The Slatest

Is It Time to Retire the “We Don’t Negotiate With Terrorists” Mantra?

Tokyo pedestrians walk past a screen showing news reports about Japanese hostage Kenji Goto on Jan. 28, 2015.

Photo by Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images

Negotiations are going down to the wire over a proposed prisoner swap involving ISIS, Jordan, and Japan. ISIS has demanded that Jordan release convicted terrorist Sajida al-Rishawi in exchange for the release of Japanese journalist Kenji Goto. Jordan seems inclined to make the deal but is also demanding the release of Muath al-Kasaesbeh, a Jordanian air force pilot captured in December. ISIS says it will kill Kasaesbeh today if Rishawi is not released. If Rishawi is released, it’s not clear if they plan to let both prisoners go or just Goto.

Rishawi, currently on death row, was never considered a particularly high-value prisoner, so Jordan may conclude releasing her is worth it to secure the safety of Kasaesbeh. For Japan, it’s probably a no-brainer. But the U.S. sees things a bit differently. While the U.S. won’t publicly criticize an allied government about its handling of these situations, when asked about the case, White House spokesman Eric Schultz reiterated the American position: “We don’t pay ransom; we don’t give concessions to terrorist organizations.” When pressed by Jonathan Karl of ABC News over the distinction between this and the swap of Taliban prisoners for U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl last year, Schultz argued that “the Taliban is an armed insurgency, ISIL is a terrorist group. So, we don’t make concessions to terrorist groups.”

Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Republican member of the House Armed Services Committee who has criticized the U.S.’s handling of previous hostage crises (he thinks the administration didn’t give enough consideration to the alternative options for freeing Bergdahl proposed by the Defense Department), dismissed that argument as “semantics,” saying that White House officials “want to justify their actions by splitting hairs on how they compare the Taliban to ISIS.”

He has a point. The distinction between “insurgents” and “terrorists” is an increasingly meaningless one. The most powerful Islamist terrorist groups, including al-Qaida, ISIS, Boko Haram, and al-Shabab, all both function as guerilla armies in local conflicts against governments or other paramilitary groups and participate in what we traditionally think of as terrorism: suicide bombings, kidnappings, etc. ISIS may employ videotaped beheadings and suicide bombings, but in the battle for Kobani, Syria, it looked more like an insurgent group.  And if the Taliban carrying out a suicide bombing at the funeral for victims of an earlier attack, as they did today, isn’t a terrorist attack, I’m not sure what is.

In addition to a questionable definition of “terrorist,” the administration has also twisted itself in knots over the meaning of “negotiate.” Soon-to-be-former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel argued shortly after the Bergdahl release that the U.S. had not negotiated with the Taliban because Qatari mediators had handled the talks. The Qataris also acted as intermediaries to make the negotiated release of Jabhat al-Nusra’s American prisoner Peter Theo Curtis kosher last August.

As I wrote after James Foley’s killing, the distinction between the ISIS prisoners and Bergdahl has less to do with whether the Taliban are terrorists or how the talks were conducted than with the nature of the conflict being fought. The Bergdahl exchange has to be seen in the context of the U.S. drawdown from Afghanistan. (To be fair, Schultz was trying to make this point before he got off track.) The reason the U.S. wasn’t particularly worried about the released Taliban inmates plotting more attacks against Americans in Afghanistan is that the U.S. government aims over the next few years, though success is far from guaranteed, to have as few Americans around Afghanistan as possible. By contrast, the fight against ISIS is just getting started, and the U.S. fears that paying ransoms or granting concessions could encourage the group to kidnap more Americans. Al-Qaida affiliates have turned a nice profit ransoming European hostages to their more accommodating governments in recent years.

In retrospect, I think it’s arguable whether the money ISIS would have received for Foley or Steven Sotloff would have benefited the group more than the enormous propaganda value of their videotaped killings, but I do understand that sometimes tough choices have to be made between the lives of individuals and larger security concerns. In November the president ordered a review of the U.S. government’s handling of hostage crises. I hope this review includes consideration of whether the blanket ban on negotiations, enforced to the point that the government threatens to prosecute families of hostages who try to make their own deals, is counterproductive in some cases. The U.S. has made concessions and exchanges with the enemy for prisoners in conflicts dating back to the Revolution. These deals are often painful and controversial, but at times worthwhile.

The nature of warfare has changed, and the U.S. is facing a different kind of enemy, but just saying “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” isn’t that useful, particularly if you don’t really mean it.