(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of the Year so far", please click here.)
When the US exchanged five Afghan detainees for U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl, the news coverage might have scared you into thinking President Obama made a future terror attack more likely. Senator John McCain called them five “vicious and violent” Taliban who he worries will attack the U.S. again. Dexter Filkins on the New Yorker’s “Political Scene” podcast called them “bad guys”. And Bret Stephens on Fareed Zakaria GPS described them as “five hardened Taliban commanders”.
To all the hand wringers terrified that President Obama released five hardened terrorists who want nothing more than to kill Americans as soon as possible, I ask you this: if I can promise you that these five men will never kill Americans in America, will that make you feel better?
Because I promise, right now, that the five Taliban prisoners will never kill anyone in America.
How can I make such a bold promise when the media has breathlessly repeated rumors and leaks from intelligence officials/Congress persons about these dangerous Taliban? For a couple of reasons…
1. Terrorism is not insurgency. Calling the Taliban prisoners “terrorists” is extremely disingenuous, as we have written about before. And mentioned a dozen times since. When Americans think “terrorism” they think non-state groups attacking civilians--the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, Oklahoma City, 9/11, the London Subway bombings. Only a smaller group--that has included the State Department, the CIA and the DoD--believe that insurgents fighting U.S. forces in their own countries count as terrorists. Doesn’t it seem odd to call an attack on a soldier deployed to a country in the midst of a civil war an act of terrorism?
Beyond semantics, the former Taliban officials released in the Bergdahl deal have very little interest in attacking the U.S. homeland. Al Qaeda conducted 9/11, not the Taliban. Since 9/11--and even after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and propped up a new government--there hasn’t been a single Taliban terror attack on U.S. soil. There hasn’t even been evidence of an attempted attack. The Taliban wants to govern Afghanistan, not attack the U.S.
2. Oh, and for good measure, terrorism is still incredibly rare. The media’s focus on rare and unusual events skews Americans’ perspective on the frequency of terrorism. Looking at the long term trends, I can say with a fair bit of confidence that there won’t be another terror attack on the U.S. just simply because it is so rare in the first place. (And even rarer for Taliban-led terror attacks.) For good measure, check out how many Americans died by gun violence since Bowe Bergdahl was released. The threat to Americans is gun violence, cancer, traffic accidents and other less shocking events.
3. The intelligence on the “terrorists” wasn’t great to begin with. I wrote an entire series on this, but I’ll be blunter with it this time: everyone in America--starting with President Obama and moving down to Joe Six Pack on the street--needs to question the accuracy of U.S. intelligence. U.S. intelligence isn’t peer reviewed, doesn’t use devil’s advocates, and doesn’t correct past mistakes. It often rushes to judgement and is spun to win the PR news cycle. Of course, this is exacerbated by…
4. The media using “unnamed intelligence sources”. Too many journalists relied on “off the record” intelligence sources to paint the Guantanamo detainees as hardened terrorists. Without having to put their names to it, these same “unnamed sources” could skew the coverage to support their political viewpoints.
And political pressure often distorts the findings, as we’ve discovered multiple times this century.
5. Only one prisoner could be described as a war criminal. As the Afghan Analysts Network has reported, only one of the five has been linked to war crimes and specific violence. The rest were in civilian posts or not controlling ground troops prior to the U.S. invasion. Many also lack terror or insurgent experience, as opposed to government positions. And again, except for one individual, most lack violent histories.
Of course, you could come to this conclusion when the “intelligence” on the five men was poor in the first place. Most of the intelligence was gathered in the invasion by CIA officers without extensive knowledge (yet) of Afghanistan. Most of it contains unsupported assertions, and the Afghan Analysts Network debunked many of the reports. Yet, we never would have seen these reports except for the unauthorized release by Wikileaks. While an outside group debunked the reports very quickly, it never would have happened internally in the intelligence community.
These were five men involved in an insurgency, who weren’t really fighters in the first place, and terrorism is still incredibly rare. Americans have nothing to worry about.