The return of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from captivity is no simple feel-good story. That makes it an ideal symbol for the end of the Afghanistan war
If every soldier were brave in battle, we wouldn’t need a word for valor.
Yet generals since the time of Saul have confronted the problem of breakdown and desertion. The eminent military historian John Keegan, in his masterpiece The Face of Battle, quoted U.S. military authorities who concluded after World War II that “there is no such thing as ‘getting used to combat’ … Psychiatric casualties are as inevitable as gunshot and shrapnel wounds.” Some soldiers deal with the pressure by running away–or worse, by switching sides. Which is why Stalin kept a significant share of his guns pointed at the rear of his own army.
When President Obama stepped into the Rose Garden on May 31 to announce a deal to free the only captive U.S. soldier in the Afghanistan war, he evidently was worried that Americans couldn’t handle this truth. Flanked by the parents of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, the President struck a victorious tone. He spoke of parental love and a nation’s duty and the loyalty of the freed soldier’s comrades. But he gave no hint that Bergdahl’s capture was the source of enormous anger and resentment among some of those comrades, who feel that he abandoned them when he walked away from his post one summer night in 2009. The anger at Bergdahl–and at the President–only deepened the next day, when National Security Adviser Susan Rice added another coat of whitewash. Bergdahl, Rice declared, “served the United States with honor and distinction.”
Maybe it was inevitable that even this familiar end-of-war set piece, the tearful return of the last prisoner, would sour, given the division and suspicion sown at home by the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the President made matters worse by rushing the final arrangements to trade five Taliban leaders for Bergdahl past a reluctant military and a skeptical Congress. Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, chairman of the Intelligence Committee, complained of being left in the dark, while a U.S. military source told TIME that the decision boiled down to “suck it up and salute.”
Obama further erred by trying to spin a feel-good story from a messy set of facts. After a dismal week of bad news, including the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, the White House leaped at the chance to show the depth of the President’s commitment to Americans in uniform. Within days, the Rose Garden fairy tale had been shredded by indignant soldiers and Obama’s political foes. Critics demanded to know how many Americans were killed five years ago while searching for Bergdahl and how much havoc the Taliban Five might wreak in the future, should they make their way back into action. The U.S. may vow to leave no soldier behind, but what is a reasonable risk to run or price to pay for that retrieval, and should the calculation change if the soldier is judged to deserve not a parade but a trial?
“This is what happens at the end of wars,” Obama said defensively as the anger and confusion boiled over. Arrangements must be made to tie up each violent drama with a bow, all the dead buried and all the living restored to their homes. “That was true for George Washington, that was true for Abraham Lincoln, that was true for FDR. That’s been true of every combat situation,” the President said. “At some point, you make sure that you try to get your folks back.” He might better have said that the Bergdahl story shows why wars continue to gnaw and grind long after the end is officially pronounced. Too much is smashed and bloodied to be wrapped up neatly. People must live, sometimes in turmoil, sometimes for centuries, with loose ends.
One of those unfinished strands is Bergdahl himself. In the Rose Garden, the President spoke of reunion and renewal for the long-lost soldier–but Bergdahl’s critics demanded a reckoning and retribution. Under pressure, Secretary of the Army John McHugh promised a “comprehensive, coordinated effort” to investigate Bergdahl’s strange battlefield history. Depending on the details, the facts of the case might support a charge of desertion–one of the most serious crimes a soldier can commit.
The strapping son of homeschooling parents in Idaho’s glorious Sun Valley, Bowe Bergdahl loved motorcycles and sailboats as a teen. But neither seemed to be taking him anywhere. So he tried and failed to join the French Foreign Legion before enlisting in the U.S. Army–a sequence of events suggesting that he was looking for an adventure more than a war.
But war is what he got. In March 2009, Bergdahl’s 25-member platoon found itself in southeastern Afghanistan, not far from the border with Pakistan, at a small combat outpost called Mest-Malak. It was crude living, little more than a storage shack surrounded by armored vehicles in a protective cluster. Bergdahl carried a machine gun on patrol, spent his spare time studying local languages and wondered aloud whether it was possible to reach China by crossing the distant mountains. It seemed, his father told military investigators, that the young soldier was “psychologically isolated.” Although he had months of deployment ahead of him, he shipped much of his gear home.
He quickly grew cynical about his mission. “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, that they have no idea how to live,” he wrote in an email to his parents, according to a 2012 profile in Rolling Stone. Greg Leatherman, Bergdahl’s former squad leader, tells TIME that Bergdahl “was a loner, he didn’t like to share much with anyone. He read the Koran quite a bit, which I respected. I saw it as him trying to be a better soldier, learning more about the people we were going to work with. Turns out he was preparing.”
Sometime after midnight on June 30, Bergdahl made a neat pile of his armor, along with a note of farewell, then disappeared. He left his firearm behind, preferring to carry only water, a knife, a camera and his compass. More than 24 hours later, U.S. intelligence intercepted Taliban radio calls indicating that they had captured an American soldier.
The next part of the story was recounted by angry soldiers in magazines, on television and in Facebook posts in the wake of Bergdahl’s release. (In some cases, their accounts were facilitated by Republican political operatives eager to turn up the heat on Obama.) Each version brought its own details, but a clear picture emerged of the Army in Afghanistan urgently redirected to the task of finding the runaway soldier.
“His disappearance translated into daily search missions across the entire Afghanistan theater of operations,” wrote Nathan Bradley Bethea, an infantry officer involved in the search, in a storm-stirring article for the Daily Beast. Bethea and others claimed that these missions led directly to six combat deaths, a number that could not be confirmed by the Pentagon. In other interviews, Sergeant Evan Buetow, the team leader at the outpost on the night he slipped away, leveled other damning charges. He recounted an intercepted radio message indicating that Bergdahl may have defected to the Taliban.
Military officials eventually concluded that Bergdahl–after leaving his post for unexplained reasons–fell into the hands of the Afghan Taliban, who later turned him over to the Haqqani network. This long-established Islamist insurgent group wages war in Afghanistan from bases in the tribal frontier of northern Pakistan, and the Army believed that Bergdahl was probably held at a Pakistani site. Reports of his years in captivity paint a confusing picture. Some suggest he got along well with his captors; others say he tried to escape in 2010 and from then on was shackled at night.
“POWs often feel a complex mixture of emotions,” says former Army colonel Elspeth Ritchie, who was the service’s top psychiatrist before retiring in 2010. “Depending on circumstances, they may feel relief, guilt, shame and elation.” All those emotions, and more, showed in videos released over the years by Bergdahl’s keepers. In one, he twined his fingers as if in prayer and begged for freedom. Bergdahl’s father Robert was so determined to understand and communicate with his son’s captors that he grew a long, frizzy beard in the style of devout Muslims and learned to speak Pashto–prompting a bemused smile from Obama at the White House when he addressed a few words of the Afghan language to his son. (White House officials were less amused by a May 28 tweet at a Taliban spokesman–since deleted–in which Bob Bergdahl said he was “working to free all Guantánamo prisoners,” adding, “God will repay for the death of every Afghan child.”)
But what was it that moved Bergdahl’s freedom from back burner to urgent priority in recent weeks? The Administration suggested some unspecified health emergency, and the Wall Street Journal reported that a video made last December showed an “alarming” deterioration in Bergdahl’s condition. But as of Wednesday, the military had released no details from the hospital where the soldier was taken. Whatever triggered the response, the White House was already working outside established procedures for releasing detainees from the prison at Guantánamo Bay.
Nearly six years after he was swept into office with a promise to close the Guantánamo jail, Obama is haunted by this most prominent of loose ends. “I will continue to push to close Gitmo,” the President declared in his recent commencement address at West Point. “Because American values and legal traditions do not permit the indefinite detention of people beyond our borders.”
As of January, 82 detainees have been released by the Obama Administration, according to the latest report to Congress by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. But the process of evaluating the threat posed by each detainee has steadily winnowed the Guantánamo population to the hardest cases. Of these, the Taliban Five “are clearly bad dudes,” says a source familiar with the debate over their release.
Abdul Haq Wasiq, the Taliban’s Deputy Minister of Intelligence at the time of his capture, had close ties to al-Qaeda and allegedly played a role in the mass killings and torture that followed the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in the late 1990s. Mullah Norullah Noori and Mullah Mohammad Fazl are wanted by the U.N. for war crimes stemming from the killing of thousands of Shi’ite Muslims in Afghanistan. Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa is a suspected opium trafficker linked to the al-Qaeda training base where some of the 9/11 hijackers were drilled, while Mohammad Nabi Omari reportedly served as a conduit for information among various terrorist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
For years, Bergdahl’s captors had demanded the release of the Taliban Five, and the topic was a recurrent subject of debate in the Administration. Figures in the White House and the State Department favored the trade as a confidence-building step toward a peace deal with the Taliban. But opponents in the military and the intelligence agencies had the benefit of secret and top-secret intelligence showing that the five men pose a continuing threat, officials familiar with the discussions tell TIME. Gradually, the pro-swap faction gained ground, pressing the opponents for proof of the danger. “It was a heavy burden” after so many years in captivity, says the source familiar with the increasingly contentious debate.
In the end, the swap was ushered into public view wearing a fig leaf provided by the Emir of Qatar, who promised to keep an eye on the freed detainees during their yearlong probation in his country. During that time, they will also be under the watchful gaze of the CIA station chief in Qatar. As Obama put it during a visit to Poland as the controversy burgeoned, the release “was conditioned on the Qataris’ keeping eyes on them and creating a structure in which we can monitor their activities.” He continued, “I wouldn’t be doing it if I thought that it was contrary to American national security. And we have confidence that we will be in a position to go after them if, in fact, they are engaging in activities that threaten our defenses.”
Some Republicans charged that the prisoner exchange itself threatens Americans around the world. Representative Howard McKeon of California and Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, the senior Republicans on the Congressional Armed Services Committees, warned in a joint statement that “our terrorist adversaries now have a strong incentive to capture Americans” as trade bait to free other detainees. It’s not an imaginary risk. In Israel, with its long history of lopsided prisoner exchanges, Palestinian plots to kidnap soldiers are a constant nuisance. Yet the country continues to make the trades as a way of affirming the high value the nation places on its own citizens.
National Security Council spokesman Ben Rhodes maintained that there was no dissent from the decision to take swift action, but that’s only because the White House wasn’t listening. Obama has broad authority under Article II of the U.S. Constitution to order prisoner exchanges as Commander in Chief of America’s armed forces. Despite a law requiring 30 days’ notice to Congress before the release of Guantánamo prisoners–and past promises not to move without consultation–leaders in the House of Representatives, including Speaker John Boehner, were told nothing. Senate majority leader Harry Reid was informed only after the decision was made. “This was out of the norm,” one official familiar with the debate over releasing the men told TIME. “There was never the conversation.”
With some Republicans calling for hearings on the matter, the Bergdahl swap is likely to become a sore point in the autumn elections. And it puts a floodlight on the unresolved–unresolvable?–issue of the nearly 150 men still detained at Guantánamo.
The loosest end of all was hidden in plain sight among the Administration’s misleading pronouncements: What lies in store for Afghanistan and its neighbors after the U.S. departs? Though Obama recently announced plans to keep nearly 10,000 troops in place for now, gradually drawing the number down through 2016, the Bergdahl deal bore the unmistakable air of a nation washing its hands. After a year in Qatar, the Taliban Five will be free to return to the scene of past outrages–the soccer-stadium executions, the oppression of Afghan schoolgirls, the destruction of ancient artworks–and while the President pledged to defend the U.S. against them, he said nothing of defending the Afghans.
In this, Obama is reflecting the will of the American people, who have made themselves clear in surveys and at the ballot box. The war in Afghanistan must come to an end–for Americans if not for Afghans. The peace of Kabul will rest on the ability of Afghan factions to coexist, which, given the long history of this troubled land, there is little reason to hope for.
But the decision to try to slip these loose ends past an unnoticing public, borne on a smile and a fable, was a blunder in any event. It is said that soldiers never forget. They don’t forget their promise to leave no comrade behind. In the words of former soldier Alex Horton, “There’s not a place in the world I wouldn’t go to bring back the men who served with me. That was true for combat, and it will be true for the rest of my life.” At the same time, they don’t forget the difference between those who stand and those who run, and they are very particular about the language of heroism. “This is just so grotesque,” argues retired Army officer and author Ralph Peters. “Americans can’t name a single Medal of Honor recipient, but everybody knows the name of a reputed deserter. The big mistake was for the President and his gang to present Bergdahl as a hero.”
The Obama Administration is not the first to look at the American people and think, in the words of Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, “You can’t handle the truth!” But it is the first to govern entirely in the age of nearly limitless communication. After Edward Snowden, after WikiLeaks, it should be clear that anything known inside the White House stands a good chance of becoming known to everyone. A President who promised unprecedented transparency must understand that a window shows the bad weather along with the good.
And the inescapable truth is that the U.S.’s departure from Afghanistan will not bring an end to the storms of that region, nor shield us from their effects. In its ugly complexity, the story of Bowe Bergdahl–the genuine story, not the bowdlerized version–is one symbol of that truth. Can we handle that? There’s really no alternative.
–With reporting by Massimo Calabresi, Michael Crowley, Zeke Miller, Jay Newton-Small and Mark Thompson/Washington and Karl Vick/Tel Aviv
This appears in the June 16, 2014 issue of TIME.