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.
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.