A Problematic POW

The last American prisoner of war in Afghanistan, Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, was freed on Saturday after five years in Taliban captivity:

Bergdahl, 28, is believed to have slipped away from his platoon’s small outpost in Af­ghanistan’s Paktika province on June 30, 2009, after growing disillusioned with the U.S. military’s war effort. He was captured shortly afterward by enemy ­forces and held captive in Pakistan by insurgents affiliated with the Taliban. At the time, an entire U.S. military division and thousands of Afghan soldiers and police officers devoted weeks to searching for him, and some soldiers resented risking their lives for someone they considered a deserter.

Bergdahl was recovered Saturday by a U.S. Special Operations team in Afghanistan after weeks of intense negotiations in which U.S. officials, working through the government of Qatar, negotiated a prisoner swap with the Taliban. In exchange for his release, the United States agreed to free five Taliban commanders from the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Eli Lake and Josh Rogin name the bad guys we traded for Bergdahl:

A senior U.S. defense official confirmed Saturday that the prisoners to be released include Mullah Mohammad Fazl, Mullah Norullah Noori, Abdul Haq Wasiq, Khairullah Khairkhwa and Mohammed Nabi Omari. While not as well known as Guantanamo inmates like 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Taliban 5 were some of the worst outlaws in the U.S. war on terror. And their release will end up replenishing the diminished leadership ranks of the Afghan Taliban at a moment when the United States is winding down the war there. “They are undoubtedly among the most dangerous Taliban commanders held at Guantanamo,” said Thomas Joscelyn, a senior editor at the Long War Journal who keeps a close watch on developments concerning the detainees left at the Guantanamo Bay prison.

I’ll be honest here and simply report that I am deeply conflicted about this event. I totally see the importance of maintaining the ethic of never leaving a soldier behind on the battlefield. Equally, it’s depressing that we had to release serious Taliban prisoners of war to get him back. This is an excruciating choice – but if Bergdahl’s health was in jeopardy, the administration made what strikes me as the right move. Even the Israelis do this kind of thing quite regularly.

Then there’s the question of the actual soldier in question and the circumstances of his capture. Was Bergdahl really a deserter? Nathan Bradley Bethea, who served in his battalion, says yes:

He is safe, and now it is time to speak the truth.

And that the truth is: Bergdahl was a deserter, and soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down. On the night prior to his capture, Bergdahl pulled guard duty at OP Mest, a small outpost about two hours south of the provincial capitol. The base resembled a wagon circle of armored vehicles with some razor wire strung around them. A guard tower sat high up on a nearby hill, but the outpost itself was no fortress. Besides the tower, the only hard structure that I saw in July 2009 was a plywood shed filled with bottled water. Soldiers either slept in poncho tents or inside their vehicles.

The next morning, Bergdahl failed to show for the morning roll call. The soldiers in 2nd Platoon, Blackfoot Company discovered his rifle, helmet, body armor and web gear in a neat stack. He had, however, taken his compass. His fellow soldiers later mentioned his stated desire to walk from Afghanistan to India.

The Daily Beast’s Christopher Dickey later wrote that “[w]hether Bergdahl…just walked away from his base or was lagging behind on a patrol at the time of his capture remains an open and fiercely debated question.” Not to me and the members of my unit. Make no mistake: Bergdahl did not “lag behind on a patrol,” as was cited in news reports at the time. There was no patrol that night. Bergdahl was relieved from guard duty, and instead of going to sleep, he fled the outpost on foot. He deserted. I’ve talked to members of Bergdahl’s platoon—including the last Americans to see him before his capture. I’ve reviewed the relevant documents. That’s what happened.

Morrissey believes the White House erred in bringing Bergdahl home with fanfare:

[T]here is a big difference between swapping for a man who’s accused of desertion (and whose disappearance cost at least six soldiers’ lives, and possibly more), and cheering his release in a presidential Rose Garden speech along with his family. That is a return for a hero, not a potential deserter (who, we should stress, has not yet been charged with that crime, let alone convicted). Did no one at the White House bother to check into the details of Bergdahl’s disappearance, or calculate what that might mean politically in this trade? Everyone from Obama on down seems to have been caught flat-footed in a controversy of their own making … again.

House Republicans are promising hearings, of course, but not because Bergdahl might have deserted:

On a series of Sunday talk shows, Republican lawmakers slammed the decision to carry out the prisoner swap as a dangerous concession to the militant group and a violation of long-standing U.S. policy not to negotiate with terrorist groups. They also said the White House had violated a law requiring the administration to give Congress 30 days notice before such a swap. “The question going forward is have we just put a price on other U.S. soldiers?” Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texan Republican, said on ABC’s “This Week.” “I do not think the way to deal with terrorists is through releasing other violent terrorists.”

With Republicans blasting the Obama administration for, in their view, surrendering to terrorist hostage taking, the White House is defending the move as an effort to bring back a prisoner of war and show other troops the lengths to which Washington will go to ensure that none are left on the battlefield. On Sunday, administration officials said the swap was in line with the military’s commitment to see all its soldiers return from war, as a reflection of its “leave no man behind” ethos.

But Lt. Col. Robert Bateman reminds critics that exchanging prisoners with the enemy, no matter how unsavory the enemy, isn’t a novel concept:

As George Washington did, as James Madison did, as Abraham Lincoln did, our current president decided to make a trade. Sergeant Bowe Beghdahl, promoted in absentia twice since his capture in Afghanistan, is now free. We let loose five of theirs to regain the only American held by the enemy. This is not something new, it is a return to the old. Those who oppose the idea are taking offense with George Washington, James Madison, and Abraham Lincoln.

Martin Lederman addresses the complaint that the administration broke the law in carrying out the swap without notifying Congress beforehand:

Secretary Hagel’s statement suggests that he did comply with the substantive requirements of Section 1035, but that he notified Congress today, not 30 days ago.  It’s difficult to imagine that Congress would have intended to insist upon such a 30-day delay if the legislators had actually contemplated a time-sensitive prisoner-exchange negotiation of this sort; but the statute does not on its face address such a rare (and likely unanticipated) case.  Note that the President wrote this in his signing statement:  “Section 1035 does not . . . eliminate all of the unwarranted limitations on foreign transfers and, in certain circumstances, would violate constitutional separation of powers principles. The executive branch must have the flexibility, among other things, to act swiftly in conducting negotiations with foreign countries regarding the circumstances of detainee transfers.”  Perhaps he had the prospect of a Bergdahl negotiation in mind . . . .

Josh Rogin sees the deal as a possible first step by Obama toward clearing out Gitmo by executive fiat:

In his 2014 State of the Union address, Obama promised to shutter the prison built on Cuban soil by the end of the year. Obama now has seven months to fulfill his latest promise to shut down Guantanamo—or come as close to it as he can. During that time, Congress will be unable to prevent the release of the 149 prisoners still there.

“This whole deal may have been a test to see how far the administration can actually push it, and if Congress doesn’t fight back they will feel more empowered to move forward with additional transfers,” said one senior GOP senate aide close to the issue. “They’ve lined up all the dominoes to be able to move a lot more detainees out of Guantanamo and this could be just the beginning.”

That’s what I take away from this. We’ve just released five actual enemy combatants by executive order. Why not release the innocent ones by the same rubric? When you contemplate this move – and the EPA’s tough stance on coal along with the zero option in Afghanistan – you begin to see Obama re-take the initiative in his last two and a half years. Imagine the legacy: no troops in Iraq or Afghanistan; Gitmo closed; universal healthcare entrenched; Iran’s nuclear threat defused; marriage equality in all fifty states; the end of marijuana Prohibition; and carbon energy cut down to size.

Repeat after me: meep meep, motherfuckers.