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Bergdahl swap troubling amid recent violence [Commentary]

The violence erupting on the former battlefields of Operation Iraqi Freedom coupled with the planned withdrawal from Afghanistan raises new concerns over the recent exchange of five Taliban commanders for U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. The swap conflicted with traditional hostage recovery policy and trading of war prisoners and may lead our enemies to conclude that we're now willing to negotiate with kidnappers — potentially endangering lives abroad.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, was himself an insurgent detainee released by the U.S. in 2009. Now, these released senior Taliban leaders, whether officially designated terrorists or enemy combatants, could be future attackers who destabilize and reverse coalition accomplishments in Afghanistan.

The short-term gain derived from this transaction — freeing Sergeant Bergdahl — is also overshadowed by the long-term pain created for Americans traveling abroad who could now be seen as targets. Current and former hostages and their families may also find the situation difficult to comprehend — especially the ones who were told their country was doing everything possible to secure release but still could not offer concessions to the kidnappers.

The optics do not look good domestically or internationally. By seeking temporary satisfaction (the return of an American citizen) and highlighting it through a highly visible ceremony in the White House Rose Garden, we have showcased — for friends and enemies alike — the willingness to trade hostages for terrorists who may be guilty of killing Americans or coalition members. This will only embolden the Taliban.

Instead, we should have held strong, using a long-term strategic decision to strengthen our position vis-à-vis this enemy and others by demonstrating that hostage-taking does not pay. This action sends the opposite message.

The trade will also adversely impact the goal of internationalizing efforts to oppose and discourage hostage-taking by current and future enemies. Exchanging prisoners of war for Sergeant Bergdahl actually has the potential to catalyze further kidnapping and hostage-taking by terrorist groups (FARC, Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Shabaab and al-Qaida) seeking to gain an advantage over the U.S. and our allies.

Further, these actions in the Bergdahl case have legitimized the stature of an enemy organization with whom we (as a country and military coalition) are still engaged inside Afghanistan and elsewhere. And this may further incentivize the planning and potential actions of future captors who will now consider Americans targets of opportunity whether they are tourists traveling abroad or military members engaged in foreign theaters of operation.

Consider the experience of former U.S. Navy Commander Roy Hallums, who was held in captivity by Iraqi operatives for 311 days and rescued in September 2005 by American Special Forces. International hostages around him were released during his 10 months buried in a box near Baghdad because some countries were paying multi-million dollar ransoms while he remained in captivity due to a policy of "no concessions." When I talked to Mr. Hallums recently, he said he was glad to see Sergeant Bergdahl released but that his case will create a "long term mess" because nobody believes the United States did not "negotiate with terrorists." Mr. Hallum's family members and friends are also very upset.

In the eyes of many observers it appears that we negotiated with the captors through a third party in the Middle East, and this will have long-term adverse consequences — especially on future battlefields. Historically, and especially since the Sept. 11 attacks, we have stood with our closest allies to disrupt and deter the kidnapping of U.S. and coalition members by agreeing (sometimes painfully) not to offer concessions to kidnappers or enemy captors, working hard (often behind the scenes) to reinforce our solidarity in the face of increased threats to our collective forces.

I wonder how other countries now view America — those who have paid ransoms to secure the release of their citizens, as well as those allies who have stuck to the "no concessions" policy. What signal have we sent to them? I fear we are hypocrites to the former and unreliable partners to the latter. The illusion of paying ransoms — or offering concessions to the Taliban —is that it's really a costly price to our national security and international reputation.

Dane Egli served as hostage rescue advisor on the White House National Security Council staff (2004-06) and recently published "Beyond the Storms: Strengthening Homeland Security & Disaster Management to Achieve Resilience." His email is daneegli@msn.com.

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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