Obama makes terrorists pinky-swear

Are they prisoners of war or enemy combatants? More than a decade after the United States launched its attack on Afghanistan, we still haven’t really confronted that question.

Oh sure, President Barack Obama officially renounced the term in 2009. But he hasn’t come up with any better term. He certainly isn’t calling them prisoners of war. He’s acting as if they’re, well, enemy combatants.

Americans can go on debating this. The cows will come home long before terrorists stop posing a threat. However, they should be fairly certain about one thing. Hardened fighters with ideological hatred toward the United States are not honest.

Military personnel inspect cells containing enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay.

Perhaps the most interesting part about this week’s acknowledgement that the Obama administration has been secretly letting some of them go as bargaining chips is that the condition for their release is a scout’s-honor, cross-your-heart promise to give up violence.

Get caught attacking American troops again and … well, right back into detention you go, young man. You can almost imagine the terrorists quaking.

We wouldn’t let gang-bangers escape the big house on such a condition. But apparently it’s OK for mortal enemies of our freedom.

This isn’t exactly the kind of tough-on-defense posture the president ought to assume as he heads into election season.

Still, I have some sympathy for the president.

The United States no longer has the will to spend the resources necessary to completely annihilate the Taliban, al Qaida and its affiliated terrorist organizations. After 10 years of endless fighting, that no longer seems possible, and it’s certainly not popular.

But you don’t want to just up and leave Afghanistan, either. If the Taliban regains control, you’ve hit the reset button. It’s 2001 all over again. What on earth did we fight for?

So why not try to leave with some sort of agreement that the Taliban will play nice?

That’s the point of this prisoner release. It’s to goad the Taliban into making a deal. These releases apparently have been going on for awhile to aid negotiations. Tribal elders will promise to end violence if certain people are released. The military then monitors to see if those promises are kept.

Trouble is, it’s not working, at least not as an overall strategy.

A report from the House and Senate intelligence committees this week said the Taliban has grown stronger since the troop surge in Afghanistan two years ago. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., confirmed this, agreeing that Obama’s recent declaration that the Taliban’s momentum has been broken and the “tide had turned” did not match the evidence.

No one is saying how many bad guys we let go after pinky-swearing, so we can’t tell for sure whether that’s why the Taliban is getting stronger. But once the U.S. begins to withdraw in large numbers, it would seem that the promises will be of little effect.

The Bush administration held that terrorists captured in the field of battle were enemy combatants. These fighters did not represent a nation state and were not clothed in a uniform. Therefore, they could be held indefinitely in detention facilities without regard for the rules of the Geneva Conventions.

Barack Obama campaigned for the White House with the promise to close Guantanamo and other detention facilities. But soon after taking office he rethought that position, faced with the realities of a war that was anything but conventional.

He abandoned the name “enemy combatants,” but apparently not the principle.

The guys the U.S. is releasing were being held in Afghanistan. They can be let go without congressional approval. You can’t help wondering about the long-term consequences.

Categories: Washington

About the Author

Jay Evensen

Jay Evensen is the Senior Editorial Columnist for the Deseret News. He has 32 years of journalism experience covering politics and a variety of other assignments at news organizations ranging from United Press International in New York City to the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Deseret News, where he has worked since 1986. During that time, he has won numerous local, regional and national awards. Most recently, he was given the Cameron Duncan Media Award, given annually in Washington, D.C., by the advocacy group RESULTS, to the journalist judged to have done the most to further the cause of the world's poorest people.


  1. Pondering Your Point

    I am trying to figure out your point, Jay. American commanders on the ground asked for this policy. The president supports them, and for that you are critical? Interesting.

    Most unfortunate is your painting with a broad brush. You conclude that there are terrorists in Afghanistan, so every act of violence in Afghanistan mut be an act of terror. Commanders recognize that not every strike against American forces is a twisted plot crafted by Al Queda. Some are just common villagers and farmers acting out in frustration. Lock them all away forever? What would be the consequences of imprisoning an entire nation?

  2. Norm

    Of course the President lies again and again. I cant trust him as far as I can spit.
    Yet part of America is so stupid they can’t see the problems we have in America so what do they do? They get hung up on religion. I love my religion and would not ever denounce it in any way but leave it out of politics and vote for the person who will do the job right? Wake up America.

  3. ECR.

    Poor Jay Evensen, strapped there in his desk at the DN, he should really try getting out more. This “secret” of the president releasing detainees from Gitmo was widely reported in national and international publications as far back as January of this year. And the other “secret” is that this administreation is not the first one to use this practice. The Pentagon confirms that over 500 detainees were released or transferred during the Bush Administration and those detainees were either imprisoned in another ountry “because of criminal charges, while others face monitoring or travel limitations.” So under the Bush Adminstration some of the released detainees might be stopped from taking a Carribean Cruise. But Jay failed to mention that fact because he was too busy defaming the current president.

    Perhaps the saddest aspect of his essay is his failure to offer alternatives to what we should do with detainees who have been held now for almost a decade with no criminal court proceedings or prosecution.

  4. How were detainees chosen

    Jay, have you read much on how we filled Guantanamo in the first place? The few studies done on who was there and why found that 90%+ were there with no strong case. Many were snatched on the streets on hearsay from neighbors. Sometimes “bounties” of $5 per allegation were paid to get such hearsay. Many were simply rounded up for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Others were taken by mistaken identity. There are numerous reasons why the vast majority have been released with no repercussions (other than their long years of unjust incarceration). This is basically a continuation of the Bush policies towards these “detainees” (if people were keeping track) and, unfortunately, there has been no discernible speed increase in their cases winding through an insufferably long “review”.

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