Six Points Concerning Bergdahl
Bringing Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl home was the right thing to do, and President Obama did it in a mostly reasonable way.
The high-volume “debate” about Bergdahl’s homecoming sounds like the ravings heard around the water coolers of Crazytown. Here, in descending order of importance, are the issues the Bergdahl affair presents — and a rational way to think about them.
1. “We leave no soldier behind on the battlefield.” This is the commitment we make to the men and women who serve in the U.S. armed forces. The promise was made to Bergdahl, and the nation was honor-bound to respect it.
Five years ago, Bergdahl apparently walked away from his post in Afghanistan’s Paktika Province near the border with Pakistan. Earlier, he had expressed his disillusionment with the U.S. conduct of the war — more than that, his shame — in an email to his father. The Washington Post reported Thursday that nearby villagers reported seeing Bergdahl walking around in a daze, unwilling to accept food or water, deaf to their warnings that he was heading into a dangerous area full of Taliban.
It’s pretty clear that he went AWOL. Was he a deserter? Quite possibly. Did he somehow take leave of his senses? That seems possible, too. These are questions for the military justice system to answer, and Bergdahl should be held accountable. Deserting one’s post in a combat zone is a grave offense.
But Bergdahl has not been found guilty of anything, or even formally accused of anything. He was, until his release, an active-duty U.S. Army sergeant being held by the Taliban. We cannot decide whether or not to secure a captive soldier’s release based on his or her political views — and we certainly cannot take into account what the soldier’s father might think about U.S. foreign policy.
Recent proof-of-life videos from the Taliban appeared to show that Bergdahl’s health was deteriorating. Meanwhile, the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan soon will come to an end. The time to act was now.
2. Reports that six U.S. servicemen died on missions searching for Bergdahl have been denied by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. My impression is that this may be a matter of semantics. For example, troops at an outpost under Taliban fire might have been ordered not to evacuate if there were reports that Bergdahl could be in the area. In my book, such duty should count as participation in the search.
The nation’s hearts should go out to the families of any who died looking for Bergdahl. These men were bravely doing their job, as defined by their commanders: Bring home a U.S. soldier being held by the enemy.
3. Was the price of Bergdahl’s freedom too high? No, it wasn’t. The five Taliban commanders released in exchange should properly be described as one-time Taliban commanders. I don’t doubt that they were powerful, dangerous enemy leaders at the time of their capture. But all have been held at Guantanamo since at least 2002. The war and the world have changed.
It defies credulity that any of them could re-emerge after such a long absence and regain command; for one thing, many — if not most — of the fighters they once led are dead. Drone strikes would be launched the minute one of the five appeared on the battlefield. The release does boost the Taliban’s morale, however, so the deal is not cost-free. But I believe bringing Bergdahl home is worth it.
4. I said the way Obama did this was “mostly” reasonable. The president should and could have informed Congress that he was going ahead with a prisoner exchange that he knew would be controversial.
I don’t know whether Obama complied with the letter of the law when he described the outlines of a possible deal to skeptical members of Congress in 2011. The spirit of the law surely required the courtesy of a heads up.
5. The optics of the deal’s announcement were unfortunate. The White House knew there were serious questions about how and why Bergdahl left his post. Officials also knew that Bergdahl’s father, Robert, had coped with his son’s captivity by growing a long beard, studying Islam and learning Pashto, the language spoken by the Taliban. Rose Garden ceremonies should be safe and predictable. This one wasn’t.
6. And finally, National Security Adviser Susan Rice. First she’s given incomplete talking points about Benghazi, then she’s dispatched to say on the talk shows that Bergdahl served with “honor and distinction.” If I were Rice, I’d start taking Sundays off.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
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