The family of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has been celebrating the last couple of days. Their son, who spent 5 years as a captive of the Taliban, has been released and is now in Germany waiting for a flight home. Nobody is going to question their right to feel elated at the news that their family will soon be reunited again, but there are some serious questions being asked over how this situation developed and the way it’s been handled.
For anyone who doesn’t know the background, Sgt. Bergdahl disappeared from an OP in Paktika Province in late June 2009. Initial reports suggested he’d straggled behind on a patrol and been abducted by the Taliban, but other men from that post say he slipped out of camp during the night, leaving his weapon and armor behind. In short, they say he deserted, and the news that 5 senior Taliban prisoners have been freed to secure his release has generated some seriously mixed feelings.
Of course a lot of the fuss is just party politics. Some talking heads are claiming that terrorists will now be more motivated to capture Americans to use them as negotiating tools. Anyone who’s been on patrol in Afghanistan knows that’s just not true – the Taliban have always wanted to capture troops, and it’s just good luck, good training and a fierce determination to bring everyone home that’s prevented them from doing it more often. It could even be argued that it’s better for anyone they capture to be used as a negotiating tool rather than beheaded for a YouTube video…
But there are real issues here. When Bergdahl vanished, an extensive search was launched to find and recover him. Between attacks and IED strikes on the men out looking for him, and surveillance gaps created as assets were retasked to find the missing man, at least 6 men died as a result of his disappearance. Those men had friends and comrades, and many of them are still understandably bitter. Military forums and Facebook pages are filling up with angry comments about Bergdahl and what he’s rumored to have done. When SecDef Chuck Hagel announced the release at Bagram, he was met with a stony silence from troops.
Was it worth releasing five senior terrorists to get one man back? That’s a hard question to answer. All five have been in Gitmo for years. They’re out of touch with the way the war is being fought right now, and it will take a while for them to become useful again. There will also be distrust, because the Taliban will worry that they’ve been turned in captivity. Before any of that even becomes an issue, they’ll be spending at least a year in Qatar under the terms of the release agreement. Overall, though, putting five men back in the enemy ranks has to be a bad thing. The only question is whether it’s worth what we got in return. In one way it is; it sends a powerful message to our troops that if they get taken we’ll do whatever it takes to get them back. In other ways? If the released captives go on to kill more ISAF soldiers… then it’s harder to say.
Right now the Army is concentrating on Bowe Bergdahl’s health. That’s understandable – he’s been held in some pretty rough conditions for a long time and the Army, as his employer, has a duty of care to him. After that, though, he’s likely to have some tough questions to answer. What, exactly, happened the night five years ago when this whole saga began? How was it connected to the anti-American emails he sent his father before he vanished? And what did he tell the Taliban during his captivity? If his answers don’t add up, he could face a range of charges including desertion.
It’s good that Bowe Bergdahl is out of the hands of the Taliban and on his way back to the USA. We should never wish for anyone to be in the hands of enemies as vicious and fanatical as they are, and we have a right to expect that the USA will do everything possible to bring its missing soldiers home. But we also have a right to expect that those soldiers will live up to the standards the service requires of them, and if Bowe Bergdahl didn’t do that, he needs to face the consequences of his actions.