Monday marked the first time in a week that the controversy swirling around the deal to win Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl’s release wasn’t on the front pages of the nation’s three most influential newspapers.
A clear bottom line seems to be emerging, both among the military and the public: President Obama was right to make a deal to bring him home. But two tough questions remain: did Obama give too much to win Bergdahl’s release? And will Bergdahl be held accountable for any malfeasance that may have contributed to his nearly five years in captivity?
Statements made rashly often don’t hold up in hindsight. Sure, talking heads on cable TV continue to foam at the mouth, but the fact that the dust is beginning to settle following Bergdahl’s exchange for five senior Taliban leaders on May 31 offers a chance to ponder where the story now stands.
Here’s an accounting, based on interviews with current and former military troops, including some who served with Bergdahl, as well as family members who believe the hunt for the missing soldier led to the deaths of their loved ones:
- With the U.S. troop presence shrinking in Afghanistan, the Taliban feared Bergdahl was a depreciating asset. If his value shrunk too much, the Administration fears that the Taliban might have come to believe that keeping him alive wasn’t worth the effort.
- Bergdahl was sick and getting sicker. According to U.S. military officials, he was brutalized and confined to a cage, often in the dark, following escape attempts. “It was a proof-of-life video” that convinced the Administration to act, a senior Pentagon official says of a December 2013 recording that U.S. officials didn’t see until January. “Just showed him talking and referring to recent events. Though difficult to make precise medical diagnoses from such, it was evident to experts who watched it that he was not in good health.” The Administration’s line might have more credibility if the recovery had happened more quickly after seeing the video. There are also suspicions that the Taliban began treating Bergdahl better as negotiations for his release looked like they might succeed.
- The White House plainly erred in having the President hold a Rose Garden ceremony with Bergdahl’s parents, Bob and Jani, to announce his release. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday the choice of the garden to make the announcement signaled the President’s commitment to leave no soldier behind. “We didn’t have to do it at the Rose Garden, but that is a very important principle,” he added. “So standing in the Rose Garden to make that assessment or make that commitment clear is exactly what the President chose to do.”
- Retired four-star Marine general Anthony Zinni, who once headed U.S. Central Command, said the Pentagon may have stumbled by not telling the White House that military should handle the return announcement. “It was the right thing to do to bring him home, but I think it was handled miserably and I think the fault lies with the Pentagon,” Zinni says. He recalls when Vietnam-era U.S. troops held as prisoners came home, and the strict orders from commanders to avoid saying anything too laudatory about those suspected of less-than-stellar actions while imprisoned. “I distinctly remember the generals getting cautioned about not going overboard,” Zinni says. Of course, he acknowledges, the White House could have ignored such warnings from the Pentagon.
- The White House compounded the problem by sending Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., on television the following day to declare that Bergdahl had served “with honor and distinction.” That really set off the troops who served alongside Bergdahl and say he deserted. The White House’s counter has been weak. “The point that I would make to you is that any American who puts on the uniform and volunteers to fight for this country overseas is doing something honorable,” Earnest said Monday.
- Perhaps a half-dozen U.S. troops died hunting for Bergdahl after he allegedly left his post in southeastern Afghanistan on June 30, 2009. “Bergdahl’s walking away was a large factor contributing to my son’s death,” Andy Andrews of Cameron, Texas, said Monday. His son, 2nd Lieutenant Darryn Andrews, was killed by an RPG September 4, 2009, while protecting a fellow soldier. They had been on a routine patrol near where Bergdahl vanished, and had been asking locals about him when they were attacked. “Sergeant Bergdahl is not a hero, and my son—who sacrificed himself to save others—was a hero,” Andrews says. This is the most inflammatory charge, and quickly surfaced, once Bergdahl was out of enemy hands, from soldiers who served with him. That tells us two things: the soldiers kept quiet (they had also signed non-disclosure agreements concerning Bergdahl’s disappearance) until he was safe. But once safe, they felt their sense of duty required them to tell the truth as they saw it. But direct links between the deaths and the hunt for Bergdahl remain elusive.
- Some fringe elements have posted anonymously—absent proof and without hearing Bergdahl’s side of the story—that he is a traitor. They contend Bergdahl is a deserter and deserves to be shot. His hometown of Hailey, Idaho, feeling the ire, cancelled a welcome-home celebration slated for June 28. While this is beyond vile, it’s something that today’s polarized politics nurtures. “They say we’re kind of a disgrace, or what a shame it is to have a celebration for a traitor,” Kristy Heitzman of the local Chamber of Commerce said. “They say they had planned on coming to the area to go fishing or camping, but now they won’t be coming to Idaho.”
- The deal makes U.S. troops more vulnerable to kidnapping now that the Taliban know they can be swapped for high-value comrades. While some military officers agree, they also note that a U.S. POW has now been shown to be more valuable that a U.S. KIA.
- Critics of the deal maintain the five senior Taliban released for Bergdahl will, in all probability, return to the fight after spending the coming year in high-walled villas in Doha, Qatar, 1,200 miles from Kabul. Military officers say that’s likely.
- There is concern that the swap seems to have been a one-off deal, with no larger bargain—one that might help end the war—in the offing. “The goal of this recent effort was to secure the release of Sergeant Bergdahl,” Earnest said. “We did not want to reduce the likelihood of our success in securing his release by injecting a rather complicated variable into it.”
- There will be plenty of time to probe just how Bergdahl came to be missing in the coming months. If an investigation determines that he should face charges of desertion or other counts, he could plead guilty in exchange for reduced punishment. There is a sense in some military quarters that five years imprisoned by the Taliban is punishment enough.
The true bottom line, after all the acrimony—and sanctimony—is pretty straightforward. “He may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he’s our son-of -a-bitch,” James Mattis, a retired four-star Marine general who served as chief of U.S. Central Command from 2010 to 2013, said Monday. “So let’s get him back, let the Army investigate, and we’ll sort it out.”