Like most Americans, I have followed the repatriation of Bowe Bergdahl with interest and no small amount of incredulity. The unfolding of these events is both painful and bizarre. I’m perhaps a step closer to this story than most in that as a former special operator, I have conducted POW recovery operations. I’ve spoken with special operators who took to the field in previous attempts to recover Bergdahl. I also live in Idaho about fifteen miles from the Bergdahl home. It might be helpful to look at these events on four levels.
On purely humanitarian considerations, it’s good that a young soldier is now free from the physical and mental trauma of captivity, and that his parents finally know that he is safe and being afforded the best medical attention in the world. And I’ve watched his hometown of Hailey, Idaho rejoice at his release. All good.
On a tactical and strategic level, our nation paid a very steep price for the release of this soldier. The five senior Taliban operatives that were set free to gain Bergdahl’s freedom are very dangerous men. They are zealots who are loyal to their cause, and will most certainly return to the fight and seek to kill other Americans. And not just Americans. A great many Afghans–members of the Afghan National Army, local security and police forces that we have trained, tribesmen, and tribal entities–stood with us against the Taliban. What happens to them? We understand that these freed Taliban leaders are to be held in check by Qatar authorities for a year. We also know that in a year’s time, we will significantly draw down our forces in Afghanistan–but not all. Those who remain will be at a significantly higher risk. And again, what about those loyal Afghans who at our urging, opposed the Taliban? I fear that in setting free these five hardcore Taliban leaders, we have released a plague that will descend on those Afghans who stood with us. It could result in a pogrom directed against our former allies and their families, and their blood will be on our hands. Furthermore, what message does this send to other nations around the world who look to us for help in dealing with extremist and al-Qaeda-inspired insurgencies? Not good at all, in fact a very dangerous precedent.
On a legal and political level, it would seem that the administration overstepped its authority in bypassing Congress and perhaps may have actually broken the law. And I felt our President used two very concerned and vulnerable parents improperly by pushing them into the national spotlight. This is highly emotional ground, and to put them in the middle of what was sure to become a most controversial issue was both insensitive and unprecedented. Bowe’s parents get a free pass on this one–they want their boy back. But for the President to use them as top cover for political reasons; definitely not good and bordering on unconscionable.
And finally there is the issue of Sergeant Bergdahl’s actions that may have led to his capture. One has only to turn on the TV to see the multiple allegations of impropriety. It’s a circus; it’s not pretty and does us all a disservice. Yet, one fact is clear to me. When he fell into Taliban hands, they knew the value of their find, and they exploited it masterfully to their own ends. As for the Sergeant’s actions, he needs to be treated, rehabilitated, afforded counsel, and awarded a court martial. If he is exonerated, then he should be afforded the respect and deference this nation extends to its warriors who, in the course of honorable service to their country, endure captivity. If his actions violated his oath as an American Soldier and the implied obligations our soldiers have for one another, then he needs to be held fully accountable. This is neither good nor bad, but it is responsible and just.