This week, multiple news outlets independently reported that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl would be charged with desertion. It was a charge that almost everyone saw coming and one that comported with what the soldier’s former colleagues had told media outlets. Within hours of this report, the Pentagon insisted that no formal decisions had been made with regards to Bergdahl’s case. It is a relatively safe bet, however, that the Pentagon will not be reiterating National Security Advisor Susan Rice’s claim that Bergdahl served with “honor and distinction” on the battlefield in Afghanistan.
Bergdahl’s release from captivity was controversial. Not because, as so many of the president’s defenders claimed, that conservatives wanted to leave an American behind enemy lines, but because of the way in which a likely defector to the Taliban was propped up by the administration as an American hero.
The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen, no conservative himself, called the spectacle in which the president surrounded himself with Bergdahl’s family in a contrived and propagandistic rally ‘round the flag moment “sickening.”
But the “Bergdahl swap,” as it came to be known, was scandalous also because of who the United States gave up in exchange for the captured American soldier. In violation of federal law, five high-ranking Taliban commanders were hurriedly transferred out of Guantanamo Bay and spirited off to Qatar for temporary residency. Aside from violating the Department of Defense Appropriations Act of 2014, critics of the swap contended that it was only a matter of time before these ranking Taliban figures returned to the battlefield.
Their suspicions were confirmed in autumn of last year when a Taliban statement suggested that the duplicitous government in Qatar had allowed these former Guantanamo prisoners to receive ranking Haqqani Network operatives – a direct violation of the terms of their resettlement. On Thursday, the critics’ fears that these men would again pose a threat to American interests were validated when it was confirmed that at least one of the prisoners had managed to return to militant activities.
“The U.S. conducts a classified program to monitor all of those – their communications. All five of them,” CNN’s Barbara Starr reported. “Those communications suspect that this individual – they will not say which one of the five – has reached out to militants and, through those communications, he’s now suspected of being back involved in suspected militant activity.”
Starr noted that there is an internal debate over whether to classify this former prisoner as a “confirmed” recidivist – a debate with substantial political ramifications.
Starr also noted that between 12 and 17 percent of all former Guantanamo detainees return to militant activities and, in some sense, the fact that 20 percent of the “Taliban Five” have returned to the battlefield corresponds with that ratio. She conceded, however, that the controversial nature of their release was likely to spark a “political firestorm” in a way that the release of a number of lower-profile Guantanamo detainees has not.
That’s an understatement. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton averred that the “Taliban Five” were “not a threat to the United States.” She better hope for the sake of her party’s political future that they are not, but that certainly seems to be a doubtful conclusion today.
Regardless of Bergdahl’s status, it is worth celebrating the return of an American soldier from enemy captivity with no further loss of life. That said, it would be callous to claim, as so many do, that any price is worth paying for his return. Clearly, that is not the case. Cold but necessary calculations are always performed ahead of a prisoner exchange. If a rescue operation is mounted, what are the likely casualty rates? What if that operation fails and the hostage is executed or relocated? If a prisoner exchange is agreed to, what is the American soldier’s value versus that of the detainees subject to release?
This cost/benefit analysis was performed, and the administration determined that the exchange for Bergdahl was an opportunity to get rid of five troublesome detainees that they would have had a difficult time transferring under any other circumstances. It was as simple as that. In the quest for expediency, however, the administration stumbled into a political crisis of its own making. The White House should be raked over the coals for this dereliction of responsibility to the American people, but the Republican-led Congress does not seem all that interested in pressing its political advantage over Obama.