The Bergdahl Tradeoff and a Full Stop

The Bergdahl Tradeoff and a Full Stop

By R. Alan Clanton | published June 4, 2014 |
Thursday Review editor

One of my closest friends—a longtime loyal Democrat—recently said to me, “If Barack Obama had ever mastered Washington politics, and especially the basic skills like vetting and timing, just think what his history book legacy could have been?”

A supporter of the Obama long before he had bested Hillary Clinton during the bitter primary and caucus season of 2008, the friend was expressing exasperation at the White House’s latest imbroglio, the sudden—almost literally overnight—release of U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl from his Taliban captors (some would say handlers) in Afghanistan, and the ensuing mess which has followed.

Bergdahl had gone missing from his Army unit roughly five years ago, and had reappeared days later as a prisoner of Taliban insurgents and fighters. Army commanders ordered an intensive search of the region, and many months of field operations designed to locate and recover Bergdahl resulted in the deaths of at least six other soldiers, including Bergdahl’s former platoon leader.

After years of negotiation, the White House announced that Bergdahl was finally coming home—traded, as it turns out, for five insurgents with direct links to the Taliban and al Qaeda.

The White House has faced a blizzard of controversy, much of it gaining power and intensity over the last several days, over the facts and circumstances surrounding the swap of five Taliban fighters for Sgt. Bergdalh. Many soldiers who served in Bergdahl’s unit, including several who knew him personally, say that Bergdalh should be treated as deserter, not a returning hero. Those who fought alongside the young Sgt. say that Bergdalh deliberately abandoned his post, and walked or crawled with forethought away from his unit, landing in Taliban custody days later by his own design. According to witnesses among military personnel in field operations in the tense hours and days after Bergdahl’s disappearance, the young sergeant ended up in a village controlled by insurgents, where he reportedly requested someone with Taliban connections who could speak English.

All rather odd circumstances considering that National Security Advisor Susan Rice had—only the day before—called Bergdahl “a hero” and someone who “served honorably” in his unit while deployed in Afghanistan. President Obama’s Rose Garden ceremony announcing Bowe’s return, a scripted event which included his parents, was marketed as a diplomatic success story for the administration, and Bergdahl’s parents were embraced by the President in a full hug.

But the blowback was not merely immediate, but bipartisan and even at times deafening. Members of both parties in Congress wanted to know why Bergdalh was traded for five particularly nasty characters—Taliban operatives with some of the most brutal track records among all known terror detainees. Several members of Congress were also unvarnished in their view that the White House had acted unilaterally, bypassing them despite the fact that the law requires such exchanges to be vetted and approved first by key members of foreign intelligence committees. Democrats were as outraged as those in the GOP, meaning the controversy sprang into the realm of the non-partisan almost instantly.

Late Monday and throughout Tuesday, the news seemed to get worse. The major networks by that point had secured access to various firsthand reports, mostly through Bergdahl’s Army colleagues from Afghanistan, and the reports were uniformly negative: Bergdahl, in the view of the soldiers who had served alongside him, was at best, a military man guilty of abandoning his post; he should be treated as any other Army personnel gone AWOL. At worst, Bergdahl was seen by other soldiers as a traitor and crypto-collaborator. CNN interviewed Bergdahl’s former team leader, Sgt. Evan Buetow, who said that in the days and weeks after Bergdahl’s capture by the Taliban, local insurgents seemed to raise their game to new levels, with hyper-accurate attacks and pinpoint IED detonations.

“Bergdahl is not a hero…he is not an ‘example,’” Buetow told CNN’s Jake Tapper, “and he did not serve with honor and he did not serve with dignity.” Buetow was one of those present in a command post during a session of radio chatter which indicated that an American had appeared at a nearby village—an American asking for both a translator and a Taliban representative.

Later, when Tapper asked former Private Jose Baggett—another soldier who had fought alongside Bergdahl—whether the recently released Sergeant should be characterized as a deserter, and whether or not Bergdahl should have been saved in a deal which involved his exchange for five Taliban operatives, Baggett said as an American, Bergdahl should be brought home.

“The truth is,” said Baggett, “that he [Bergdahl] did desert—it’s not if he did or not.”

By that evening, all the major news services had interviewed at least a dozen other soldiers with close connections to the Bergdahl disappearance, and those conversations were uniformly negative—on both the narrative of Bergdahl as a returning hero, and on the matter of his exchange for the five Taliban operatives.

Republicans seized the high ground, using the fracas to suggest that the administration had negotiated with terrorists and had engaged in an inappropriate swap, releasing into the battlefield five particularly dangerous individuals with terror ties. Democrats were outraged by the cavalier dismissal of proper foreign policy procedure. Some in the press suggested that the Bergdahl deal—with its trappings of poor public relations, poorly vetted public statements, and lousy deal-making equivalency—amounted to a sort of Benghazi Part Two. The White House had acted unilaterally, and had likely made a bad trade.  Worse, it had now invited political disaster.

In the wake of the turmoil, the White House and administration officials made after-the-fact phone calls to key Congressional members. Those calls included apologies--for bypassing House and Senate preferences, as well as clarifications that the trade was a necessary adjunct to a fluid and dangerous situation. But those late apologies and explanations did not suffice for some in Congress who feel the President acted in haste and without proper approval. Worse, the White House may have set an ugly precedent by swapping those five Taliban operatives for Bergdahl.

Reacting to the flurry of negative news, the President spoke in Poland where he was attending meetings. There, he seemed emphatic.

“Let me just make a very simple point here,” Obama told reporters, “and that is that regardless of the circumstances, whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American soldier back if he is held in captivity. Period. Full stop.”

But in politics, timing is everything. And careful vetting of a complex story before sending out officials to make declarative statements is almost as important. Remember all those bland explanations of the violence in Benghazi as a spontaneous reaction to a poorly-produced movie trailer on You Tube? Remember all the obtuse answers to questions in the hours, days and weeks after the health care website failed? (“We’ve had a few glitches, here and there.”)

Even those reporters normally predisposed to dutifully hauling water for the White House seemed baffled and even a bit miffed by the administration’s failure to sort the Bergdahl affair out before inviting everyone into the Rose Garden for the obligatory grip-and-grin photo session.

Democratic loyalists complained that the brouhaha was merely another partisan tempest, and the noisiest Republicans were simply looking for more to complain about. But top-ranking liberal Democrats like Carl Levin and Dianne Feinstein were irked as well, and demanded that the White House explain how it came to the conclusion that the Bergdahl/Taliban prisoner swap was appropriate as unilateral action by the President. Feinstein told reporters that she received a telephone apology from Tony Blinken, Deputy National Security Advisor, on Monday night. Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss, top GOP member on the Intelligence Committee, also said he had received an apology by phone from a member of the White House staff, though he delclined to say who it was that had called him.

“You can’t undo what the President has done,” Chambliss told reporters, “and I think the long-term potential for damage is enormous.” Chambliss also said that the five men traded for Bergdahl will pose a serious threat to national security.

Meanwhile, veterans of both the Iraq War and the Afghan conflict have expressed much outrage, though many are careful to add the caveat that Bergdahl is innocent until proven guilty—even under circumstances which appear at first blush to be both desertion and dereliction of duty, if not outright abetting of the enemy. But most veteran groups seemed singularly upset over the weight of the trade—Bergdahl, in exchange for five Taliban insurgents. Intuitively perhaps, most recent veterans are suspicious of Bergdahl’s value considering the impact his capture may have had on ensuing battles and skirmishes. At least six Americans died while on operations searching for the missing Bergdahl, and many who fought in those skirmishes say that the loss of those U.S. servicemen was unnecessary considering the circumstances of Bergdahl’s seemingly voluntary absence from duty.

But the balance of the trade remains a sore point for many in Congress.

“I am particularly troubled,” said U.S. Representative Howard McKeon (R. CA), “by the release of five senior Taliban leaders, men with the blood of many on their hands…and the implications for our deployed forces.”

Defending the deal, the President and some in the administration say that there were urgent concerns for Bergdahl, including his apparently deteriorating health. The White House said that his immediate release was necessary, and administration spokespersons have suggested that there was not sufficient time to convene a conference with members of Congress.

On Wednesday, the Taliban released a video—shot by hand at the scene of the Bergdahl handoff—which show heavily armed Taliban fighters along with a disoriented but healthy Bergdahl. In the video, U.S. Army helicopters can be seen approaching, then, landing. A quick handoff takes place, there are perfunctory handshakes and waves, and then members of U.S. Special Forces can be seen leading Bergdahl back to one of the choppers where he is quickly searched for bombs and assisted into the helicopter.

Further muddying the waters, comes the news that Bergdahl has walked away from his post previously, but that other members of his unit at the time did not report the incident to senior officers. Other members of Bergdahl’s unit say that the sergeant had a long history of questioning the war, as well as behavior which seemed aberrant, including speculating about what would happen if he were to walk away from his post, and how to insure that his gear would not fall into enemy hands if he were to go missing or get captured.

The White House was clearly not expecting this kind of blowback from an incident it hoped would be a small part of the much more complex business of ramping down U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. The President has stated publicly that he wants all U.S. Forces out of Afghanistan by the end of 2015, roughly 18 months from now.

The White House held a closed meeting with members of the Senate today (the meeting was expected to continue into the evening hours for some ranking members), and one of those who emerged from the meeting was Marco Rubio (R. FL), who said he was unconvinced that Bergdahl’s trade for the five senior Taliban members was the right move at the right time. Like several top GOP members of Congress, Rubio wants more answers.

Editor's note: We had planned to include in this article a reference to what we thought was a mistake on the part of CBS News, which reported tonight that to be AWOL a soldier must be unaccounted for for at least 30 days. We wrote that CBS has this one wrong, but upon a close examination of numerous military and government websites, several articles (including the actual document outlining and defining Article 86) seem to confirm, through the military jargon, that a soldier must be absent for a minimum of 30 days before he or she meets the standard of AWOL and/or desertion. We invite Thursday Review readers who have a better understanding of military justice to send us their interpretations of the Army's definition of absent without leave.