Work has been a bear for the past week, so I've been away from the blog. Unfortunately, the pace at the office hasn't subsided, but some events literally demand a response, work schedule be damned. Such is the case with the "deal" that secured the freedom of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, held captive by the Taliban for the past five years.
Talks aimed at winning Bergdahl's release have been going on, in fits and starts, for at least a couple of years. Pentagon and State Department sources said over the weekend that one deal was rejected in 2012, because the Taliban wanted too much--the release of high-ranking operatives in exchange for Sergeant Bergdahl, who walked away from his post in Afganistan in 2009. That proposal was rejected by then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and JCS Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, who (reportedly) told the President that the U.S. would give up "too much" in the exchange.
The objections of Mr. Panetta and Admiral Mullen were well-founded. As details of the exchange emerged, it became apparent just how much the administration had surrendered in exchange for Bergdahl. Five high-ranking Taliban figures will be released from Guantanamo Bay and sent to Qatar, where they will live under some sort of "house arrest" for the next year. After that, presumably, the terror figures will be free to return to the battlefield, jeopardizing the lives of U.S. troops, intelligence operatives, Afghan security personnel and innocent civilians.
Collectively, the five Taliban leaders represent a "brain trust" for future operations. Thomas Joscelyn of the Weekly Standard offers profiles of the men being released, who represented some of the most dangerous figures captured during the War on Terror:
Mullah Mohammad Fazl (Taliban army chief of staff): Fazl is “wanted by the UN for possible war crimes including the murder of thousands of Shiites.” Fazl “was associated with terrorist groups currently opposing U.S. and Coalition forces including al Qaeda, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), and an Anti-Coalition Militia group known as Harakat-i-Inqilab-i-Islami.” In addition to being one of the Taliban’s most experienced military commanders, Fazl worked closely with a top al Qaeda commander named Abdul Hadi al Iraqi, who headed al Qaeda’s main fighting unit in Afghanistan prior to 9/11 and is currently detained at Guantanamo.
Mullah Norullah Noori (senior Taliban military commander): Like Fazl, Noori is “wanted by the United Nations (UN) for possible war crimes including the murder of thousands of Shiite Muslims.” Beginning in the mid-1990s, Noori “fought alongside al Qaeda as a Taliban military general, against the Northern alliance.” He continued to work closely with al Qaeda in the years that followed.
Abdul Haq Wasiq (Taliban deputy minister of intelligence): Wasiq arranged for al Qaeda members to provide crucial intelligence training prior to 9/11. The training was headed by Hamza Zubayr, an al Qaeda instructor who was killed during the same September 2002 raid that netted Ramzi Binalshibh, the point man for the 9/11 operation. Wasiq “was central to the Taliban's efforts to form alliances with other Islamic fundamentalist groups to fight alongside the Taliban against U.S. and Coalition forces after the 11 September 2001 attacks,” according to a leaked JTF-GTMO threat assessment.
Khairullah Khairkhwa (Taliban governor of the Herat province and former interior minister): Khairkhwa was the governor of Afghanistan’s westernmost province prior to 9/11. In that capacity, he executed sensitive missions for Mullah Omar, including helping to broker a secret deal with the Iranians. For much of the pre-9/11 period, Iran and the Taliban were bitter foes. But a Taliban delegation that included Kharikhwa helped secure Iran’s support for the Taliban’s efforts against the American-led coalition in late 2001. JTF-GTMO found that Khairkhwa was likely a major drug trafficker and deeply in bed with al Qaeda. He allegedly oversaw one of Osama bin Laden’s training facilities in Herat.
Mohammed Nabi (senior Taliban figure and security official): Nabi “was a senior Taliban official who served in multiple leadership roles.” Nabi “had strong operational ties to Anti-Coalition Militia (ACM) groups including al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), some of whom remain active in ACM activities.” Intelligence cited in the JTF-GTMO files indicates that Nabi held weekly meetings with al Qaeda operatives to coordinate attacks against U.S.-led forces.
Making matters worse, the prisoner exchange was negotiated without notifying Congress, as required by law. It's hardly the first time the Obama Administration has flaunted legal constraints and (in fairness) many Presidents have conducted secret negotiations with rogue states and terror-linked groups, in defiance of long-standing U.S. policies. Given that reality, a better question would be: was the return of Bergdahl worth the risk posed by the release of five senior Taliban leaders.
Obviously, the United States makes every effort to account for the status of POWs and individuals listed as missing-in-action (MIA) from all wars. It's an article of faith for all who wear the uniform; the nation you serve will never forget about its POWs and MIAs--or spare any effort to bring them home--even after the guns fall silent. As a soldier, Bowe Bergdahl had every reason to believe that America would honor its commitment.
But not all who go missing receive the same treatment. As you might expect, the U.S. devotes fewer resources to individuals who are suspected of collaborating with, or defected to, our enemies. At least 21 American POWs refused repatriation at the end of the Korean War, though most eventually returned to the west and the few who faced military justice received only relatively minor punishment for their treasonous behavior.
Perhaps the case with the obvious parallels to Bergdahl is that of Robert Garwood, the Marine Corps Private First Class who disappeared while serving near Da Nang, South Vietnam on 28 September 1965. There are conflicting accounts of why he vanished; Garwood (a motor pool driver) maintains he was dispatched to pick up a Marine officer at China Beach at 1800 local time. But military documents suggest Garwood was off-duty and took a jeep to visit a local brothel where he was captured by the Viet Cong.
Over the years that followed, Garwood was held at a series of enemy camps in South Vietnam. Two POWs held with Garwood in the late 1960s, Army PFC Jose Ortiz-Rivera and Marine Lance Corporal Jose Agosto Santos, told U.S. debriefers that Garwood actively collaborated with the enemy, carrying arms and ammunition for them, and assisting in the interrogation of American POWs. Two Naval Aviators held in the Hanoi Hilton, Commander Everett Alvarez and Captain John Fellowes told interviewers they heard propaganda broadcasts by an individual who identified himself as "Bobby Garwood," a Marine who had "crossed over." Other Americans held with Garwood in the south also confirmed his collaboration activities with the enemy.
Garwood finally returned to America in 1979, after passing a note to a Finnish businessman who was visiting Hanoi. In the note, Garwood claimed that U.S. POWs still remained in North Vietnam, a claim he later admitted was bogus. Back in the states, Garwood was convicted of assaulting a fellow prisoner of war and collaborating with the enemy. He was reduced in rank to Private and given a bad conduct discharge. To this day, Garwood maintains his innocence.
However, similarities between the Garwood and Bergdahl cases must be drawn carefully. First and foremost, there is no firm evidence that Sergeant Bergdahl collaborated with the enemy. But it is clear that he abandoned his unit in 2009, actions that could lead to AWOL and desertion charges. He also participated in propaganda videos where he pleaded with the U.S. government to strike a deal for his release.
Some of the soldiers who served with Bergdahl are less charitable. Nathan Bradley Bethea was an infantry officer in the same unit; writing in the Daily Beast, he pulls no punches in discussing Bergdahl's disappearance and the events that followed:
"I served in the same battalion in Afghanistan and participated in the attempts to retrieve him throughout the summer of 2009. After we redeployed, every member of my brigade combat team received an order that we were not allowed to discuss what happened to Bergdahl for fear of endangering him. 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.
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.
His disappearance translated into daily search missions across the entire Afghanistan theater of operations, particularly ours. The combat platoons in our battalion spent the next month on daily helicopter-insertion search missions (called "air assaults”) trying to scour villages for signs of him. Each operations would send multiple platoons and every enabler available in pursuit: radio intercept teams, military working dogs, professional anthropologists used as intelligence gathering teams, Afghan sources in disguise. They would be out for at least 24 hours. I know of some who were on mission for 10 days at a stretch. In July, the temperature was well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit each day.
These cobbled-together units’ task was to search villages one after another. They often took rifle and mortar fire from insurgents, or perhaps just angry locals. They intermittently received resupply from soot-coated Mi-17s piloted by Russian contractors, many of whom were Soviet veterans of Afghanistan. It was hard, dirty and dangerous work. The searches enraged the local civilian population and derailed the counterinsurgency operations taking place at the time. At every juncture I remember the soldiers involved asking why we were burning so much gasoline trying to find a guy who had abandoned his unit in the first place. The war was already absurd and quixotic, but the hunt for Bergdahl was even more infuriating because it was all the result of some kid doing something unnecessary by his own volition."
According to Captain Bethea, at least six soldiers from his battalion were killed by the Taliban during the search for Bergdahl. Other units took casualties as well; Bethea writes that an officer in a sister battalion suffered a human wave attack by enemy forces in August 2009 that killed two soldiers and wounded several others. The officer believes the attack would not have occurred if his unit had received its normal allotment of drones and reconnaissance aircraft. But the battalion--stationed in dangerous territory along the Pakistan border--did not have its normal assets, because "every intelligence asset in country had received new orders: find Bergdahl."
Bethea does not expect Bergdahl to be punished, because a court-martial might give the enemy another propaganda victory. Certainly, the optics (and narrative) surrounding his release seem to suggest that Sergeant Bergdahl may not be held accountable. It's a little difficult to punish a soldier whose return was announced by the commander-in-chief. And just yesterday, National Security Adviser Susan Rice said that Bergdahl served with "distinction and honor." We can only imagine how former members of his unit--and the families of those who died looking for him--reacted to that comment. U.S. officials say that Sergeant Bergdahl tried to escape at least once during his captivity, but how does that square with these comments, made in an e-mail to his parents just days before his disappearance:
“I am sorry for everything here,” he wrote. “These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid.”
Bergdahl also complained about fellow soldiers. The battalion commander was a “conceited old fool,” he said, and the only “decent” sergeants, planning to leave the platoon “as soon as they can,” told the privates — Bergdahl then among them — “to do the same.”
“I am ashamed to be an American. And the title of US soldier is just the lie of fools,” he concluded.
“I am sorry for everything. The horror that is America is disgusting.”
While Bergdahl's views--and his desertion--are repulsive, the exchange "deal" served several purposes, beyond the reaffirmation of America's commitment all who go missing on the battlefield. For starters, it represented another step in our exit from Afghanistan for an administration anxious to clsoe the books on that war. And, having given the Taliban a great deal, some administration officials expressed private hopes that the exchange might jump-start peace talks.
Returning the five Taliban commanders also helps President Obama reduce the population at Guantanamo, helping him make belated progress on his long-standing promise to close that facility. That won't be enough to turn out his base in November, but it may help him solidify his current standing in the job approval polls, and limit collateral damage to some fellow Democrats.
And here's the bonus: with Bergdahl's release now dominating the news, the ever-festering VA scandal is no longer on the front pages. Clearly, the prisoner deal--as bad as it is--could have been concluded weeks ago. But waiting until now to finalize the details (and announce it) clearly served domestic political purposes. Expect to hear a lot more about the Bergdahl saga in the weeks, including TV interviews and the obligatory cover stories in outlets like People. Meanwhile, revelations about veterans dying at the hands of the VA recede further in the public's mind.
At the end of the day, America released five of the most dangerous men on the planet for a soldier who deserted his unit on the battlefield. Not long ago, an exchange of that type wouldn't even be contemplated; now, the fact that such deals are made speaks volumes about a nation that puts political expediencies ahead of such concepts as honor, integrity, security and personal accountability.
ADDENDUM: The POW-MIA issue is a personal one for me. In 1944, my mother and her family received word that her brother Walter had gone missing in combat on Peleliu. No trace of Walter, a Marine Corps PFC, was ever found. Other Marines in his unit believe he was blown apart by a Japanese mortar shell. To this day, he remains one of 3,000 Marines who remain unaccounted for in World War II. But there were never any questions about the circumstances surrounding his disappearance, or his conduct under fire.