Monday, June 2, 2014

Sgt. Bergdahl Prisoner Exchange

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was released by the Taliban to the control of U.S. Special Forces on June 1, 2014 after nearly five years of captivity. In exchange the U.S. released five senior Taliban leaders held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.  The circumstances of Bergdahl’s capture, the context of a broader U.S. policy to negotiate with the Taliban, and the potential long term repercussions of the exchange are controversial.

Then Private First Class Bergdahl, of Haily, Idaho walked away from his guard post on June 30, 2009 in Paktika Province, Afghanistan.  On July 18, 2009 the Taliban released a video of Bergdahl, confirming they had captured him.

According to the Boston Herald Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s announcement of Bergdahl’s release before a group of U.S. service personnel in a hangar at Bagram Air Base was met with silence.  The uncomfortable response likely results from a negative perception of Bergdahl within the military.

After Bergdahl’s release fellow soldiers have expressed disdain according to Jake Tapper of CNN.  He is accused by his fellow soldiers of abandoning his guard post, leaving behind his weapon and uniform, and walking away.  Bergdahl had expressed in correspondence to his family prior to his capture that he was disenchanted with his duties, his leaders, and his country. 
Those who served with Bergdahl consider him a deserter and traitor.  They are particularly angry about the deaths of several soldiers that resulted directly from the search for Bergdahl.  Some contend that other soldiers were killed indirectly because reconnaissance and support systems that were needed in combat situations were diverted to the search for Bergdahl.

As early as 2011 there were indications the U.S. was considering the prisoner exchange. There was bipartisan disagreement with the approach.  According to the New York Times Bergdahl’s family first confirmed in 2012 that an exchange of their son for five Taliban prisoners was being negotiated.  The exchange was one part of a broader group of confidence building measures U.S. policy makers were implementing in order to achieve a broader political settlement with the Taliban.

The Obama Administration’s successful effort to release Bergdahl can be viewed as the conclusion of a human tragedy for his family.  All can take joy in that outcome.  It was consistent with an ethos within the armed services to leave no one behind, and a national desire post -Vietnam to resolve all POW-MIA cases fully.  All Americans can be proud of our commitment in this regard.

The Bergdahl family should be left to their joy at their son’s return, but there should be no recognition of Bergdahl as a hero deserving of a seat at the next State of the Union address.  The heroes are those men who searched for Bergdahl when he abandoned his post and lost their lives.  Their families should be brought to the White House Rose Garden by the President and their sacrifice acknowledged. Bergdahl owes them all an explanation and apology.  The U.S. Army will be remiss if it does not openly address this issue with its troops.

The Obama Administration must make the case to the American people that the exchange of prisoners was worth the price. Returning Taliban leaders to the battle field has direct risks.  Establishing a precedent that will in all likelihood encourage increased effort to capture U.S. personnel is dangerous.

Spin statements by officials that the exchange was made because Bergdahl’s health was declining are an insult to thinking Americans.   The exchange was part of a comprehensive and well developed policy to negotiate a settlement of dubious value with the Taliban as part of the Afghanistan exit strategy.  


  1. do we know that it is true and absolute that he "abandoned his post" and that he "expressed in correspondence to his family prior to his capture that he was disenchanted with his duties, his leaders, and his country," other than it is what we have heard in the press?

    1. There is extensive information in the press from his fellow soldiers that Bergdahl abandoned his post. In addition, the Associated Press reports that a senior government official confirmed that an investigation in 2010 concluded that Bergdahl had abandoned his post. I would refer you to a 2012 Rolling Stone article by Michael Hastings titled "America's Last Prisoner of War" for an extensive assessment of Berdahl's mindset, experience, and correspondence. It includes interviews with his family. Bergdahl has not been convicted of being AWOL by the Army in a legal sense. If the Army chooses to prosecute him at some point he will have the opportunity to defend himself. However, it is likely they will simply drop the issue, concluding Bergdahl has suffered enough.

    2. Dan, if we accept the Rolling Stone account then why the outrage only now, after his release? What would the naysayers have us do, abandon him?. We spent years working to identify, locate and return possible MIA in Viet Nam, without regard to their status, POW or deserter.
      These days, too many people are willing to cast the first stone.

    3. The conditions of Bergdahl's capture have been known with military and intelligence circles for some time. Some reports indicate that following the 2010 investigation into his loss that a decision was made to not attempt his rescue. This in spite of some other reports that his location was known. The implication being that additional lives would not be risked to extract him violently because of his status. I think the outrage that has surfaced now results from three things 1) People without skin in the game are not paying attention to Afghanistan and that is most of our citizens and our media. And apparently the National Security Advisor Susan Rice who said he served with honor and distinction was also unaware given her statements; 2) The President made a formal announcement in the Rose Garden expecting this to be viewed as a triumph. Wrong on its face, but it also shows a lack of understanding of the perception of Bergdahl; 3) The deal is perceived by many as uneven and dangerous. Chris Mathews of CNN seemed outraged that release of such senior Taliban before the end of hostilities is an outrage. So a combination of these things brings forth the outrage now.

    4. The U.S. should make reasonable and exhaustive attempts to account for and return all of its military personnel when killed, missing, or captured overseas – including Bergdahl. If there is any question about the condition of their loss it should be addressed after their repatriation. The leadership of our country needs to ensure that any deal struck to recover a U.S. citizen can be justified to the public. In this case, mistakes were made because the administration was focused too much on political objectives rather than national interests. The political objectives were 1) Put a win on the board to get the VA issue off; 2) close GITMO at any cost; 3) fully close out Afghanistan before the end of the President’s term. The national interests to 1) account for all service members; 2) reduce the risk to service members during the withdrawal from Afghanistan; and 3) establish mechanisms to engage and deter the Taliban in anticipation of their return to power in Afghanistan were subordinated to the political objectives. The lack of notification to Congress, the lack of consultation with the Intelligence Community, the seemingly sudden execution of the deal when it has been on the table for years, and the staging of the announcement in the Rose Garden support this assessment.

  2. Very nice! Great read. I look forward to following your blog!

  3. Commander,
    Any time, any place, any body....this Chief has your back!

  4. This blog post was printed in the Cape Cod Times under the title "The costs of the prisoner exchange" on June 6, 2014 and is available at the following link:

  5. This blog post was printed in the SW Florida News-Press under the title "Bergdahl is welcome home but no hero" and is available at


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