Over the weekend, the Obama Administration traded five high-ranking Taliban terrorists in exchange for a US soldier who might well been a deserter. The move is a clear reversal of long-standing US foreign policy practice and was most likely illegal. Yet, the move, while outrageous to many observers, merits little surprise.
Back in 2009, the administration, in conjunction with the Iraqi government, made a somewhat similar deal with an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) element known as the Quds Force. The trade involved Quds Force operatives and British captives.
The back story begins in the heat of the Iraq War in 2005 when the first explosively-formed projectile devices appeared. Early EFPs were detonated or found in the Shi’ite region in and around Karbala Province, and they killed or maimed a greater number of US soldiers. The deadly IEDs (improvised explosive devices) were the handy work of the IRGC’s Quds Force.
In 2007, a Quds Force element mounted an attack on the government complex in Karbala, kidnapping and eventually killing five US soldiers. Layith al-Khazali and his brother, Qais, were detained by US forces for their part in the attacks.
In 2009, the Obama administration released the al-Khazali brothers to the Iraqi government so they could be traded for five British subjects held in captivity. Only one survived, with US forces receiving the survivor and corpses of his fellow captives. At the time, the trade was scarcely mentioned in the news and yielded only few and low-profile objections from members of Congress.
With both deals, the administration seems to have received little in return while setting a very stark and dangerous precedent. In the Karbala deal, no US persons were saved—only one Briton survived—and the administration gave up two terrorists who had killed American soldiers. In the recent deal, the US gained what appears to have been a deserter in exchange for five dangerous and important Taliban leaders.
Both trades pose a moral hazard: bad actors all around the world now know that, at least with this administration, they can kidnap Americans (or American allies) and possibly barter their lives for desirable returns.