Thursday, June 5, 2014

Release of Taliban Prisoners in Exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl: Some Observations and Thoughts

Today I want to talk a bit about the prisoner exchange that secured the release of captured American Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. The preliminary caveat that I want to offer is that I don’t have all of the facts. And that caveat should be first in the minds of virtually everyone commenting on this situation. Instead, it seems that many commentators, especially those condemning the exchange and/or Bergdahl, are presuming either that they know all of the facts already and/or that the facts that they do “know” are all correct.

So let me offer these initial thoughts: First, we have to remember that Bergdahl is an American citizen. Whether he is a good guy or a bad guy, hero, traitor, or ordinary guy wearing the uniform, he is an American citizen and, as such, he is entitled to the same presumption of innocence that we are all entitled to. Did he go AWOL or desert his unit? Maybe he did. Maybe the evidence is overwhelming. But that doesn’t matter. At least not yet. Because until he is convicted of having committed a crime or offense under the Code of Military Justice, he is — he must be — presumed to be innocent. Isn’t that one of the core principles for which our soldiers put on the uniform?

Thus, when asking whether it was wise to trade Taliban prisoners for Bergdahl’s release, I don’t think that it’s fair to presume that Bergdahl was guilty of treason or even some lesser offense as we contemplate the merits of the trade. He was an American soldier, in captivity, accused but not yet convicted of having engaged in punishable conduct. Just because he was accused, should he be punished to lifelong captivity without the benefit of a trial or the opportunity to confront his accusers? We don’t subject even the worst criminals in America to that sort of treatment. For that matter, consider a bank robber wounded by the police as they try to apprehend him during the commission of that robbery. Do the police just leave the alleged bank robber to bleed out on the pavement? Or is the alleged bank robber rushed to a hospital, provided medical care, and after recovering, tried for his alleged crimes? Yes, I recognize that a bank robber is not a perfect analogy for a prisoner of war alleged to have deserted his unit; but it don’t think that the analogy is too far off, either.

Thus, to me the calculus is not whether we should have given up five members of the Taliban for the release of a soldier accused of a crime; rather, the calculus should be only whether we should have given up five members of the Taliban for an American solider being held captive. Now, that being said, it is of course fair to consider the relative value of the American soldier in comparison to those being released in exchange. Or is it? I mean, do we want to tell our soldiers that, if captured, we’ll consider trading for you, but only if we have the “right” prisoners to give back? If you’re a general or a great sniper, you’re worth more than a “mere” private? Is that the message that we want to send? Or should be simply be telling our soldiers that we’ll find a way to get them back? I think that’s the better message. Now, that doesn’t mean that we can’t consider whether a prisoner that we have is simply too valuable or too dangerous to return. But I think that question is independent of the question of who the particular soldier (or soldiers) being trade for are.

The next obvious question, then, is whether a prisoner exchange is a good idea, absent the particular characteristics of the soldier that we are trying to repatriate or the identities of those we might release. In all honesty, I’m not sure. There is a part of me that thinks “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” is a real rule that we should follow. And then there is reality. I guess that there is something different with an actual exchange of prisoners than with a pure negotiation. I think that when we say “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” what we really mean is that we’re not going to consider their demands in order for them not to try to attack or as a response to an attack. Exchanges of prisoners, especially prisoners of war and those involved in espionage, have a long history; it’s how wars have always been fought. And perhaps the distinction is to be found in the fact that Bergdahl is a soldier and not a civilian.

I also find myself looking to Israel for some guidance in this matter. After all, Israel has faced far more terrorism (and threats of terrorism) than we have. And when Israel releases terrorists as a part of a prisoner exchange, those terrorists aren’t being relocated half a world away. Yet Israel has a history of giving up enormous numbers of prisoners for a single captured member of the IDF, for the bodies of fallen soldiers, for information about missing soldiers, and even as an inducement to continued negotiations. (For more on Israeli prisoner releases, please see my posts Gilad Shalit and Israeli-Arab Prisoner Exchanges and Why Did Israel Release Prisoners in Exchange for Peace Talks, Why Did the Palestinian Authority Demand the Release as a Pre-Condition to Peace Talks, and Just Who Are the Prisoners Being Released?) Have those releases worked well for Israel? I don’t know. I’m not sure that they know, either. But it is a conundrum that they’ve had to resolve time and time again. No, we’re not bound to follow their lead, but it can’t hurt to at least take those actions (and their ramifications and repercussions) into account in making our own decisions.

A few more points about the notion of the exchange itself before I move on to a related topic: First, to those who say that making this exchange emboldens the Taliban or al-Qaeda to try to capture other American soldiers, I’d suggest only that I think that has long been a goal of those organizations and I don’t see how this exchange increases the likelihood. Might this put American civilians at greater risk elsewhere in the world? I really don’t think so. I think that our reaction to the capture of American civilians outside of a warzone would bear no proportionality to our reaction to the capture of an American soldier in a warzone. (In other words, we’d treat that as a terrorist attack and, I suspect, we’d act in far bolder, more aggressive ways.)

As to the concern that the members of the Taliban that we released will soon return to the battlefield against America, while I recognize and appreciate this concern, I’m not overly worried myself. If these five members of the Taliban are as bad as some have suggested, then don’t you think that we’ll be monitoring them pretty carefully? Hmm, perhaps they will even provide us the means to get closer to the current Taliban leadership. How do you know we haven’t “turned” one of these men or found some other way to “tag” them? My suspicion is that there will be very tight coverage of these men and Hellfire missiles awaiting their return to their bases in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

Before leaving the subject of Bergdahl and the exchange, I can’t help but talk about some of the reaction. First, as I mentioned above, I think that it’s wrong to make presumptions about facts before we really know what happened. Did Bergdhal go AWOL or desert? It seems likely, but we don’t know. But what if he left his post because of abuse that he was suffering from those in his unit (and, no, I have no evidence of anything like that happening; I’m simply trying to recognize that there are always multiple sides to stories like this)? What if he was suffering from PTSD or some other mental illness? Would your feelings toward Bergdahl walking away from his unit be different (presuming that’s what happened), if we learned that he was suffering from mental illness instead of just being a bad soldier?We need to understand the full scope of the facts and events before drawing conclusions, especially life or death conclusions, hero or villain conclusions.

I’m truly disgusted by some of the comments that have come, primarily from those on the right. Is criticism of the exchange fair? Of course. Is the suggestion that President Obama made the deal because he hates America and wants to strengthen the Taliban fair? No. It isn’t. Is criticism of Bergdahl for allegedly deserting fair? Well, subject to finding out what really happened, yes. But is the suggestion, without any basis at all, that Bergdahl was a traitor who gave “aid and comfort” to the enemy fair? Again, no. No it is not. Like anything else, criticism that is measured and fair is totally acceptable; but over the last few days we’ve witnessed criticism that has been frightening in its vitriol.

Look, for example, at the treatment that Bergdahl’s parents have received. His father has been criticized for speaking Pashtun (or Urdu … I don’t recall). Really? That’s where we’ve descended to now? If you are simply capable of speaking the same language used by those who we are at war with (and of course, we’re not at war with all Pashtun speakers…), then you are in bed with the enemy? And the horror of the father of a captured soldier trying to do anything that he can, even empathizing with his son’s captors, in the hopes of finding some way of seeing his son again. How dare he! Even more ridiculous is the criticism of Bergdahl’s father for having a long scraggly beard. Recall that he grew the beard to honor his son. Yet to some on the right, including a Fox News host, his beard makes him look like a member of the Taliban. Funny, though, I don’t recall hearing that same Fox News host or others on the right say that the guys from Duck Dynasty looked like members of the Taliban; no, those guys have been honored and invited to speak to Republican and conservative groups. Yet Bergdahl’s hometown has had to cancel a welcome home celebration following an outpouring of hate directed at town officials.

But perhaps most troubling is the hypocrisy and flip-flopping that we’ve seen all across the right. Did we hear this sort of gnashing of teeth when previous Presidents released prisoners or war or terrorists confined at Guantanamo. No. Even crazier, though, is the extent to which Politicians and pundits have tried to ignore or erase their own statements, some from not too long ago, asking or demanding that President Obama do everything that he could to secure Bergdahl’s release. Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, said just a few months ago that he would be inclined to support just this sort of trade. Speaking to CNN’s Anderson Cooper in February 2014:

COOPER: Would you oppose the idea of some form of negotiations or prisoner exchange? I know back in 2012 you called the idea of even negotiating with the Taliban bizarre, highly questionable.

MCCAIN: Well, at that time the proposal was that they would release — Taliban, some of them really hard-core, particularly five really hard-core Taliban leaders, as a confidence-building measure. Now this idea is for an exchange of prisoners for our American fighting man. I would be inclined to support such a thing depending on a lot of the details.

COOPER: So if there was some — the possibility of some sort of exchange, that's something you would support?

MCCAIN: I would support. Obviously I’d have to know the details, but I would support ways of bringing him home and if exchange was one of them I think that would be something I think we should seriously consider.

Yet now that Bergdahl has been released in just the sort of trade being discussed (even the same number of Taliban prisoners)?

MCCAIN: The problem that I have, and many others have, is what we paid for that release, and that is, releasing five of the most hardened, anti-American killers, brutal killers, who are, by the way, are also wanted by the international criminal court for their incredible brutality, and the fact that within a very short time, if the past proves true, they'll be back in the battlefield putting the lives of Americans in danger in the future. And that's what most of us find incomprehensible, that the Taliban should be allowed to pick the ‘dream team,’ as my friend Lindsey Graham called it, and send them to Qatar, and obviously, they will be back in the fight.

At least CNN’s Jake Tapper was willing to call out Sen. McCain’s hypocrisy.

Or consider this from a press release issued in June 2013 by Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Oklahoma):

Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier, was taken prisoner by the Taliban-aligned Haqqani network while deployed to Afghanistan in June 2009.  Sen. Inhofe supported this amendment that raises awareness of SGT Bergdahl’s capture to continue to maximize efforts to return him and reminds the Senate of one of the basic pillars of the Army’s Warrior Ethos: ‘I will never leave a fallen comrade.’

Inhofe added, “The mission to bring our missing Soldiers home is one that will never end. It’s important that we make every effort to bring this captured Soldier home to his family.”

Yet once the Obama administration followed Sen. Inhofe’s wish to “make every effort to bring this captured Soldier home to his family”, Sen. Inhofe changes his mind and rants against the prisoner exchange, blaming it all on President Obama’s desire to close Guantanamo:

Here we have, this is — you know, you've done a great job in characterizing this guy, Bergdahl but even if Bergdahl was not a bad guy and didn't desert, still it wouldn't make any difference.

You can't negotiate with a terrorists, and these five guys, just by their titles, Megyn, they are the five arguably the most dangerous of the 149 left in Gitmo. My personal feeling on this because I've kind of been trying to champion the cause of keeping Gitmo open now for longer than six years. And this is just one more step — I think if the president believes he can take the five most dangerous people in Gitmo and turn them loose, turn them back to the fight, then he can get rid of anyone and that's his obsession to close Gitmo.

So which is it, Senator? Should we have made “every effort” to bring Bergdhal home or should we have made “every effort” except those that you disagree with after the fact? One right wing website even seems to have forgotten that just a few months ago, in January 2014, it asked people to sign a petition to secure Bergdahl’s release. Unfortunately, there are far more of these sorts of reversals of position and offensive statements, many even more egregious.

I couldn’t fail to mention Fox News’ regular Keith Ablow (a “forensic psychiatrist” who loves to diagnose all sorts of mental ailments in those with whom he disagrees) speculated that President Obama agreed to the prisoner exchange because he “doesn’t affiliate with patriotism,” “wants out of America,” and “does not have the will of the American people, Americanism in his soul”.

For a vast collection of the sorts of previous claims in support of Bergdahl and efforts to secure his release followed post-release criticism, please see the following posts:

It’s hard to read those posts and watch the flip-flopping without becoming even more convinced that criticism from the right, once again, has little to do with actual substance, and everything to do with an opportunity to criticize President Obama who, it seems, must by definition be wrong in any decision he makes. I really wonder whether, if President Obama were to come out tomorrow in opposition to pedophilia, a whole new right-wing pro-pedophilia movement would be born.

In any event, there are some serious and important issues to be discussed and questions to be answered. But the knee-jerk need to criticize and the rush to reach judgments without all of the facts aren’t helpful for any sort of resolution. Do I think that the exchange was a good idea, notwithstanding who the Taliban members were or the allegations against Bergdahl? I think so, say 70/30 in favor. But I’m not sure and could be swayed in my views by sound arguments for or against. I suspect that only history will tell us if this was a good decision or bad. But history will do so with both 20/20 hindsight and most of the facts, both things that we are lacking today.

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