I’ve received numerous emails, texts, and Facebook messages asking me my opinion on the Bowe Bergdahl release/swap for five Taliban commanders, and to each I replied, “There’s too much smoke and not enough fact. Everything is political posturing”, and that’s where I still stand, but the cacophony in the press has gotten so loud it’s obscuring whatever truth remains. The only thing I’m going to try to do is clear the air regarding some of the information out in the media.
For instance, on the left, at the Huffington Post, an Australian civilian who obviously knows well the US military culture and our national security dilemmas discusses statements made by Senator McCain with someone who was apparently around twelve when Bowe was taken into captivity. In the hipster’s esteemed scholarly mind, he enlightens the Australian on the nuances. At around the 1 minute 40 second mark, he states, “You have to let them go. This is how ‘international war law’ works. It’s in the constitution.”
“International War Law…” “It’s in the Constitution…” What an idiot. Why is he even given the ability to speak on the subject? Much less on camera.
Bergdahl’s father made the mistake of showing off his Rosetta stone knowledge in the Rose Garden, and on the right you have conservatives hyperventilating that a CIA analyst stated he was speaking Arabic and had just sanctified the White House for Islam – and the President is SMILING about it. If it were me, I’d fire the vaunted analyst, because she can’t even recognize the language, much less what he was saying. He was speaking Pashtu, something he’d been trying to learn since his son had been taken, and from the best I can find, he said, “I love you. I am your father.” While I don’t understand why he thought it was a good idea to speak in the same language as the Taliban on national television, he wasn’t giving the White House to Islam.
The statements get more and more ridiculous as the days go on, so here’s a little clarity from the main talking points:
On the right:
1. “We’ve just put a bulls-eye on all soldiers and Americans. Everyone will be trying to kidnap them to exchange them for prisoners.”
I hate to tell all the people spouting this line, but the terrorists pretty much know the “exchange hostages for prisoners” routine. It’s one of the top reasons hostage situations occur in the first place. From the ETA/Basque separatists in Spain to the Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian diaspora, they have always demanded prisoners in exchange for hostages. Al Qaida knows the value of western hostages, and in fact gleans most of their income from ransoms. Hell, even Hollywood gets this. You can’t have a terrorist in a movie without him demanding the release of his “brothers”, from the evil genius in the original bit of Chuck Norris cinematic glory called “The Delta Force” to the more modern Arabic terrorist caricature in Arnie’s “True Lies”. Even the fake terrorist Hans Gruber in “Die Hard” made the fake demand to release a trove of terrorists currently held in prison to cover up his theft of money. The Taliban/AQ/Haqqani network would actively be seeking to capture US soldiers and personnel whether or not Bowe was released. It’s not going to increase because of the transfer of Taliban prisoners.
In fact, it might actually help those who are unfortunate enough to be captured. In the recent past, if a soldier was taken on the battlefield, he could pretty much guarantee his fate: Fourteen or fifteen hours of gruesome torture, then a beheading. It happened in Iraq on multiple occasions, and Bowe was literally the first time a modern insurgent didn’t brutally kill a soldier outright. The outcome may persuade future insurgents to keep the poor bastard alive instead of chopping his head off.
2. “We just destroyed a two-hundred year iron-clad rule about negotiating with terrorists. Katy bar the door, it’s the apocalypse.”
Once again, history tells a different tale. The first time we negotiated with terrorists was when Thomas Jefferson was president. He paid bribes to the Barbary pirates to keep them from taking US ships and holding the crews hostage. Eventually, we got sick of that and sent in the Marines – founding the line in the Marine Corps hymn “…to the shores of Tripoli”, when we stormed the place and kicked a little Pirate ass. But before that happened, make no mistake, we were paying money for hostages.
Since then we have engaged in a multitude of negotiations to secure hostages. Everyone knows about Iran Contra, but probably doesn’t realize we released a man with American blood on his hands to free a British citizen in Iraq as recently as 2007, and pressured other countries to release terrorists for our own citizens throughout the years, including the hijacking of TWA flight 847 in 1985. It does happen, more than people are aware and typically doesn’t make the news. And if you think the five for one deal was bad, in 2011 Israel released from prison 1,027 confirmed terrorists with the blood of over five hundred Israelis, all for one soldier.
3. “There’s a report saying Bergdahl converted to Islam and swore fealty to be a mujahidin…He’s a collaborator! We just released five Taliban for a damn traitor!”
A major news organization broke a story a couple of days ago about some private “subcontractor” working in Afghanistan who gleaned “intelligence” on Bergdahl, and that the reporter had seen the SITREPS detailing him shooting weapons, converting to Islam, and generally acting like a collaborator. While all of that may ultimately prove true, there is no context to the reporting. No evaluation of the viability of the information. It’s just a piece of paper that could have been typed by a monkey in the dark, yet it’s now being treated as concrete fact.
Every true source report comes with a rating that details reliability and placement and access to the information. In other words, was this someone who heard from a friend who had dinner with a man who knew someone in the Haqqani network who said blah blah, and we’d never dealt with him before, or was this a reliable, vetted source with access to the close ring of the Haqqani network? Right off the bat, because it’s from a private intelligence contractor, and I’ve worked in that world since leaving the military, it raises the hair on my neck, telling me there’s an agenda here. Even if there isn’t, intelligence reporting is never black and white. You are always trying to penetrate the motivations of the source. I have never seen an official report that didn’t say, “Contact may have been intending to influence as well as inform.”
Right after 9/11 I was working with a government intelligence agency that was, shall we say, solely focused on finding Osama bin Laden, and we were receiving reports at a flood level. One said he was in a cave with failing kidneys, on a dialysis machine. Another said he was selling oranges in Shkin. A third said he was in a caravan north of Tora Bora rallying the troops. We had to evaluate each and every one for veracity, and would never have gone on TV and said, “Bin Laden’s on a dialysis machine selling oranges in Shkin for money for troops in Tora Bora. We got a report. It’s got to be fact”, yet that’s exactly what the news is doing with this ridiculous private report that’s just now coming to light. I’d give it about as much credence as my daughter telling me the latest gossip she read on the Internet.
On the left:
1) “He was a soldier. It’s our sacred duty to get him back. We had to do something. We never leave a man behind.”
I’ll agree it’s a sacred duty, but there’s a limit to what that something is. If we mean we’ll do anything to get Bowe home, then maybe we should have just told the Taliban in 2009, “We’ll pull out completely from Afghanistan. We start leaving tomorrow and will cease all offensive combat operations right now.” Oh, wait, Brad, that’s crazy! If you think that, then – like me – you believe there is a limit to what we’ll do to get our POWs home, and in my mind we crossed it by the release of five hard-core Taliban.
When I hear the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs say, “This was our last, best chance,” I call BS (and not just because he posted it to Facebook. Welcome to the new JCS). It was more than that. The five were tied up into a greater attempt to negotiate with the Taliban and gain an ability to successfully withdraw our troops, leaving Afghanistan to fend for itself. Talk about a poke in the eye. “We’re leaving now, hey, no hard feelings, but we’re going to give the Taliban some help on our way out the door.” Doing something does not mean harming our national interests to fulfill our sacred duty. You think Admiral Stockdale, after years of torture, would have agreed to President Nixon getting on TV and saying, “We were completely wrong, and all the men in your prison are war criminals. Now can we have them back?” I think not.
We have assurances that the five won’t harm the US, but that’s naïve. How do you define “harm”? Say they return to the battlefield in a year (conveniently after our drawdown) – like they’re already saying – helping the Taliban to regain control of Afghanistan? Is that in our national interests? I mean, was Bergdahl’s release worth actively harming the very national security goals we’ve spent the last thirteen years trying to achieve? Not in my mind.
As for never leaving a man behind, tell that to William Buckley, Korean war veteran and Chief of Station in Lebanon in 1983. He was captured and tortured unmercifully for over a year, with videos detailing his torment delivered to our embassy. He eventually died from the treatment. He was not freed because of the cost it would incur to bring him home. Make no mistake, we tried. And he was a much better man than Bergdahl.
John Stuart Mills said, “War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.”
2. “This is how wars end. You exchange prisoners of war. They were leaving GITMO regardless.”
First, the damn war isn’t over, and I’m absolutely weary of hearing those words. Just because we’re pulling the bulk of our troops out doesn’t mean the fighting will cease. Maybe if the war was really ending, I’d agree with the sentiment, but we’re going to have upwards of ten thousand troops still in country, so how is the war over? Tell that to the ten thousand still there. As far as America is concerned, the damn war has been over for five years, when the press quit covering it. Last time we “ended” a war in this fashion was when we fled Iraq. Google ISIS and Iraq and take a look at what this administration calls “peace”. We weren’t leaving Bergdahl on the backside of the moon, with no way to return. In fact, we aren’t leaving at all. Just drawing down, and the war will go on. There was no clock on getting him back.
Secondly, the Taliban have never been classified as POWs in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. When I was chasing them, they were classified as “Unlawful combatants”, meaning we would treat them in accordance with the law of land warfare, but they would not act in accordance with that same law. Meaning they’d cut your head off if captured. They are not soldiers, and calling them POWs gives them a legitimacy they crave, but do not deserve.
Thirdly, in that vein, we didn’t return all POWs after WWII. Some we tried at Nuremberg and hung until they were dead. At least two of the Taliban we released have been indicted by the UN for war crimes of massacring civilians before 9/11. Why did we give them to Qatar instead of the Hague? Could it be because that didn’t fit our agenda for getting the hell out of Afghanistan? Could it be because when a war truly ends, there’s a winner and loser, and a reset where we begin reengaging the belligerent country on our terms? That didn’t happen in Vietnam, or Iraq, and apparently that’s the new normal. Welcome to “ending the war.”
3. “Bergdahl’s health was failing. It was now or never.”
The administration was shown a proof of life video, and in it Bergdahl apparently looked pretty damn bad. This spurred the administration to accelerate their efforts to save the man from certain death. It gives a little bit of a Jack Bauer, “We’re running out of time!” for the administration to hide behind, but unfortunately, facts get in the way. The video in question was shown to the administration in January, and a full six months later we get him back? If Jack Bauer operated that way, the entire United States would be a nuclear slag-heap. This whole argument is a straw man – buttressed by the video of the transfer where Bergdahl looks perfectly healthy – designed to hide the ulterior motive of getting the five Talibs out to enhance our negotiations with the opposition and facilitate our withdrawal.
Okay, I’m done. I didn’t even broach the question of desertion, because there’s no doubt in my mind that he did desert, and I think that fact will be borne out once the Army investigates. Whether he was in his right mind is another question, but it’s not even worth my time to discuss ridiculous capture scenarios. He walked off, period, with no intent of coming back.
In the end, there’s too much partisan political bickering on all sides to determine the true intent of Bergdahl’s release. There is much more that will come to light eventually, and some that will remain hidden forever. It’s a sad mess of politics, which has now snared the military in its disgusting embrace, with CJSC Dempsey and others in uniform coating their political asses in the offal of the whole affair in an attempt to defend the indefensible.
“They make a wasteland and call it peace.”