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.