doctrine that labels his captors “terrorists”, and therefore none of the channels of communication that would customarily be pursued to insure his humane treatment. “Support our Troops” means more than a silly yellow ribbon sticker on the back of a car. It means adherence to the principles that keep them from unnecessary harm. We have failed to adhere to those principles. And there is nothing patriotic in that failure.

    • Bill from Saginaw on said:

      FG -

      Very well said. As a veteran, I share your sentiments completely. Added to the mix is the fact that this American POW’s fate is further complicated by the cynical political calculations of the two men positioning themselves for the 2012 presidential election.

      Absolutely shameful.

      Bill from Saginaw

      • Frances in California on said:

        But, Bill! They’re just chess pieces, being positioned by the Pentagon. Maybe an audit would start some reform. It will take about a hundred years but it would be good to know a future POW will be treated better.

  4. rosemerry on said:

    How typical for the US to use an Israeli example. Hamas is a resistance group, only concerned with Palestinian rights. Shalit was an occupation soldier illegally enforcing a blockade by Israel. Who is a terrorist? Omar Khadr was a Canadian child in Afghanistan with his father when the US invaded Afghanistan. He has been in solitary confinement for years in Gitmo for “murdering” a US soldier who had no business to be there. The USA has power but no morals.

  5. F. G. Sanford on said:

    By the way, this article might be useful as a segue to another story completely ignored by the mainstream media:

    McCain and the POW Cover-Up

    The “war hero” candidate buried information about POWs left behind in Vietnam.
    By Sydney Schanberg • July 1, 2010

    Supporting the troops my ass. These yellow-ribbon “support our troops” hypocrites should be ashamed of themselves.