- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 3, 2014

For a commander in chief who’s always been somewhat ill at ease with the ambiguities of the war on terror, this weekend’s “prisoner swap” with the Taliban was the latest instance of President Obama trying to figure out when to treat it like a traditional war, and when to deem it a 21st-century conflict that breaks many of the rules of regular warfare.

The deal to bring home Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl — now facing allegations he “deserted” his unit — in exchange for the release of five Taliban commanders held at Guantanamo Bay seems to fall in a gray area for this president. Unlike a traditional war, where the prisoners are shipped home, the five in question in this deal were delivered to a third country, Qatar, where the administration vows they’ll be under close watch.

For most of the war, Mr. Obama has been content to deem the detainees at Guantanamo “enemy combatants.” Now, his administration has taken to calling them “prisoners of war,” eligible for swapping at the end of a conflict.


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Analysts say the decision to trade prisoners with a group such as the Taliban is fully defensible from a legal perspective, but the deal for Sgt. Bergdahl fails to take into account that Mr. Obama himself has said that America is still at war.

“We’re still capturing people. The war is not over. The president is using the law of armed conflict not only for detention but for other activities. The president is trying to make a timing point. But people are pushing back and saying, ‘OK, we get that, but your timing is off. This isn’t the end,” said Charles “Cully” Stimson, manager of the National Security Law Program at the Heritage Foundation.

Looking to make his mark as the commander in chief who finally ended the more-than-decade of war in Afghanistan, Mr. Obama is using the swap to remind Americans that formal combat operations in that country will soon come to a close, and with that closure comes prisoner exchanges previously seen during the twilight of the American Revolution, the Civil War and World War II.


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At a press conference in Warsaw on Tuesday, the president said Sgt. Bergdahl’s deteriorating health was a key contributing factor in pulling the trigger on the swap, but at the same time indicated the deal was a part of traditional U.S. practice as armed conflicts wind down.

“This is what happens at the end of wars,” Mr. Obama said. “That was true for George Washington. That was true for Abraham Lincoln. That was true for FDR. That’s been true in every combat situation, that at some point you try to get your folks back.”

The retrieval of Sgt. Bergdahl, orchestrated without recent consultation with congressional leaders, will become especially problematic, specialists say, if the five freed Taliban fighters end up back on the battlefield fighting American soldiers, or plotting terrorist attacks that threaten the fragile stability in Afghanistan.

Mr. Obama stressed that he believes the deal won’t harm American national security, while also making the broader point that the U.S. must never leave a fighting man or woman behind.

Some analysts say that black-and-white declaration carries its own complications, particularly in the increasingly gray world of the war on terror.

“It is, frankly, a very dangerous statement to say you leave no one behind. The truth is, you have to, again and again,” said Anthony Cordesman, chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a widely respected foreign policy and national defense specialist. “You leave people behind when you know you’re going to kill more people rescuing them. You leave people behind when you know you don’t have a clear chance of rescuing them without getting other people killed.”