One of the revealing wrinkles of the Bergdahl deal is that it’s now put the White House in the position of obliquely defending the Taliban’s legitimacy. Terrorists take hostages, and the United States as a rule doesn’t negotiate with terrorists. Legitimate armies, however, take prisoners, and the United States has always negotiated for POWs. Obama’s political need to have his strategy perceived as appropriate requires that the Taliban’s methods be seen as sufficiently appropriate too. Although, in fairness to Carney, that’s been true since 9/11: Neither Bush’s nor Obama’s State Department has formally designated the Taliban a terrorist organization, precisely because the White House wants to preserve its ability to talk to the group as we head for the exits in Afghanistan. (Tehrik-e Taliban, a different group based in Pakistan, was designated a few years ago.) As a matter of political reality, the Taliban has never been a terrorist group.
As a matter of actual reality, the story is different.
Shock spread through Kabul’s close-knit expatriate community after the Taliban killed 21 people, including the International Monetary Fund’s mission chief and a senior United Nations official, in a dinnertime attack on a popular restaurant Friday…
The Lebanese restaurant targeted Friday was in Kabul’s Wazir Akbar Khan central district, home to many embassies, aid organizations and guesthouses. At about 7:30 p.m. Friday, a Taliban suicide bomber blew himself up at the compound’s gate, officials said. Then two other insurgents burst in and gunned down the diners at their tables.
Suicide-bombing your way into a restaurant and then machine-gunning the survivors is Terrorism 101, but since the responsible party will soon be back in charge in Kabul, they remain sufficiently respectable-ish that we can carry out a high-level prisoner swap with them. Coping with that cognitive dissonance, of holding peace talks with suicide bombers, is so hard that when State Department spokesman Jen Psaki was asked last year whether the Taliban is an officially recognized terrorist organization, she admitted she … wasn’t sure offhand. The best piece I’ve read on this subject is this one from 2009 by Tom Joscelyn and Bill Roggio exploring just how deep the ties between Al Qaeda “terrorists” and the Taliban “army” run. The hostage/prisoner distinction is a simple function of the political fiction we’ve created around the Taliban for 14 years. And since they’ve tended to react, shall we say, badly when some of their allies on the ground in Afghanistan have been designated terrorists, don’t expect State to reverse course on this anytime soon.
Pay attention at 1:15 here, by the way, as Chris Cuomo asks Carney whether it should matter if Bergdahl did indeed desert his post rather than being taken during combat by enemy action. That’s a perfect opportunity for Carney to challenge the theory that Bergdahl walked away. Instead, he dodges the question. Exit question: Should deserters be treated as standard POWs, knowing that trying to get them back could — and apparently did, in Bergdahl’s case — cost members of the search party their lives?