The next American prisoner that the United States should trade for with the bad guys in Afghanistan and Pakistan is 72-year-old contractor, Warren Weinstein, held by either al-Qaida or the Taliban since having been kidnapped in Pakistan nearly three years ago.
I need to say at this point that, although I have not seen him for years, I have known Mr. Weinstein since 1968 when he was a young scholar and I was an American diplomat in Burundi, in Central Africa.
In spite of the howling, gnashing of teeth and other political posturing among America’s purported leaders over the Bowe Bergdahl trade, the United States has moved firmly into the winding-down stage of the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan when one of the transactions that consistently occurs is the exchange of prisoners. I find it astonishing that so many of America’s political and media figures have allowed themselves to attack Sgt. Bergdahl and the Obama administration for having been involved in a deal that brought home an American military prisoner, who, however he fell into Taliban hands, was their prisoner — completely at their mercy — for five years.
With the exception of Sen. John McCain, to my knowledge not a single one of the media or political figures carrying out the assault on Sgt. Bergdahl and Mr. Obama had ever been the prisoner of anyone or anything, save, possibly, their own illusions or silly versions of patriotism.
Warren Weinstein is married, to Elaine, his wife of at least 46 years, with two daughters and grandchildren, and is reportedly not in good health. When he was kidnapped from his house in Lahore, Pakistan, he was working as a contractor for a company called J.E. Austin Associates, engaged in economic development projects. That would figure, given that Warren had worked for years in the U.S. Agency for International Development.
I can talk about him in personal terms, since my wife and I knew him and his wife quite well in Bujumbura, Burundi, a small city on Lake Tanganyika. When I arrived at the embassy there, never having set foot in Burundi before, Warren was doing research for several books he later wrote about the country. Unlike some scholars, he was ready to share his deep understanding of the country with me quite freely, bringing tidbits about people often over cocktails or informal dinners. When he and Elaine left, my wife and I bought their old dark blue Volkswagen beetle.
After that, I ran into Warren from time to time at the State Department, with which AID shared quarters, as he advanced in the economic development hierarchy.
The immediate question is, if he was doing innocent, constructive development work in Pakistan, why did al-Qaida or the Taliban grab him? An obvious answer is that he was an American and probably not too careful about security if he retained the relaxed, somewhat trusting attitude that I had known him for in Burundi.
A second possibility is that his kidnappers believed him to be undercover CIA. Warren always did have a slightly conspiratorial way about him, whispering the stories he picked up along the way. At the same time, neither in Burundi nor anywhere else did I ever believe he had any relationship with the agency. Among other things, they probably wouldn’t have trusted him and had to have known that his profound loyalties were to scholarship and economic development, not spycraft.
A third possibility was that al-Qaida or the Taliban focused on the fact that Warren is Jewish and suspected that he reported to Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. I didn’t think in Burundi, nor subsequently, that was the case. Given his principles and predispositions, he would have had as much trouble sustaining that relationship as he would have one with the CIA.
A fourth possibility — and perhaps the correct answer since it is the simplest — is that they hoped to ransom him from his company or the American government for money. Or Guantanamo prisoners. Unless his family members have prospered enormously across the years, they would be in no position themselves to pay a hefty ransom.
So, someone should work on a deal for him. America simply cannot leave an older American in ill health who has devoted his whole life to economic development in far-off places to die.
I am fully aware of all the squealing that has gone on about the five bearded wonders we handed over for Sgt. Bergdahl. There are apparently some 149 prisoners left at Guantanamo, from 19 different countries. Some were put there during the George W. Bush administration and some under President Barack Obama. Twenty are supposed to be prosecuted one day. Some 78 have been cleared for transfer to their home countries or someplace else willing to take them. Another 51 are considered to be too dangerous to be freed but can’t be put on trial, either, generally because they have been tortured.
Somewhere in that deck of trading cards there have to be one or a few whom the Taliban or al-Qaida want enough to exchange for Warren Weinstein. The last time I checked at the State Department, about two months ago, I was told that Warren was still alive but not well and that prospects for his release were not good. That was before the Bergdahl trade.
If some administration figures are being excoriated by some fellow politicians and media for having arranged the release of Sgt. Bergdahl now, let us imagine what will be said if one day we learn to our sorrow that Warren Weinstein has died in captivity? Is the risk of that occurring worth holding onto, for another year or two, even a baker’s dozen of the 149 prisoners still held at Guantanamo?
I don’t think so. Whoever needs to be involved — U.S. officials, Pakistanis, Qataris, whoever — a major effort needs to be mounted right now to free Warren Weinstein. This was a bad situation all along. With Sgt. Bergdahl having been bargained out, it is just flat unacceptable that Warren Weinstein remains a captive.
Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org,412-263-1976).