Prisoner exchanges are morally and politically complicated affairs. On one hand lies the obligation, enhanced in the case of a soldier of the United States, to rescue someone who has been taken and held against his will. People serve in the military for many reasons–love of country, a sense of duty to family members who have served, and a desire to improve the world in which we live. But surely an important reason that they remain in often high-risk jobs is the knowledge that they will not be abandoned on the battlefield. Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was a prisoner of this country’s longest war, and as that war was winding down, it is only natural that our nation’s leadership took this opportunity to secure his release. (Layered on top of these considerations is the suggestion that Bergdahl’s health had deteriorated and that his life was at risk, but also the suggestion that he may have improperly left his post in the moments leading to his capture.)
Arrayed against these reasons to seek a deal for Bergdahl’s release are three main concerns. First is the precedent it sets. In a world in which kidnapping for ransom is the second most important source of terrorist financing after state sponsorship, some fear that we have sent word that the United States will pay up–and by releasing five senior members of the Taliban, pay up big–when U.S. personnel are kidnapped. While the U.S. position may be strengthened by the fact that it has apparently not bargained over the lives of other citizens held overseas, the concern about precedent is real. So too are the concerns about recidivism, given the number of former Guantanamo Bay detainees that have rejoined the battlefield in one way or another after their release. This group includes, prominently, Said al-Shihri, who became the number two leader in al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula after he was released from Guantanamo Bay. (He later met his demise, reportedly at the hand of an American drone.) Finally, there are concerns about empowering Qatar, which very helpfully brokered the deal for Bergdahl’s release, but which has been described by a senior government official as a “permissive terrorist financing environment.” In the final evaluation, though, we must confront the fact that if we wanted Sgt. Bergdahl back, this was probably the only way to retrieve him.