I worked in Afghanistan for the U.S.-led international military coalition in 2009 when Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was captured, so I can appreciate the outrage following his release in exchange for five Taliban detainees held at Guantánamo Bay.
“What an idiot!” I remember telling my colleagues. Then, as now, the scuttlebutt was that he’d deserted, that he’d walked away from his unit in a very dangerous area. The military plans to investigate, but officials say their priority is Bergdahl’s recovery from his nearly five years in captivity.
But let’s stipulate the worst-case scenario and view President Barack Obama’s decision from that perspective. Did we give away the farm for someone we shouldn’t have cared about? Maybe a drone strike on his so-called prison in the mountains of Pakistan would have been more appropriate?
Hardly. Considering the current U.S. position in Afghanistan, bargaining for Bergdahl’s freedom makes sense even if he bears responsibility for his captivity.
For much of the four years I was in Kabul, writing and editing articles for the country’s biggest newspaper in order to win the hearts and minds of Afghans, “reconciliation” was one of our biggest talking points. Our military leaders, among others, had concluded that for Afghanistan to be whole again, for the bloodshed to come to an end, the government would need to make peace with the insurgents.
We regularly published photos of grinning guys in turbans and patus, mostly small fry, shaking hands with local governors and declaring their allegiance to the Kabul regime. Sometimes that “R2” – reconciliation and reintegration – turned out to be a big joke, and come springtime the guys would dig up their Kalashnikovs and resume the fight. There were other setbacks in peace efforts, like the assassination of the country’s peace council leader by a turban bomb and lots of other bombs and failed attempts at negotiation.
Like it or not, reconciliation is still a goal of Afghan officials, some of whom were fairly elected at one time or another and have been pestering their American partners to release these Taliban detainees. Afghan President Hamid Karzai likes this idea so much that, in typical fashion, he blasted Obama for not fully releasing the prisoners and instead having them baby-sat by Qatari authorities for a year. On June 14, Karzai’s successor is to be chosen in a runoff election and would probably appreciate a boost in reviving peace talks.
So whether Bergdahl is guilty or innocent, he may have done everyone a favor by providing a pretext for doing what we needed to do anyway. Not to mention, these guys were arguably prisoners of war and subject to the Geneva Conventions and thus repatriation at the end of the war. This way, we got our only POW back in the bargain.
Israelis – known for their hard line on terror – have repeatedly given up hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, some with blood on their hands, for just one of their soldiers or even a few sets of remains. When Ronald Reagan wanted U.S. hostages in Lebanon freed, his people sent missiles to Iran (via Israel, no less) in 1985. That effort freed one American, but our CIA station chief was reportedly tortured to death.
The Lebanon experience shows the folly of meeting terrorists’ demands, but in the current deal, the prisoners are not considered terrorists by our Afghan allies. They are an enemy to be dealt with both on the battlefield and off.
We are, for the most part, done with Afghanistan. We severely weakened al-Qaida and killed Osama bin Laden. We have built up Afghanistan’s army and police, as well as other institutions such as the schools that all those little black-and-white-clad girls attend. We have done right by Afghans as they did right by us in fighting the Soviets at great cost in the 1980s – a conflict that many people much smarter than I am could tell you has hurt us all, especially the Afghans.
As we draw down our involvement in Afghanistan, we have a self-serving obligation to give a fighting chance for survival to the regime we helped create. Releasing those Talibs was part of that deal. After that, we can only cross our fingers and hope the Afghans win a sustainable peace with enough factions to keep the rest at bay. If you study the country’s history, you will see that with enough clout and cash, they are pretty good at co-opting their enemy brothers.
If the Afghans succeed in reuniting and stabilizing their nation, we might have an opportunity to look back on our expenditure of blood and treasure as more than simply retribution for 9/11.
Whatever you may think of Bergdahl, that would be a fitting tribute to the other thousands of U.S. troops who fought and too often died in that complicated, faraway place.
Erik N. Nelson is a freelance writer and editor in Davis. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed here are his own.