The prisoner exchange which brought back the only known American alive in Taliban custody did not get a ringing endorsement from the men who served with him in Afghanistan. While President Obama celebrated Bowe Bergdahl’s release with Bergdahl’s father in the Rose Garden, other soldiers lifted their voices in outrage over the high cost of the swap and called Bergdahl a deserter. Those protests have grown loud enough to grab the attention of CNN’s Jake Tapper:
The sense of pride expressed by officials of the Obama administration at the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is not shared by many of those who served with him — veterans and soldiers who call him a deserter whose “selfish act” ended up costing the lives of better men.
“I was pissed off then and I am even more so now with everything going on,” said former Sgt. Matt Vierkant, a member of Bergdahl’s platoon when he went missing on June 30, 2009. “Bowe Bergdahl deserted during a time of war and his fellow Americans lost their lives searching for him.”
Vierkant said Bergdahl needs to not only acknowledge his actions publicly but face a military trial for desertion under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
The Washington Post also reported on the growing controversy and the claims that the US traded five high-profile detainees for a man who may have gone willingly into Taliban custody:
Disappearing from a military post in a war zone without authorization commonly results in one of two criminal charges in the Army: desertion or going absent without leave, or AWOL. Desertion is the more serious one, and usually arises in cases where an individual intends to remain away from the military or to “shirk important duty,” including a combat deployment such as Bergdahl’s.
Javier Ortiz, a former combat medic in the Army, said he is frustrated with Bergdahl’s actions and thinks he should be tried for desertion, even after five years in captivity in Pakistan. Many U.S. troops had misgivings about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while they were deployed but did not act on them as Bergdahl did, said Ortiz, of Lawton, Okla.
“I had a responsibility while I was there to the guys I was with, and that’s why this hits the hardest,” said Ortiz, who was in Iraq from March 2003 to March 2004 with the 101st Airborne Division. “Regardless of what you learned while being there, we still have a responsibility to the men to our left and right. It’s terrible, what he did.”
After he went missing, the military conducted an extensive search for Bergdahl. The plan was to create a blockade that would prevent his captors from taking him far from Paktika province, especially into Pakistan. The bulk of other operations were halted to focus on finding Bergdahl.
One Afghan special operations commander in eastern Afghanistan remembers being dispatched.
“Along with the American Special Forces, we set up checkpoints everywhere. For 14 days we were outside of our base trying to find him,” he told The Washington Post, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is a member of a secretive military unit.
But U.S. troops said they were aware of the circumstances of Bergdahl’s disappearance — that he left the base of his own volition — and with that awareness, many grew angry.
The Obama administration seemed caught off guard by the questions about Bergdahl’s disappearance, even though Rolling Stone had raised them two years ago in an article by the recently-deceased Michael Hastings. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel dodged the question yesterday, as did Susan Rice:
A reporter asked Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Sunday whether Bergdahl had left his post without permission or deserted — and, if so, whether he would be punished. Hagel didn’t answer directly. “Our first priority is assuring his well-being and his health and getting him reunited with his family,” he said. “Other circumstances that may develop and questions, those will be dealt with later.”
The White House appears to have been caught flat-footed about the response of other soldiers to the Bergdahl trade. Perhaps they expected kudos for leaving no man behind. With the strategy to completely withdraw by 2016 in full swing now, they would probably be justified in thinking that leaving Bergdahl behind would get them crucified in 2016 by some of the same people angrily criticizing the trade today.
However, there is a big difference between swapping for a man who’s accused of desertion (and whose disappearance cost at least six soldiers’ lives, and possibly more), and cheering his release in a presidential Rose Garden speech along with his family. That is a return for a hero, not a potential deserter (who, we should stress, has not yet been charged with that crime, let alone convicted). Did no one at the White House bother to check into the details of Bergdahl’s disappearance, or calculate what that might mean politically in this trade? Everyone from Obama on down seems to have been caught flat-footed in a controversy of their own making … again.
CNN noted the controversy in a report this morning, as well as the plan to allow Bergdahl to slowly re-enter American life again. If his fellow soldiers are right, it might be a lot slower than even the Pentagon plans at the moment.
Not all of the questions are about Bergdahl, either:
Separately, some inside the military raised questions about the cost associated with rescuing Bergdahl, who walked off his base and away from his unit five years ago after becoming disillusioned with the war effort.
Most of the immediate concern expressed by military experts, including a former national security adviser to President Obama, centered on the five Taliban prisoners who were released Saturday from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“It’s very, very important for the government of Qatar to make sure that these people are kept under control and do not return to the battlefield,” said Gen. James L. Jones, who served as Obama’s national security adviseruntil November 2010. He noted in an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union” that previously released Taliban prisoners had returned to the battlefield.
We’ll see how committed Qatar is to that plan in the days and weeks ahead.