Negotiating War's End

I seldom remember jokes, but the only joke I’ve ever heard about liturgists is funny and unexpected enough that I’ve never forgotten it.

Question: What’s the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist?

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Answer: You can negotiate with terrorists.

Substitute the word “Republican” for “liturgist” and you get a fair description of U.S. politics today, with a Democratic White House and a Republican House at continual loggerheads.

The joke is especially pertinent now given the furor that has greeted President Obama’s decision to exchange five Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay for U.S. Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured in Afghanistan and has been held by the Taliban for the last five years.

Some Republicans have said that releasing five Taliban prisoners for one U.S. soldier is a bad deal for the United States. Though Qatar will house them for a year before they are transferred to Afghanistan, critics say the price of Sgt. Bergdahl’s return is too high. The United States is releasing dangerous men who may return to the battlefield.

Members of Congress also complain that the Obama administration ignored a law mandating that Congress be informed 30 days in advance of any release of prisoners from Guantanamo Bay. They have a valid point. It did. But with Congress uncooperative, the Obama administration obviously figured it was easier to make a deal with the Afghan Taliban for Sgt. Bergdahl’s return and close on it than to risk the Republicans in Congress torpedoing it. Would Republicans have done so? We’ll never know. But Guantanamo has become so much a casualty of our dysfunctional politics that most of the remaining detainees are no longer being held there because of the fears for the safety of the American public but are instead hostages to the blame game of politicians.

Is the prisoner swap a bad deal for the United States? I don’t think so. The U.S. government is obligated to do its utmost to get back its soldiers, including negotiating their release from enemy hands. As the United States winds down combat operations in Afghanistan, exchanging prisoners would seem to be part of the expected chain of events. That is what countries do when wars end, even when they end inconclusively and ingloriously. Do we want to keep those Taliban prisoners forever?

Those in favor of never-ending war may say yes, but to what end? For the privilege of paying to keep them in the world’s most expensive prison in perpetuity? While this may align with our custom here at home of incarcerating as many people as possible for as long as possible, at a cost of $900,000 per prisoner (and some estimates put the cost per prisoner as more than twice that) Guantanamo is a lot more expensive than the average prison and a source of continuing embarrassment and shame for the United States.

Whatever the circumstances in which Sgt. Bergdahl was captured, his return from Afghanistan is a good thing. Ridding Guantanamo of five more prisoners is a good thing too.

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