In this negotiation analysis, we study the exchange between the United States and the Taliban of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban leaders held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, represented the first public prisoner exchange of a US soldier in the thirteen year US involvement in Afghanistan. The background of the deal including how Private First Class Bergdahl (promoted twice to Sergeant while in captivity) entered Taliban control, how the deal was crafted and executed, and what it means for the future have rapidly come forward in bits and pieces through media channels.
There is a lot to be learned from this negotiation analysis.
Applying Negotiation Analysis Frameworks to the US-Taliban Prisoner Exchange
What is missing in the existing commentary is a holistic negotiation analysis. A negotiation analysis applies negotiation frameworks and theory to better understand the events that have taken place and the unfolding debates and can provide insight into future negotiations. It also enables understanding by using a template that includes stakeholders, core interests, deal set-up and components, execution, and post-deal debate and legacy to allow for a focused discussion.
Stakeholder analysis helps to identify the main and secondary parties in a negotiation. In multilateral negotiations, stakeholder analysis allows a savvy negotiation team to talk to the right party at the right time.
The primary stakeholders in the Bergdahl deal included the US, the Taliban, Qatar, the Afghan Government, and, to a lesser extent, the Pakistani government. Many multilateral deals include multiple sets of negotiations. These include behind the table within one’s own party, the across the table negotiation between parties, and the other party’s behind the table discussions. In some way’s this resembles synchronizing one’s frontcourt as well as one’s backcourt.
Mediators choose to enter the fray of a dispute when it advances their own interests. In this case, Qatar elevated its prestige by successfully mediating the exchange. It also received praise from both the US and the Taliban for its role, laying the groundwork for further involvement in ongoing discussions that include US –Taliban, Afghan Government-Taliban, and US-Afghan Government-Taliban components.
Qatar was successfully able to mediate and facilitate communication between the US and the Taliban, while reports indicate that in general the Afghan government was excluded from the specific negotiation analysis. In this case, the deal on the table was scoped to the Bergdahl exchange, leaving broader issues in the Afghan conflict for another time.
Governments are often viewed as a monolith in negotiations, but in reality, include diverse actors. In the case of the US, inside stakeholders included multiple government agencies, including the White House (the principal), as well as government agencies as supporting agents, including the State Department, the Department of Defense, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), special operations units, likely the CIA, and potentially the FBI due to its resident hostage negotiation expertise. A secondary group of American stakeholders was out of the crafting and execution of the deal but has become quite present in the post-deal debate and legacy. These include the US Congress, the Bergdahl family, the American public, and, as the weeks go by, the Army itself.
In contrast, the Taliban is considered an umbrella term that covers a number of armed, fragmented groups. It is unclear how much-centralized decision making occurred within the Taliban, the amount of deliberation that took place internally, and the decision-making structure used to support it. News reports indicate that the Haqqani network held Bergdahl. It is unclear what the Haqqani network itself received from the deal other than prestige, as well as the benefits from developing a relationship between the five Taliban prisoners and the Haqqani network.
Core Interests and Alternatives to Negotiation
Core interests represent what a party truly wants or values. Identifying core interests, even ex-post, is helpful in understanding what was truly important to parties – and what was not. It also helps us understand if the interests of a party change over time. Similarly, identifying the no-deal options can help one understand what a party can do if a deal is not completed.
Once Bergdahl entered the control of the Taliban, the core interests of the Taliban presumably became obtaining a prisoner exchange, as well as gaining prestige from the seizure of an American soldier. It is not clear at this time whether the Taliban had been able to extract intelligence from Bergdahl. While the Taliban published videos of his captivity, they did not appear to harm him in the videos released. A no-deal option for the Taliban was to wait for the US to move towards a negotiated settlement while ensuring operational security to prevent or mitigate American rescue. This included ensuring that few individuals knew where he was held, maintaining low visibility of the holding site, and likely improving the defense of the site(s) in case of an American rescue operation. Other no deal options included giving him to another party, letting him go, or the gruesome option of execution.
The core interests of the US were complicated, due to the circumstances that led to Bergdahl entering the control of the Taliban. The return of a US soldier held by foreign combatants is a prime concern to the US military. However, this concern was mitigated by the circumstances in which Bergdahl came under Taliban control. Plainly stated, Bergdahl was not captured in a firefight on the battlefield. Instead, reports indicate that he willingly left his post and his fellow soldiers and went out on his own into the Afghan countryside. This component, discussed in military circles for several years, likely reduced the internal desire – and external pressure/political will – of the US military to launch a prisoner rescue mission. It did not, however, change the fact that the US wanted him back, just the options it pursued to get him back. Similarly, a core interest of the US centered on deterring future prisoner capture and swaps, or at least not overly incentivizing them through the deal. The juxtaposition of these interests – the return of Bergdahl, the circumstances of his capture, and the willingness to deter future prisoner swaps, produced a complex cost-benefit analysis. At the end of the day, the return of Bergdahl became the priority, as months and years went by.
The no-deal options for the US are noteworthy here. They included launching a prisoner rescue operation, continuing to wait for a deal-execution window to open, enlisting third parties to help change the negotiation dynamic, or allowing Bergdahl to remain in captivity indefinitely. There is also an element of timing central to the no-deal options for the US. As the US continues its withdrawal, the no-deal options would likely diminish in attractiveness for the US in the future. As the no-deal options continued to decline, waiting longer to complete a deal provided no additional benefit to the US.
Reports indicate that the final deal rapidly culminated. However, the ongoing negotiation simmered for several years. This shows similarities to the Hamas-Israel deal in 2011, where Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was held for five years by Hamas before being traded for over 1,000 prisoners. In that exchange, the core components of the deal changed very little over time. This is a key takeaway from both the Shalit and Bergdahl deals: the actual deal did not change much from year one to year five, but the political calculation of the deal, and the will to execute it on all sides, did change.
In the Shalit deal, the events of the Arab Spring changed the calculation of Hamas regarding Egypt’s mediation services, its base of operations in Syria, and the opportunity to gain a significant group of prisoners (and prestige) back. Similarly, on the Israeli side, national protests, as well as a sit-in campaign outside the home of the Prime Minister, continued to heighten pressure on the Israeli government to act.
In the Bergdahl exchange, the strategic picture changed significantly from 2009 in different ways: the Afghanistan Surge by US military forces has come and gone, there are active discussions with many parties on ending the conflict in Afghanistan, and the President had announced plans to limit US involvement to 9,800 troops with a complete exit by 2016. The ability to reach a deal in 2014 was different than 2009, even though reports indicate that the deal didn’t change much.
Components of the Deal
As outlined in news reports, and similar to the Hamas-Israel deal, the key issues on the table regarding the Taliban prisoners included the following:
- The number of prisoners to be exchanged
- The specific prisoners to be exchanged
- The extent of the violence committed by the prisoners (blood on their hands)
- Whether the prisoners will return home or be sent to a third location
- If sent to a third location, the rules regarding travel, freedom of movement, and time duration at the third location.
- The crafting of detailed procedures in order to execute the deal
Because the Afghan government was cut out of the deal, the issues on the table were ones relevant to the Bergdahl exchange, effectively de-linking, at least for the deal, the Bergdahl exchange from larger issues concerning reconciliation.
Executing the Deal
While business negotiations have their own execution problems, negotiations involving military actors typically involve the threat of violence. Instead of merely signing on the dotted line, carefully choreographed physical movements, often sequential in nature, are necessary as one or both parties are physically vulnerable in the deal execution. This planned choreography allows the deal to be executed between armed parties.
As the parties are technically engaged in armed conflict, generating working trust is extremely difficult. Careful planning and arrangements were made to ensure that both sets of agents executing the deal (including special operations forces for the US, and fighters crossing the border from Pakistan for the Taliban) were to be close enough to exchange the prisoner, yet not engage each other. Similarly, while the arrival of the five Taliban prisoners to Qatar followed the safe receipt of Bergdahl by American forces, the two events could also have occurred simultaneously. Ultimately though, the deal execution arrangements by American forces, and likely for the Taliban, were significant and involved deliberate planning, pre-staging of people and assets, careful real-time synchronization and disciplined execution.
Negotiation Analysis Post-Deal Debate and Legacy
How ‘good’ a deal is for a party is open for debate in any negotiation analysis. For some, the metric is relative to one’s interests, including whether one is better off from the deal, and whether there were better alternatives. Others note that there is also a relative metric compared to what your interlocutor gained. More succinctly, do we evaluate what we got out of the deal, or what we got compared to the other party or a combination of both? This is not an easy question. An acceptable exchange, at the end of the day, is what the parties say it is.
However, the parties are not the only ones who can judge the deal. With the sophistication of social media today, prisoner exchanges, especially within ongoing hostilities, do not end with the actual exchange of personnel. Instead, the branding of the deal by each side to their constituents becomes central stage. In this case, the branding of the deal includes the way that leadership delivers and frames it to its people.
In the US, the White House ceremony focused on the narrative of a son returned to his parents, and the obligation of the nation to bring a captured service member home. By holding the announcement at the White House, there was also a political interest in claiming credit for the exchange. So the narrative was not only that of a son returned home to his parents, but that the White House had helped achieve that endstate. However, the depiction of Bergdahl differs dramatically from the characterizations put forward by members of the US Army unit that Bergdahl served within Afghanistan. Some of his fellow soldiers draw attention to how the incident was catalyzed, in this case by Bergdahl voluntarily leaving his base unarmed to walk into the Afghan countryside. Moreover, Congress was not given its statutory required thirty days prior notice of the release of prisoners from Guantanamo Bay. Lastly, the Army itself, with precedent at stake including the application of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice, may seek to protect its own morale and discipline by ensuring that Bergdahl is held accountable for his actions.
As these secondary stakeholders were absent from the crafting of the deal as it heated it up, and were not brought into the branding of the deal immediately beforehand, it would be expected that they might challenge the branding afterward. Because the White House took credit for the exchange and the secondary stakeholders were absent from the deal, criticism has been largely directed at the White House.
Finally, the legacy of the deal, which is still up for grabs, remains as well. As the Afghan government was cut out of the deal, the Bergdahl deal operated as a parallel track to the ongoing reconciliation talks. In turn, the ability to link the exchange to the larger reconciliation process – which very much includes the Afghan government as a central stakeholder – is now more challenging.
The fundamental component of the deal is most likely to be seen by armed groups around the world as follows: at the end of the day, one American soldier held for five years was traded for five senior Taliban leaders held for over ten years. While complex circumstances of how Bergdahl entered the control of the Taliban, five years of captivity, Qatari mediation, and high-stakes deal execution are all noteworthy, the core exchange acknowledges that the US, when it chooses, will negotiate to bring a soldier home. As more information comes forward in the next few weeks about the Bergdahl exchange, how this legacy will impact future operations, as well as negotiations including military actors, remains to be seen.
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Negotiation Analysis Author: Michael Baskin is a PhD Candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He holds a BS from the US Military Academy at West Point, an MA from the Interdisciplinary (IDC) Center, Herzliya, Israel, and is a former US Army infantry officer with service in Afghanistan and Iraq. He has received a Next Generation Grant from the Program on Negotiation (PON) at Harvard Law School towards his dissertation on negotiations involving military officers.
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