June 1, 2014

The Bowe Bergdahl exchange - a mixed blessing

PFC Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan - 2009

The backslapping and media frenzy has begun following the prisoner exchange that resulted in the release of U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl from the Taliban Haqqani network, and the release of what many consider the top five Taliban prisoners formerly held at the U.S. facility at Guantanamo, Cuba.

Over the next few days, the press will hound the Bergdahl family and lionize the now-free soldier. This is all understandable, but after the media circus dies down, there will be serious questions that need answers. I will pose some of them here.

The Price

Here are the five Taliban leaders who were released in exchange for Sergeant Bergdahl. Let's take a quick look at who they are - all were part of the Taliban government that brutalized what it called the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan from September 1996 until December 2001 when it was removed by American forces. As you read this, you might wonder why these Islamic fanatics are still alive.

Top left: Muhammad Nabi 'Umari (Mohammad Nabi Omari), served as the Taliban’s chief of communications and assisted in the escape of al-Qa'idah leaders to Pakistan, and was part of the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin militant group associated with al-Qa'idah.

Top center: 'Abd al-Haq Wathiq (Abdul Haq Wasiq), deputy chief of the Taliban intelligence service, also affiliated with al-Qa'idah's intelligence effort, and like 'Umari, a member of the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin militant group.

Top right: Nurallah Nuri (Norullah Noori), former governor of Balkh province during the Taliban rule and a key participant in the fight against the Northern Alliance.

Bottom left: Muhammad Fazl Akhund (Mohammad Fazl), army chief of staff in the Taliban government, and led the fighting against the American-led invasion in 2001. He is believed to be responsible for the killing of thousands of Afghan Shi'a between 1998 and 2001, and was also affiliated with al-Qa'idah.

Bottom right: Khayrallah Sa'id Wali Khayrkhwah (Khair Ulla Said Wali Khairkhwa), served as interior minister during the Taliban’s rule, and was directly associated with al-Qa'idah leader Usama bin Ladin, as well as Al-Qa'idah in Iraq (AQI) leader Abu Musa'ib al-Zarqawi. He also was a major opium drug lord.

My questions

A few words before I delve into the questions I feel are relevant to this case. Make no mistake - I, as all Americans should be, am pleased that Sergeant Bergdahl has been recovered. I am happy for the Bergdahl family that their son is now free and on his way home, and I am relieved that there are no remaining American prisoners of war, putting to bed any thought that we were going to leave any of our troops behind when we leave Afghanistan. Despite the circumstances surrounding Sergeant Bergdahl's capture (I will use that word for now), he is a U.S. Army soldier, and we could not break faith with him.

Now, for Sergeant Bergdahl:

1. What are the circumstances surrounding your "capture" on June 30, 2009. There are several versions, only one of which can be true. You say you were lost after you fell behind on patrol - that's been debunked. There are claims from your fellow soldiers that you simply walked away from your post with a few days supply of water. This came after you sent some bizarre emails to your family complaining about the war and how it was being conducted, as well as unflattering descriptions of the troops with whom you served. The Taliban claims you were drunk and outside the post. I am inclined to believe the words of your fellow soldiers.

2. Did you plan to desert? Your emails indicated that you were ashamed to be an American, you mailed home your uniforms and books (although your deployment was not over), and you asked a sergeant if you should take your weapon if you left the post (really?). This all sounds like you were planning to leave.

3. Did you have any communications with the Taliban before you came under their control? It is curious that the Taliban kept you alive - most Islamists torture and behead their captives. What did you tell them? Why did they keep you alive? It may have been to exchange you for the Taliban Five, but how could they know it would work?

4. Assuming that your departure from your post was voluntary, are you aware of the resources expended to try to locate and retrieve you? Five years of intelligence work and special operations, lots of money spent and time wasted because of your actions - not to mention the danger in which you put the people trying to find you.

5. Do you understand that your actions have led to the release of five dangerous Taliban militants?

6. Do you stand behind your rather inflammatory characterizations of American troops in Afghanistan. Yes, the same ones that spent time, sweat and blood trying to locate you, the same ones that were at risk at the turnover on May 31.

For the Administration:

1. Is it now U.S. policy to negotiate with terrorists?

2. What is the nature of the release of the five Taliban militants? Are they to be detained in Qatar, or will we find them on a battlefield in Afghanistan attacking American troops?

3. My understanding is that release of Guantanamo detainees requires Congressional authorization. Who in Congress was notified, and when?

4. Will Sergeant Bergdahl be called to answer for his actions in June 2009?

The list for both the sergeant and the Administration goes on and on. If I was interrogating Sergeant Bergdahl, it would take months. Eventually, the truth will come out. If he walked away from his post as it appears, given the information we have now, he needs to be held accountable. He has already been through hell, although possibly of his own doing, so I think any type of punishment is out of the question.

However, he could be given a less than honorable discharge. If that is the case, he should be enjoined from making any money from this ordeal - no book or movie deals, etc. Any monies generated from these kinds of endeavors should be put into a fund for the families of our fallen troops.

Bob Bergdahl

Then we have Bob, Bowe's father. I am willing to give him some leeway - no doubt the last five years have been traumatic, but it is how we conduct ourselves when faced with adversity that defines us. That said, I have some concerns about Bob Bergdahl. He appears to have, as we used to say in the human intelligence field, "gone native."

He has adopted the beard of devout Muslims, the Muslim-style skullcap, and recited the bismillah* during his remarks at the White House. I think he knows his son is likely in trouble and this may be his way of dealing with it. His tweets on Twitter are telling. See <@bobbergdahl>.

What's next?

As I said, the truth will come out. There will be long interrogations, sorry, interviews, ahead for Sergeant Bergdahl. It will become clear what happened that night in Yahya Khel, Afghanistan. I hope that this Administration provides that information to the public, although their track record with that is a bit spotty....

* The bismillah is the Arabic phrase باسم الله الرحمن الرحيم (bismillah al-rahman al-rahim - In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful). It is the first phrase of every sura (chapter) of the al-Qur'an. It also appears on every piece of official stationery of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.