The news channels are blaring two misconceptions about the recovery of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held captive by the Taliban for five years until this past weekend, when he was traded for five Guantánamo Bay detainees.
First, contrary to claims by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers and others, the Obama administration did not negotiate with “terrorists” to get Bergdahl back.
But, second, contrary to messages conveyed by President Obama and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, this is not an occasion for unblemished celebration.
The first point is politically important. Many columnists and congressmen make a big point that America doesn’t negotiate with terrorists. Well, sometimes America does, but the key thing here is that the Taliban delegates, with whom U.S. officials have been negotiating in Qatar over the fate of Sgt. Bergdahl, are not terrorists. They represent a political faction and a military force in Afghanistan; they are combatants in a war that the United States is fighting. In other words, Bergdahl was not a “hostage” (another erroneous term uttered by Rogers). He was a prisoner of war, and what happened on May 31 was an exchange of POWs.
The United States and practically every other nation that’s ever fought a war have made these sorts of exchanges for centuries. In recent years, American officers have turned over hundreds of detainees to the Afghan government, which in turn freed them in exchange for favors of one sort or another from the Taliban. During the Iraq war, American commanders frequently made similar swaps. The Israeli government (which can’t be considered soft on terror) trades prisoners with Hamas and Hezbollah all the time. In the most dramatic case, Gilad Shalit, an Army private abducted by Hamas, was traded for 1,027 Palestinian and Arab prisoners, 280 of whom had been serving life sentences for terrorist attacks against Israel.
The Israelis are particularly devoted to the commandment: Thou shalt not leave one soldier behind. The fate of Shalit was a national cause, his picture plastered on the walls of many Israelis’ homes, and his release celebrated as a national holiday. This is a natural artifact of a small, extremely homogenous country where nearly everyone serves in the military and where bombs explode in local neighborhoods during wartime.
American culture is very different. My guess is that very few among us remembered—or had ever heard of—Bowe Bergdahl until his release made headlines this weekend. Still, the U.S. military cherishes this same principle (leave no soldier behind), and his recovery is cause for satisfaction—but not much more than that.
One difference between this case and many others is that Bergdahl wandered off his base. He wasn’t abducted or captured while on patrol. Rather, on the night of June 30, 2009, he simply got up, took his compass and a few other supplies (though not his weapons), and walked away. It’s not clear why. (After he’s nursed back to health, an Army investigation will presumably find out.)
In a lengthy 2012 Rolling Stone article, Michael Hastings painted a picture of Bergdahl as a moralistic home-schooled adventurer, enticed by the romance of do-good soldiers (he tried to enlist in the French Foreign Legion), who studied Pashto, took the nation-building doctrine seriously, grew disillusioned with the Army’s mission and disgruntled by his own unit’s incompetence—and walked off into the mountains. On the other hand, Nathan Bradley Bethea, a retired Army captain who served in the same battalion, recalls Bergdahl—in the Daily Beast and a BBC interview—as a mentally unstable misfit who should never have been allowed to join the service.
Either way (and the two portraits aren’t mutually exclusive), Bethea is probably right that soldiers from Bergdahl’s own unit “died trying to track him down.” Not in some Saving Private Ryan–like search, but aircraft and drones were probably diverted from normal military tasks in the hunt for Pfc. Bergdahl, leaving several units unprotected in the process. (He has been promoted to sergeant, for service, during the years of his captivity.) Again, this is what servicemen and women do for comrades lost in harm’s way; it’s part of their mission, a vital aspect of military culture. But it’s a bit less noble, it feels more like a burden than a duty, when the lost soul got lost on his own free will, when he deserted his post and abandoned his fellow soldiers—whatever the reason.
And so, it felt a bit discordant when Secretary Hagel made a victory lap around Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, proclaiming, “This is a happy day, we got one of our own back.” And, though more understandable, it seemed a bit excessive, as well, when President Obama called it “a good day” while standing before the White House press corps alongside Bergdahl’s parents. (A low-profile photo-op might have been more appropriate.)
There are a couple more misconceptions in this saga. First, while Obama and his diplomats made the deal on their own (in line with his powers as commander-in-chief), it’s not true that he left Congress out of the picture. He briefed a small group of senators in January 2012, when a deal first seemed in the offing. Sen. John McCain reportedly threw a fit, objecting that the detainees to be released had killed American soldiers, but after talking with John Kerry (at the time, still a senator and a friend), came around to the idea. (This may be why McCain, though displeased with the detainees’ release, is not raising his usual hell in public appearances now.)
Second, it’s not the case—at least if things work out as planned—that the five detainees, some of whom were high-level Taliban officers in their younger days, will go back and rejoin the fight. The deal requires them to remain in Qatar for one year; after that, Americans and Qataris will continue to monitor them—though it’s not yet clear what that means; in the coming days, someone should clarify things.
There’s one more potential bit of good news. This whole exercise has demonstrated that the Taliban’s diplomatic office in Qatar does have genuine links to the Taliban high command. (A few years ago, when fledgling peace talks sputtered and then failed, many concluded that it was a freelance operation unworthy of attention.) And the fact that the exchange came off with clockwork precision (see the Wall Street Journal’s fascinating account of how it happened) suggests that deals with the Taliban are possible, and that a deal signed can be delivered.
Spokesmen for both sides stressed that the deal just made was a prisoner-exchange deal and nothing more—that no further inferences should be made. But American officials from President Obama on down have stressed that a good end to this war can only be a negotiated end, that it must involve an accord with all the factions, and the Taliban are a homegrown faction. Maybe the Bergdahl deal will serve as a prelude to a wider set of talks—in which case this will be looked back upon as a very good day.
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