"We do not leave anybody wearing an American uniform behind," President Barack Obama said at a news conference in Brussels Thursday. He was addressing the controversy that has swirled around the exchange of U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl for five high ranking Taliban prisoners that had been held in the U.S. prison at Guantanamo, Cuba. The president offered this justification, "We had a prisoner of war, whose health had deteriorated, and we were deeply concerned about, and we saw an opportunity, and we seized it. And I make no apologies for that."
Five years ago Bergdahl apparently walked away from his military post in Afghanistan, leaving behind his weapon and helmet. He was soon captured by the Taliban. Last Saturday the president was joined on the White House South Lawn by Bergdahl's family as he announced their son had been released. But the good news, many Republican members of congress had quickly tweeted their support, suddenly turned into a political firestorm of controversy.
Congressional critics include Senator John McCain, who described the exchanged Taliban prisoners as "the hardest of hard-core...possibly responsible for thousands of deaths." The Joint Task Force Guantanamo earlier had classified them as high risk, and two are wanted by the United Nations for war crimes. But the five Taliban terrorists, also known as the Gitmo Five, have been in custody at Guantanamo for more than a decade and have never been charged. Further, once America's war in Afghanistan is over sometime next year, the U.S. would have had to release them.
Many in congress, from both parties, claim that the president had failed to comply with his legal obligation to inform its members 30 days in advance of any prisoner release from Guantanamo. On Thursday, President Obama said, "We had discussed with congress the possibility that something like this might occur, but because of the nature of the folks that we are dealing with and the fragile nature of these negotiations, we felt it was important to go ahead and do what he did."
Discussions about swapping the Gitmo Five for Bergdahl have taken place in the past, including in 2011. Then members of congress, and key administration officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, opposed such a deal. But the conditions changed when Qatar agreed to keep the Taliban terrorists for one year, and the president announced the war will end next year. Nonetheless, congress will hold hearings on whether the president broke the law.
Most members of the military agree that Bergdahl had to be rescued. On Sunday's edition of ABC's This Week National Security Advisor Susan Rice said, "He served the United States with honor and distinction...and we'll have an opportunity to learn what transpired in the past." Her comment was not received well by members of his platoon, many of whom have criticized Bergdahl. "I believe that he totally deserted--not only his fellow soldiers--but his leadership that wanted the best for him and his country," Justine Gerieve, Bergdahl's former squad leader, told CNN.
CNN also reported that Bergdahl had walked away from his post at least once before. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, posted a comment about Bergdahl on Facebook Monday night, "As for the circumstances of his capture, when he is able to provide them, we'll learn the facts," he wrote. "Like any American, he is innocent until proven guilty. Our Army's leaders will not look away from misconduct if it occurred."
Meanwhile, some of Bergdahl's fellow soldiers have charged that as many as eight U.S. servicemen died on patrols looking for him. The New York Times reported Wednesday, "But a review of casualty reports and contemporaneous military logs from the Afghanistan war shows that the facts surrounding the eight deaths are far murkier than definitive." The article points out that the soldiers normally did patrols in the high-risk area.
With regard to the Gitmo Five, they will remain in Qatar for one year before they are able to leave the country. Twelve years have passed since they were involved in fighting. It is unclear what role they will play for the Taliban in the future.
The Afghanistan conflict is America's longest war. About 2,300 members of the military have died there, and $700 billion has been spent by the U.S. waging the war there over the past dozen years. There is reason to hope, as a second round of presidential elections will be held in Afghanistan next week. The country will soon have a democratic transfer power for the first time in its history, and the enigmatic incumbent, Hamid Karzai, will be replaced by anew leader.
Whatever the outcome, the new government will be fragile. The Taliban will seek a role in the country's future. U.S. and Afghan officials have been in secret talks with the Taliban about the post-war future. While administration officials don't link the Bergdahl exchange to a bigger peace deal, it may have been an important first step toward a larger agreement between the parties.
For sure, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl will have a lot to answer for when he is well enough to be questioned by the military. And the White House is busy defending its unnecessarily messy communications with congress prior to the exchange. The administration has opened itself up to Republican indignation and righteous platitudes. Of course, the midterm elections are just around the corner.
Just imagine what the Republicans would have done to the president had Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl died in the hands of the Taliban.