Bergdahl and the Impossible Choices Hostages Face

President Obama meets with the parents of Bowe Bergdahl for a press conference in the Rose Garden on May 31, 2014.

Carolyn Kaster/AP

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President Obama meets with the parents of Bowe Bergdahl for a press conference in the Rose Garden on May 31, 2014.

A former Taliban captive explains how to stop the spread of an increasingly successful militant tactic. By David Rohde

The furor surrounding the exchange of five Taliban prisoners for Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl last week has exposed the murky world—and impossible choices—of the families of Americans taken captive by militants.

Demands for vast ransoms or for prisoner releases put these families in the excruciating position of seeming to be able to save a loved one’s life. Meet demands and your beloved lives. Hesitate and carry responsibility for his or her death to your grave.

Yet few families have access to the sums of money that militants demand. Nor can they free prisoners held by the United States or a local government. Despite the fact that the families feel primary responsibility, they have no real control.

I’m biased about Bergdahl. Five years ago, I was kidnapped by the same Afghan Taliban faction along with two Afghan colleagues while I was on leave from The New York Times, researching a book in Afghanistan. An offer for an interview from a Taliban commander who had previously met twice with European journalists proved to be a ruse. We were abducted at the meeting point and then transported to the tribal areas of Pakistan.

My decision to go to the interview thrust my family and editors into a world where there are no good choices. Kidnapping cases vary, but they all center on the same tortuous questions. Was the kidnap victim innocent or somehow at fault—and does it matter? Is it right to pay a ransom that could encourage kidnappings or fund future terrorist attacks? When is it morally acceptable to let a captive die?

One brave Afghan and one brave Pakistani allowed me to avoid answering those questions. While our guards slept, the Afghan journalist and I managed to escape and reach a nearby Pakistani military compound. After we were nearly shot by sentries, a Pakistani Army captain allowed us to enter the base and saved our lives. (The other Afghan kidnapped with me returned home safely six weeks later.)

Ten days after our escape, Bergdahl was captured by the same Taliban group. Over the last four years, I have talked regularly with Bergdahl’s family and those of other kidnapped Americans. One of them is the family of Warren Weinstein, an aid worker abducted in Pakistan nearly three years ago. His family fears he will die in captivity. In July, he will be 73.

The Bergdahls, the Weinsteins, and every other family I have spoken with express the same sense of desperation, isolation, and crushing responsibility. They incessantly ask themselves if they are doing enough. The sad truth hanging over every conversation is that they do not have the power to save them.

Five years later, the situation has gotten worse.

In every case I know of, the U.S. government has refused to pay ransom and, until Bergdahl, refused to release prisoners. Over the last three years, however, European governments have paid $100 million in ransom to various al-Qaeda splinter groups across the Middle East and North Africa, according to British officials. Israel released 1,000 prisoners in exchange for one Israel soldier.

Unable to pay enormous ransoms or release prisoners, American families have responded in desperate ways. But it is questionable whether any are effective.

During the Iraq war, security consultants began recommending that the abduction of journalists be kept secret. A media blackout, it was hoped, would reduce captors’ ransom demands. It would also, in theory, discourage would-be abductors from seeing kidnappings as a way to gain worldwide publicity for their cause.

When we were abducted in Afghanistan, my family and editors followed that advice. My captors also initially demanded that the case remain secret as well. As had occurred in a half-dozen previous instances, media outlets agreed not to report on our kidnapping.

We will never know the impact of the blackout on my captors, but throughout the seven months I was held captive, they remained convinced that I was a “big fish.” By the time we escaped, their price for my release included $7 million in cash and seven prisoners from Guantánamo—a drop from the $25 million and 15 Guantánamo prisoners they started with.

In the years since I’ve returned home, it’s become clear that one unintended consequence of this blackout strategy is that U.S. officials are under little pressure to address the problem. Anguished families say they regularly visit Washington only to be “patted on the head” by U.S. officials.

These blackouts can also inadvertently endanger other journalists. The failure to disclose kidnappings in Syria resulted in some reporters traveling there without fully understanding thespiraling risk of abduction. Freelancers and young journalists, in particular, are at risk.

Meanwhile, the abductions continue. Journalists have now been kidnapped in record numbers in Syria. Aid workers, missionaries, and contractors have been taken hostage across the Sahel in Africa. More than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls remain in captivity.

The outcry over the Bergdahl case could create the worst of both worlds. Jihadists will expect prisoner exchanges or large ransoms. U.S. officials will be ever more hesitant to act in kidnapping cases.

Both sides in the furor over the Bergdahl case offer simplistic answers to the growing problem of abductions. Those who say the release of the five prisoners sets no precedent are downplaying the scope of this propaganda coup for the Taliban. Other militants around the globe will likely emulate them.

At the same time, the argument that refusing to pay ransom or release prisoners will end all kidnappings is wishful thinking. Given the delusions of my captors, jihadists will remain convinced for years, if not decades, that secret ransoms are being paid.

The real solution would require a massive and difficult long-term effort to reduce the world’s pockets of ungoverned spaces. The Taliban who held Bergdahl and me felt no pressure to reduce their demands because they had a safe haven in the mountains of Pakistan.

Colombia curbed kidnappings by steadily eliminating the areas controlled by rebels. Kidnappings have been reduced in Somalia as African Union forces have gained greater control of the country. In the Philippines, abductions have slowed as the militant group Abu Sayyaf lost territory in the south.

Doing the same thing in Pakistan’s tribal areas, Syria, and the Sahel is a staggering task. But setting that as the international community’s common long-term goal is far more constructive than demonizing a hostage and his family.

The focus of our anger should be the kidnappers. They are the problem, not hostages, their families, or a government that meets a demand. We must unite in fighting the perpetrators of a craven crime—not each other.

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