Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Will the U.S. negotiate with terrorists?

By Peter Bergen and Bailey Cahall
February 19, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Freelance American journalist <strong>Steven Sotloff</strong>, seen here in a photo from Facebook, disappeared during a reporting trip to Syria in August 2013. His family <a href=''>kept the news a secret</a> until he was seen at the end of a video from the Islamic extremist group ISIS that shows the beheading of another journalist, James Foley. Freelance American journalist Steven Sotloff, seen here in a photo from Facebook, disappeared during a reporting trip to Syria in August 2013. His family kept the news a secret until he was seen at the end of a video from the Islamic extremist group ISIS that shows the beheading of another journalist, James Foley.
Americans detained abroad
Americans detained abroad
Americans detained abroad
Americans detained abroad
Americans detained abroad
Americans detained abroad
Americans detained abroad
Americans detained abroad
Americans detained abroad
Americans detained abroad
Americans detained abroad
Americans detained abroad
Americans detained abroad
Americans detained abroad
Americans detained abroad
Americans detained abroad
Americans detained abroad
Americans detained abroad
Americans detained abroad
Americans detained abroad
Americans detained abroad
  • Peter Bergen: The U.S. won't negotiate with terrorists, but will it make an exception?
  • Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is believed to be held by the Haqqani group, a terror wing of Afghan Taliban
  • Bergen: Talks would be held with Afghan Taliban, which is not directly a terrorist group
  • Bergen: U.S. combat troops leaving Afghanistan, it's time to swap POWs, including Bergdahl

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a director at the New America Foundation and the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden -- From 9/11 to Abbottabad." Bailey Cahall is a policy analyst at the New America Foundation.

(CNN) -- The U.S. government's long-stated position is that it won't negotiate with terrorists. But are there exceptions?

U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, an American prisoner of war, is believed to be held in Pakistan by the Haqqani group.

The Haqqani group is part of the larger Taliban network and has engaged in a range of attacks on civilian targets in Afghanistan, such as the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Treasury Department named three of the Haqqani group's leaders as "Specially Designated Global Terrorists," and noted that the organization "poses a grave threat to U.S. civilians, military personnel, and our broader interests in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region."

Two years ago, the U.S. State Department also formally listed the Haqqani network as a foreign terrorist organization.

Yet on Monday, The Washington Post quoted U.S. officials who said the government was going to resume talks with the Afghan Taliban and offer to trade five Taliban prisoners held at the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay for Bergdahl, who has been held since 2009.

Does that mean the United States is negotiating with a terrorist group?

In fact, the Haqqanis are part of the larger Afghan Taliban network, but the Afghan Taliban itself is not listed by the U.S. State Department as a foreign terrorist organization, which enables the United States to have direct talks with the Afghan Taliban, which it has been doing for years secretly, according to multiple U.S. officials familiar with the talks.

U.S. to swap terror suspects for P.O.W.?
U.S. to swap terror suspects for P.O.W.?
New video of missing U.S. soldier

This means that discussions about the release of Bergdahl with the Afghan Taliban are not directly with a terrorist organization per se, but instead with an insurgent group that has a terrorist wing.

For some this may seem to be a distinction without a difference, but as a matter of U.S. policy this is a very important distinction. Consider the case of another American who is held hostage in Pakistan, Warren Weinstein, a contractor for the U.S. Agency of International Development who was kidnapped by al Qaeda in Lahore, Pakistan, more than two years ago.

In December, a proof-of-life video was released to international media outlets, in which Weinstein called on President Obama to negotiate for his release. As with Bergdahl, the release of Guantanamo detainees was among his captors' conditions.

U.S. officials have called for Weinstein's release. But the United States has never negotiated with al Qaeda and would not want to encourage the group to kidnap other Americans living in Pakistan, so it seems out of the question that U.S. officials would negotiate with al Qaeda for Weinstein's release.

That said, U.S. officials will certainly be working behind the scenes to put pressure on the Pakistan government to try to secure Weinstein's release.

The fact that Bergdahl is being held by the Haqqanis does raise another issue, however, which is: Even if you get a deal with the Afghan Taliban for Bergdahl's release, would the Haqqani network, which operates quite independently from the Afghan Taliban, go along with it?

The consensus among Taliban experts is, likely, yes. Anand Gopal, a fellow at the New America Foundation who has interviewed multiple members of the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network, says the Haqqanis would honor such a deal because "they take great pains to present themselves as part of the mainstream Taliban movement -- even if in practice they are independent -- and not going along would be an affront to the Taliban, possibly damaging relations."

According to the Washington Post report, the U.S. government has not yet made a formal offer for Bergdahl, who has spent almost five years in captivity. But the political situation around Bergdahl's release may be shifting slightly in favor of a resolution. In 2103, the Obama administration quietly released 11 prisoners from Guantanamo and it didn't generate much criticism from opponents of the administration.

Two months ago, Congress also eased up on some of the restrictions that had previously prevented prisoners being released from Guantanamo.

Also, U.S. combat troops in Afghanistan are pulling out at the end of December, which is, of course, a key Taliban demand. This means, as both a practical and legal matter, that the United States will then no longer be at war in Afghanistan, although there will likely be some residual force of U.S. soldiers in an advisory role post-2014.

When wars are over, the warring parties traditionally exchange their prisoners of war. With all U.S. combat soldiers returning home from Afghanistan during the course of this year, it is high time for Bergdahl to be one of them.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

Part of complete coverage on
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?