As damning as that headline is, I think this Eli Lake/Kimberly Dozier piece ends up being the best defense yet of why Obama agreed to make the swap. Per their sources, the Taliban had all but given up on an exchange for Bergdahl after so many years of false starts and wanted to kill him. It was the Haqqanis, who were holding Bergdahl prisoner, who still wanted a deal. That meant O could either make the deal and take a ferocious political beating for trading five dangerous savages for an American who had, after all, deserted — or he could walk away and take a ferocious political beating for abandoning an American to his fate after the eventual propaganda video of Bergdahl being beheaded started circulating.
In fact, it could be that O boxed himself in here by letting Bergdahl’s parents get too close to the process. They were, apparently, being looped in on CENTCOM briefings about their son; they knew enough about the White House’s efforts to bring him home to have blabbed about a possible prisoner swap more than two years ago. If, after all that, Obama decided the price was too steep and walked away from negotiations, Bob Bergdahl would have raised holy hell in the media about how there was a deal for his son on the table and the president wouldn’t take it. The strategic argument for not doing the deal was strong — you don’t send killers back into battle to target your boys when hostilities haven’t ended — but it was no-win politically, so Obama opted for what he thought would be the most easily spinnable option, namely, bringing Bergdahl back on the principle that we leave no man behind. The Taliban we released can, after all, always be droned later if need be:
A top intelligence official told lawmakers in a classified Senate briefing last week that he expected four out of the five Taliban leaders released by the Obama administration to eventually return to the battlefield…
It also means that President Obama was faced with a particularly excruciating choice as he weighed whether or not to swap these five for American hostage Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. The government of Qatar, which agreed to look after the five Taliban leaders as part of the deal for Bergdahl, warned that factions within the Taliban were growing impatient, and campaigning to kill Bergdahl instead of trading him.
“Time is not on your side,” they told U.S. negotiators, according to two senior defense officials. They described a growing split within Taliban and Haqqani Network (which held Bergdahl) over how to best use the soldier—a split confirmed by multiple Taliban and Afghan sources in the region.
Another U.S. official told Lake and Dozier that Bergdahl was held for two years in a tiny cage, with a hood on except for when he needed to eat. How that squares with James Rosen’s bombshell last week about Bergdahl laughing, playing soccer, and even carrying a gun after converting to Islam in captivity is unclear. Rosen’s report also had details about a cage, but supposedly Bergdahl was trustworthy enough to have been freed from that by 2012. We’ll know more soon.
Most of this, according to Lake and Dozier, was spelled out to the Senate in last week’s classified briefing, including the likelihood that four of the Five will be back shooting at American soldiers sooner or later. Which is … curious, because if Foreign Policy is right, the classified briefing given to the House last night was very different:
Facing growing skepticism on Capitol Hill about its decision to swap five Taliban prisoners for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the White House told lawmakers at a classified briefing late Monday night that some of the freed militants were political figures, not hardened soldiers, according to lawmakers who attended the session…
“They don’t seem to have been combatants at all,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who attended Monday’s briefing. “The guys we traded, you hear all kinds of things about ‘they killed Americans.’ Three of them were governors of provinces under the Taliban government…They were governors.”
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who also attended the briefing, agreed. “Who are these people? As it turns out … they were government officials. They weren’t soldiers, and they aren’t soldiers now.”
I don’t know how to square that with the Lake/Dozier piece. Neither does John Hudson, the author of the Foreign Policy story on the House briefing. It makes no sense that the White House would lie to one chamber of Congress but not the other; word will get out about what was said in each briefing and people will notice the contradiction. Maybe different intel personnel are drawing different conclusions about the jihadist tendencies among the Taliban Five and then relaying that info to Congress? You would think the White House could call a huddle and get everyone on the same page before briefing the legislature, but they’re two years into lame-duckery. Maybe they don’t care enough to do that anymore.