For those that may be unfamiliar with Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, United States Army, he is the soldier that was held captive by the Taliban for five years, probably in a remote area of Pakistan. He was returned to U.S. Special Forces on Saturday 31 May in exchange for five senior Taliban held in Guantanamo Cuba as terrorists. From where I sit, there are a number of strange aspects to this case so perhaps we have yet to hear the full story. However, as it has unfolded thus far, I am troubled by certain aspects of it.
First and foremost I am happy for the Bergdahl family. As their only son (reportedly he has an older sister), I can only imagine the heartache this family went through and the joy that they now feel as he starts his journey home to Idaho. For the Bergdahl family, this was a major success for U.S. diplomacy.
On the policy level, I am not sure that we made the right call. I disagree with the reasons given by some politicians that are critical of the trade, but I do agree that the Obama administration may have set a bad precedent.
Several of the criticisms, in my view, are weak. Among them:
- We have now put a price on every American’s head and the incidents of kidnapping for exchanges for other terrorists will now be the new normal. Weak argument. For many years now there has been a price on American’s heads overseas, especially in the war zones. Nothing has changed there. Terrorists all over the world are not for the first time thinking “why didn’t we think of that? Let’s go find us some Americans to trade.” Nothing new.
- The Obama Administration was required to give Congress 30 days notice before moving any prisoners from Guantanamo Bay. This provision is really a political attempt to prevent the administration from closing down Guantanamo Bay and has little to do with this case. More to the point, the Commander-in-Chief needs the flexibility to act quickly when an opportunity presents itself. Given the apparent circumstances of the trade, it probably came about quickly and had to be acted upon quickly or the opportunity could be lost. Concern for Sergeant Bergdahl’s health is the stated reason for the quick action. One could perhaps argue that this was not as urgent as portrayed by the White House, but the President must still be able to act quickly when opportunity arises.
- The timing was an attempt to divert attention from the problems in the Veterans Administration. Really? The Taliban cares about the VA and politically protecting President Obama? Really?
Likewise, I think that some of the justifications given by the Administration are weak. Foremost among them:
- Our military leaves no man or woman behind. Fair enough and true enough — an honored tradition. But I am not sure how we would have been leaving him behind if the United States will still have a military presence in Afghanistan until at least 2016. There have been some unconfirmed reports that our intelligence agencies had an excellent knowledge of his location and that a Special Forces raid was considered to extract him by force. If this is true, it is more in keeping with the “no one left behind” tradition than is a “prisoner” exchange.
- We do not and did not negotiate with terrorists. Disingenuous. All governments do. This includes Israel, most often held up as a paradigm for tough actions against terrorists. The question is how, when and for what, not whether we or other nations do it. The Obama administration contends that the Qatari government arranged the deal. Okay, so we did not sit down at a table with the Taliban, but who did we think was at the other end of the Qatari discussion? (Interestingly, the deal may have been finalized at last week’s West Point graduation ceremony where President Obama spoke and the Qatari Emir was present to see the first Qatari graduate from West Point.)
- Prisoner exchanges are a normal part of warfare. Perhaps, and they certainly occur, again under the right circumstances. What were the circumstances in this case that made it so compelling? We have yet to get the full story.
Similarly, I think the discussion takes a wrong turn when pundits and critics combine our policy for withdrawal from Afghanistan; our trading of the five Taliban for Sergeant Bergdahl; whether the Sergeant deserved (?!) to be rescued because he put himself and others in harm’s way due to his own actions; and the general view of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy as weak. All of these things are worthy of discussion, but they are all separate issues and should not be rolled up into one big free for all. They need to be addressed in context and as stand alone issues, even as they are inevitably related.
It seems to me, as others have stated, that the real reason for this exchange is to tidy up loose ends as the war in Afghanistan winds down. There are certainly humanitarian overtones to the case, and I’m glad that the Sergeant and his family will be reunited. As a matter of policy, I don’t think we should have sent five Taliban leaders to Qatar in exchange. They may be under close supervision for the next year, but if they are still alive a year from now, they will most certainly get back in the game and actively work to undermine U.S. interests.
To me it is a finer point than whether or not to “negotiate with terrorists” or discussions over how many Taliban equal one U.S. soldier (in my eyes an American soldier is worth an infinite number of Taliban, but I understand we won’t trade limitless numbers of them, nor should we do so). It is just a matter of reality that these wars are different and the fact that some of those we have captured will never go home. Nor should they ever go home. We totally mischaracterize the nature of this conflict by talking about prisoner exchanges and the like. This is not World War I or World War II. There will be no armistice or peace treaties. There will be no Marshall Plan for the Taliban or for Al Qaeda.
I look forward to someday hearing the rest of the story. There are many curious aspects to this case and I don’t think we have heard all of it. Given what we know so far, if we wanted to get Sergeant Bergdahl home, we should have gone and brought him home.