THE QUIETLY protracted geopolitical choreography that resulted in the May 31 release of Bowe Robert Bergdahl from almost five years of captivity, by Haqqani allies of the Taliban, was first spun by the White House as an unalloyed triumph of American determination in the face of a shadowy, intractable enemy. What a difference a week makes.
In that time, we’ve seen the Obama White House tweak its rationale for negotiating the release of the only American captured on the Afghan war, in exchange for five Taliban former operatives held at Guantanamo.
We’ve witnessed Bergdahl move in the public eye from hero survivor to probable deserter to possible traitor to likely basket case. And we’ve seen an implicit (and up to now unthinkable) questioning of the idea that Americans don’t leave their soldiers to the mercies of the enemy.
Question #1: What the hell really happened?
Question #2: What the hell happens now?
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California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss tag-teamed the White House on Tuesday, calling Obama to task for not giving Congress the required 30 days notice of a Gitmo release, and rejecting the administration’s claims of the need for urgency in extracting Bergdahl.
“It comes to us with some surprise and dismay that the transfers went ahead with no consultation, totally not following law,” Feinstein, who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, told reporters. “And in an issue with this kind of concern to a committee that bears the oversight responsibility, I think you can see that we're very dismayed about it.”
The Associated Press reported that, in fact, the administration held two briefings for House Speaker John Boehner and key Republicans in November 2011, and January 2012, in which the possibility was raised of exchanging Bergdahl for the five Taliban.
What’s at issue here, then, is the difference between the president’s interpretation of “consultation with Congress” and Congress’ interpretation of “consultation with Congress.”
At the G7 conference in Warsaw, Obama said: “We have consulted with Congress for quite some time about the possibility that we might need to execute a prisoner exchange in order to recover Sergeant Bergdahl. We saw an opportunity, we were concerned about Sergeant Bergdahl’s health. We had the cooperation of the Qataris to execute an exchange, and we seized that opportunity.”
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WHITE HOUSE concerns about Bergdahl’s health could have been real and justified. Until he was seen in the actual U.S.-Taliban exchange, there’d been precious few if any recent photos or video of Bergdahl. He was reportedly last identified in a video from December.
“He looked shriveled,” one senior American official, who saw the video, told The New York Times. “There was a pallor about his skin that looked unhealthy. He didn’t seem alert; he seemed lethargic.”
With no more recent visual evidence of his status — proof of health, if you will — there may have been no compelling evidence one way or the other as to how healthy he really was by the end of May. That’s something only an actual sighting of Bergdahl could have validated, if not confirmed.
Feinstein reportedly had access to information on Bergdahl’s health, enough to have determined that Bergdahl’s health issues were overblown. How did she get this information? What was her source? American doctors? Afghan doctors? And without knowing that source of that intel, even in general terms, is there any reason to fully accept the idea that it was accurate? Feinstein’s dispositive assessment may not be as airtight as she’s led to believe.
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That principle — basic to our national military lore, our civilian expectations and every good war movie you’ve ever seen — is smartly defined in six words: We Don’t Leave a Soldier Behind.
There’s no asterisk attached. It’s not “We Don’t Leave a Soldier Behind Unless,” or “We Don’t Leave a Soldier Behind, With the Exception Of.” Rear Admiral John Kirby hews to this customary understanding, something that’s the product of years of Americans reared in life during wartime. “I grew up in the Navy,” Kirby told MSNBC on Thursday. “If you fell overboard on a ship, we don’t ask whether you were pushed or whether you jumped. We turn the ship around and we go get you.”
Others haven’t been so charitable in their assessment of Bergdahl’s value. On June 2, Joshua Korder, a former Army sergeant, told CNN that Bergdahl was “at best a deserter and at worse a traitor.” Evan Buetow, a sergeant in Bergdahl’s 2nd Platoon, Blackfoot Company, 1st Battalion, told The AP that Bergdahl should face trial for desertion.
Time magazine — in a provocative move meant to punch up its newsstand numbers as much as anything else — published a cover story on Bergdahl’s return entitled “Was He Worth It?” And in an op-ed by The Wall Street Journal, one former member of the Army Special Forces suggested that a firing squad “might be appropriate.”
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THERE’S ALSO been gnashing of teeth about the release of Mullah Mohammad Fazl, Mullah Norullah Noori, Khirullah Said Khairkhwa, Abdul Haq Wasi and Mohammad Nabi Omari, the five Taliban dead-enders now sequestered in Qatar for a year of house arrest. Fears are rampant everywhere that they will eventually return to the arms of the Taliban, to renew their subjugation of Afghanistan.
But John Bellinger, Adjunct Senior Fellow in International and National Security Law at the Council on Foreign Relations, recognizes that, in an asymmetrical conflict like the one we’ve been fighting in Afghanistan, there are no pristine options.
Bellinger, who was legal adviser for the Bush #43 State Department from 2005 to 2009, wrote this on June 1, in his Lawfare blog:
“I do not agree, as some Republicans are already arguing, that these individuals should not have been released. In my view, the U.S. would not be able to hold them forever. Indeed, it is likely that the U.S. would be required, as a matter of international law, to release them shortly after the end of 2014, when U.S. combat operations cease in Afghanistan. The Administration appears to have reached a defensible, hold-your-nose compromise by arranging, in exchange for the release of Sergeant Bergdahl, for the individuals to be held in Qatar for a year before they return to Afghanistan.”
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Bellinger followed up on June 6, again writing in Lawfare:
“It is arguably better for the President to get something — the return of an ailing U.S. soldier held in captivity — rather than nothing in return. And it is arguably better to have sent them to Qatar to be held for another year than to have returned them to the Karzai Government, which might have released them immediately.
“Yes, the Taliban five were and are dangerous people ... But the Bush Administration had also released more than five hundred people from Guantanamo, many of whom also posed some risk. And [the Defense Department] and CIA have been highly successful in monitoring (and killing) former detainees who have returned to fight.”
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SUCH INCONVENIENT conservative conclusions only underscore just how thorny the Bergdahl matter is already, for everyone. It’s even given us good reason to take another look at the descriptors used in news reports on the issue.
For more than a decade, news organizations have slavishly described those being held at Guantanamo as ”detainees,” a moniker foisted on them by the Bush White House under tortured legal rationale.
But do a Google search. Enter the words “prisoner exchange” or “prisoner swap” and see how many times, from sources both official and journalistic, the word “prisoner” comes up to describe Bergdahl and the Taliban 5. Curious that it’s taken the release of an American soldier to finally end the fiction of language that newsgatherers, pundits and analysts alike have engaged in for years. We’re now free, it seems, to call those who occupy Gitmo what they’ve always been: prisoners. And nothing but.
There’s been more than one prisoner exchange in recent days: We’ve finally traded linguistic sophistry for the truth.
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Certain claims made by the Taliban since Bergdahl’s release — that he played soccer while in captivity, for example, or that he was given fresh fruit and vegetables — point to the Taliban eager to characterize the release of Bergdahl in exchange for five Gitmo captives as a victory, a PR vindication granting them legitimacy in the eyes of the world.
But on what basis? The Bergdahl swap does absolutely nothing to counteract the vicious practices of the Taliban for years, including the demolition or desecration of Afghan cultural artifacts, brutal repression of its enemies within Afghanistan, and its rampant misogyny toward women and girls. One prisoner exchange doesn’t even begin to undo that damage.
And what does Bergdahl say about this? The Washington Post reports today that he claims he was locked in a shark cage and tortured by the Taliban during his time away. Who’s telling the truth here, the maybe-traitor or the newly rehabilitated Taliban? Maybe he played soccer in a shark cage while he was being tortured.
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EVEN ALLOWING for the things we can’t know for sure right now, we do know that this has not been the finest hour of the Obama administration.
Within a day or two of Bergdahl’s release, for example, the Obama White House tried on different explanations for the decision to go ahead with the exchange. They moved quickly because of fears about his health; they moved quickly because of fears the Taliban would kill him (another way of saying the same thing) if news about any swap was leaked.
But some of that doesn’t even add up; why would the Taliban kill the man who was their leverage in the negotiation for his release?
Chambliss, the Georgia Republican senator and senior Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, may have got it as right as possible Sunday, on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
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“That’s not to say they’re not absolutely true, but we weren’t there,” he said. “We have nobody who was on the inside. So we don’t know exactly what happened in his life over the last several years, except we do know he was captured and he’s been in the Taliban’s hands.”
With that much certainty at their disposal, people will have plenty to debate about what The Wire is calling “l’affair Berdahl.” Unwrapping this riddle inside an enigma inside a shark cage will keep folks occupied for days and weeks to come.
“Nobody knows nuthin’,” a wise man once said. In the matter of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, what’s obvious is that some people know a little more nuthin’ than others do.
Image credits: Bergdahl in captivity: IntelCenter via Taliban. Bergdahl in uniform: U.S. Army. Chambliss and Feinstein: AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta. Parody movie poster: © 2014 Mad Magazine. Time Bergdahl cover: © 2014 Time Inc. Taliban 5: Defense Department via Human Events.