Commentary Magazine


Topic: Bowe Bergdahl

How Obama Misread the Public

A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows public support for President Obama’s foreign policy at 37 percent–a record low. How can this be when an earlier Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 47 percent of those surveyed want the U.S. to be “less active” abroad? Isn’t a “less active”–aka “lead from behind”–foreign policy precisely what Obama has been delivering? If so, why isn’t the public rapturous?

I am reminded of the old saying in football and other sports: When the coach starts listening to the fans he will before long join their ranks. President Obama has been listening to the public and giving the voters precisely what they say they want. The only problem is the public is schizophrenic. It doesn’t know what it wants.

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A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows public support for President Obama’s foreign policy at 37 percent–a record low. How can this be when an earlier Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 47 percent of those surveyed want the U.S. to be “less active” abroad? Isn’t a “less active”–aka “lead from behind”–foreign policy precisely what Obama has been delivering? If so, why isn’t the public rapturous?

I am reminded of the old saying in football and other sports: When the coach starts listening to the fans he will before long join their ranks. President Obama has been listening to the public and giving the voters precisely what they say they want. The only problem is the public is schizophrenic. It doesn’t know what it wants.

On the one hand Americans like the idea of letting others sort out their own problems, of pulling back, and focusing on “nation-building at home.” On the other hand Americans don’t like cutting deals with terrorists (to release Bowe Bergdahl), letting other states get invaded with impunity (Ukraine) or seeing a hard-won victory in Iraq unravel following American withdrawal.

What Americans really don’t like is when they perceive a lack of leadership in the Oval Office–when the U.S. does not look strong abroad and when our enemies are on the march. That is the case now.

President Obama is not doing what he’s doing in foreign policy because of the public opinion polls; he’s doing it because he really believes in the benefits of retreat and retrenchment. But no doubt he has been comforted in his decisions by the public opinion surveys which show large public approval of his most dovish actions. In retrospect that public support turns out to be illusory.

So now Obama should take with a grain of salt polls which show that the public opposes further involvement in Iraq. That may be the case but the public also opposes the establishment of terrorist states. Obama should have the courage to do the right thing in Iraq–as President Bush did during the surge which was initially unpopular–regardless of what the polls say today.

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Hagel’s Unconvincing Spin

If there is one good aspect of the dismaying advance of Islamist extremists in Iraq from the Obama administration’s standpoint, it is that these events are distracting attention from the continuing controversy over the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner swap.

More embarrassing stories continue to emerge. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, reports that the U.S. intelligence community assessed that four out of the five released Taliban were likely to return to the fight and that two of them would assume senior positions. Foreign Policy, meanwhile, reports that the two senior U.S. military commanders in the region–General Joe Dunford in Kabul and General Lloyd Austin at Central Command–were not informed of the deal beforehand (although they knew about the ongoing negotiations).

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If there is one good aspect of the dismaying advance of Islamist extremists in Iraq from the Obama administration’s standpoint, it is that these events are distracting attention from the continuing controversy over the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner swap.

More embarrassing stories continue to emerge. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, reports that the U.S. intelligence community assessed that four out of the five released Taliban were likely to return to the fight and that two of them would assume senior positions. Foreign Policy, meanwhile, reports that the two senior U.S. military commanders in the region–General Joe Dunford in Kabul and General Lloyd Austin at Central Command–were not informed of the deal beforehand (although they knew about the ongoing negotiations).

Little wonder that senior administration officials who have trooped to Capitol Hill for briefings have not managed to satisfy members’ concerns. The latest to try is Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel who told the House Armed Services Committee that the U.S. had not actually negotiated with terrorists. Why not? Because Bergdahl was being held by the Haqqani Network and the U.S. instead talked with the Taliban through the good offices of Qatari officials. As one Republican congressman said, “These responses are very, very tortuous.”

But this damage control is also being overshadowed by the ongoing disaster in Iraq. Before long the administration will be able to say that Bergdahl is “old news” and thus duck further inquiries. Unfortunately from the standpoint of the rest of the world, the Bergdahl and Iraq stories are merging to create an appearance of American weakness in dealing with al-Qaeda and its ilk.

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Key to Obama’s Diplomacy? Giving Up

While the Obama administration is ramping up its efforts to defend the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner swap with the Taliban, criticism of the deal is no longer confined to Washington. As the New York Times reports, the Afghan government is also unhappy about the agreement that traded five key Taliban operatives for the freedom of an American soldier who may well have deserted his post. The Afghans seemed to have got as little notice of the deal going down as the members of Congress that the White House should have informed by law. Sources in Kabul are also unhappy that the exchange negotiated with the Taliban was strictly a one-off that allows President Obama to claim that he exited Afghanistan while leaving no American behind. As the paper reports, they expected any agreement about Bergdahl to have far wider implications and be connected to a general agreement that would have obligated the Taliban to make peace before the U.S. withdrew its major combat forces from the country. Instead, Bergdahl was liberated at the cost of granting the Taliban a major political/diplomatic victory that undermines any hope that the Afghan government could persist even after Obama or his successor washes their hands of that long conflict.

Few Americans will have much sympathy for an Afghan government that has proved to be an ungrateful and often ineffective ally of the United States in a struggle that has been waged largely, though not solely, for their benefit. Their motives for wanting a more far-reaching negotiating process with the Taliban may also have more to do with hopes of the Kabul elites for survival in a post-American/NATO Afghanistan than the best interests of the country. But worries about the decision on the part of the administration to drop its former insistence that any deal for Bergdahl be part of a peace process–rather than a ransom payment–should resonate even with Americans who have little interest in pleasing the Afghan leadership. What happened in this negotiation repeats a familiar pattern of Obama diplomacy. Just as the administration did in its interim nuclear deal with Iran, once it became clear that the other side was hanging tough, the U.S. simply folded. While liberals complain that critics of the president are being unfair when they accuse him of being weak, the common thread in this administration’s diplomatic posture is that they always fold when pressed by a determined opponent.

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While the Obama administration is ramping up its efforts to defend the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner swap with the Taliban, criticism of the deal is no longer confined to Washington. As the New York Times reports, the Afghan government is also unhappy about the agreement that traded five key Taliban operatives for the freedom of an American soldier who may well have deserted his post. The Afghans seemed to have got as little notice of the deal going down as the members of Congress that the White House should have informed by law. Sources in Kabul are also unhappy that the exchange negotiated with the Taliban was strictly a one-off that allows President Obama to claim that he exited Afghanistan while leaving no American behind. As the paper reports, they expected any agreement about Bergdahl to have far wider implications and be connected to a general agreement that would have obligated the Taliban to make peace before the U.S. withdrew its major combat forces from the country. Instead, Bergdahl was liberated at the cost of granting the Taliban a major political/diplomatic victory that undermines any hope that the Afghan government could persist even after Obama or his successor washes their hands of that long conflict.

Few Americans will have much sympathy for an Afghan government that has proved to be an ungrateful and often ineffective ally of the United States in a struggle that has been waged largely, though not solely, for their benefit. Their motives for wanting a more far-reaching negotiating process with the Taliban may also have more to do with hopes of the Kabul elites for survival in a post-American/NATO Afghanistan than the best interests of the country. But worries about the decision on the part of the administration to drop its former insistence that any deal for Bergdahl be part of a peace process–rather than a ransom payment–should resonate even with Americans who have little interest in pleasing the Afghan leadership. What happened in this negotiation repeats a familiar pattern of Obama diplomacy. Just as the administration did in its interim nuclear deal with Iran, once it became clear that the other side was hanging tough, the U.S. simply folded. While liberals complain that critics of the president are being unfair when they accuse him of being weak, the common thread in this administration’s diplomatic posture is that they always fold when pressed by a determined opponent.

The administration trumpeted the interim deal signed with Iran last November as proof that the president’s belief in engagement with Iran was vindicated. But the point of the P5+1 process by which the West talked with Iran was not to merely negotiate with the Islamist regime but to get it to surrender its nuclear ambitions. In order to get the deal with the ayatollahs, the U.S. had to give in on the centerpiece of its previous demands: that Iran cease enriching uranium, a position that already had the imprimatur of United Nations resolutions. The administration also discarded any effort to address Iran’s ballistic missile program and its support for international terrorism.

Fast forward a few months to the next stage in the diplomatic process with Iran and it looks like the same pattern is being repeated. Rather than focus on getting Tehran to abandon its nuclear program—something that President Obama pledged during his reelection campaign—the U.S. is again solely obsessed with being able to achieve any sort of an agreement, even if all it will accomplish is to slightly lengthen the “break out” time Iran would need in order to use its stockpiles of fuel to create a weapon.

That same trait was clearly on display in the Bergdahl talks. Rather than defend U.S. interests or to create a template that would stabilize Afghanistan, the only thing the administration wanted was Bergdahl’s freedom and demonstrated that they were prepared to pay an exorbitant price in order to get it.

It should be understood that liberating any American soldier held by the enemy, no matter the circumstances surround his captivity, was very much the president’s obligation. But the problem with the deal for Bergdahl was not just the price but that it reflected a desire on the part of the administration to bug out of the Afghanistan conflict. Though concessions are part of any negotiation, the Taliban seemed to be informed by the same mindset that the Iranians have shown in their dealings with the Obama foreign-policy team. They understood that if they stood their ground and made demands, Obama would eventually cave in to them, no matter how outrageous those positions were.

Taken together, the Iran and Bergdahl negotiations show that discussions of Obama’s weakness are not about metaphors or apology tours that are rooted in symbolism rather than substance. The last year of American foreign policy has proven that the key to the president’s diplomacy is that he gives up when pressed by opponents. The two negotiations aren’t merely bad policy. They show he will always allow his zeal for a deal and desire to abandon American interests to prevail over principle.

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Kerry’s Implausible Antiterror Assurances

John Kerry reported for duty on the Sunday morning talk shows to defend the Taliban-for-Bowe Bergdahl swap. On CNN he claimed that the U.S. has the ability to closely monitor the five released Taliban fighters and that if they were to return to terrorism, the U.S. would kill them. He said: “I’m not telling you that they don’t have some ability at some point to go back and get involved (in fighting). But they also have an ability to get killed doing that.”

Technically, Kerry is right–the Taliban Five do have the potential to get killed waging jihad against the U.S. and our allies. But how likely is that? Not very. For one thing, the CIA program of drone strikes in Pakistan has all but ended. According to the New America Foundation, there hasn’t been a single strike since Christmas. 

For another thing, even while the drone strikes were going at full tilt (2010 was the peak year, when an estimated 849 people were killed in drone attacks in Pakistan) senior Taliban commanders were largely exempt from attack. While CIA drones have killed senior members of the Haqqani Network, the group which was holding Bergdahl and which was responsible for the worst terrorist attacks in Kabul, the Quetta Shura Taliban (so-called after the Pakistani city in which their headquarters is located) has not been targeted by American drones (or Special Operations Forces). 

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John Kerry reported for duty on the Sunday morning talk shows to defend the Taliban-for-Bowe Bergdahl swap. On CNN he claimed that the U.S. has the ability to closely monitor the five released Taliban fighters and that if they were to return to terrorism, the U.S. would kill them. He said: “I’m not telling you that they don’t have some ability at some point to go back and get involved (in fighting). But they also have an ability to get killed doing that.”

Technically, Kerry is right–the Taliban Five do have the potential to get killed waging jihad against the U.S. and our allies. But how likely is that? Not very. For one thing, the CIA program of drone strikes in Pakistan has all but ended. According to the New America Foundation, there hasn’t been a single strike since Christmas. 

For another thing, even while the drone strikes were going at full tilt (2010 was the peak year, when an estimated 849 people were killed in drone attacks in Pakistan) senior Taliban commanders were largely exempt from attack. While CIA drones have killed senior members of the Haqqani Network, the group which was holding Bergdahl and which was responsible for the worst terrorist attacks in Kabul, the Quetta Shura Taliban (so-called after the Pakistani city in which their headquarters is located) has not been targeted by American drones (or Special Operations Forces). 

The reasons for this forbearance are a bit mysterious–it’s not as if U.S. intelligence doesn’t have good actionable intelligence on the location inside Pakistan of senior Taliban commanders and it’s not as if those commanders aren’t plotting regular attacks on American forces. Most likely the U.S. has refrained from targeting them for fear of offending Pakistani sensitivities, because the Taliban are so closely linked to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. There is also undoubted concern about operating drones in urban areas where the Taliban hide and where the risk of civilian casualties is much greater.

Whatever the cause, it’s a fact that the U.S. has not tried to kill senior Taliban commanders such as those just released from Guantanamo as long as they have stayed out of Afghanistan. This is unlikely to change in the future, especially now that the U.S. is beginning its pullout from Afghanistan. So as long as the Taliban Five don’t infiltrate Afghanistan–as long as they stay in Pakistan, or even Qatar, to organize attacks–they are de facto freed of the threat of American retaliation. 

The Bergdahl swap may still be defensible on “leave no man behind” grounds. But Kerry and other senior administration officials need to level about the fact that our imperfect intelligence will not allow us to know as soon as the Taliban Five return to terrorism and our self-imposed limitations on the use of force in all likelihood will not allow us to kill them if they do.

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Susan Rice: A One-Woman Credibility Gap

Back in September 2012, there were a lot of people, including many conservative critics of the Obama administration who thought the Obama White House hung Susan Rice out to dry after the Benghazi terror attacks. Rice had nothing to do with the decisions that put Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in harm’s way only to be slain by al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists. Nor had she, as America’s ambassador to the United Nations, any responsibility for the manner with which the State Department had bungled the Libyan venture and anti-terror policy. But she was the one delegated by the administration to be the voice of its spin of this disaster. It was Rice who was handed the infamous talking points that sought—on all five major Sunday programs—to persuade the American people that the Benghazi attack was the result of film criticism run amok rather than terrorism. It was quickly apparent that this was a brazen lie concocted by the White House for political purposes. Alone of top administration officials, Rice paid the highest penalty for Benghazi since her fateful morning in the spotlight almost certainly cost her the chance to be secretary of state in President Obama’s second term. But in spite of all this, Rice has refused to back down and apologize for her statements.

So it was surprising that Rice, now the president’s national security advisor, would win up in roughly the same position this week during the fallout from the Bowe Bergdahl-Taliban prisoner swap. Last Sunday, when the administration was seeking to portray the exchange as a triumph for the president, Rice went again to the Sunday shows to proclaim that the deal was worthy of celebration and then added that Bergdahl had served “with honor and distinction.” Since then, Rice has taken a beating in the media as the truth about Bergdahl’s alleged desertion and America-bashing was revealed, as any sensible person must have always known it would be. Yet when offered a chance to back down from her egregious comments today on CNN, Rice again refused to do the sensible thing, instead again doubling down on her fibs, arguing that Bergdahl’s presence in a war zone in uniform entitled him to be described in this manner. Rather than acknowledging that her rhetoric made her seem like the administration’s chief fabulist, Rice turned her ire on those who questioned her latest foray into fiction.

But the second instance in which she has been outed as a purveyor of the most transparent “pants-on-fire” type of spin means that Rice can no longer be portrayed as a victim. Whatever you may think about Bergdahl or the decision to trade five top Taliban terrorists for him, there can be no debate about the fact that Rice has severely damaged her own reputation in this business. After all, her definition of what entitles a soldier to be termed as having served with “honor and distinction” would equally apply to Benedict Arnold as it does to Americans who actually have behaved heroically.

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Back in September 2012, there were a lot of people, including many conservative critics of the Obama administration who thought the Obama White House hung Susan Rice out to dry after the Benghazi terror attacks. Rice had nothing to do with the decisions that put Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in harm’s way only to be slain by al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists. Nor had she, as America’s ambassador to the United Nations, any responsibility for the manner with which the State Department had bungled the Libyan venture and anti-terror policy. But she was the one delegated by the administration to be the voice of its spin of this disaster. It was Rice who was handed the infamous talking points that sought—on all five major Sunday programs—to persuade the American people that the Benghazi attack was the result of film criticism run amok rather than terrorism. It was quickly apparent that this was a brazen lie concocted by the White House for political purposes. Alone of top administration officials, Rice paid the highest penalty for Benghazi since her fateful morning in the spotlight almost certainly cost her the chance to be secretary of state in President Obama’s second term. But in spite of all this, Rice has refused to back down and apologize for her statements.

So it was surprising that Rice, now the president’s national security advisor, would win up in roughly the same position this week during the fallout from the Bowe Bergdahl-Taliban prisoner swap. Last Sunday, when the administration was seeking to portray the exchange as a triumph for the president, Rice went again to the Sunday shows to proclaim that the deal was worthy of celebration and then added that Bergdahl had served “with honor and distinction.” Since then, Rice has taken a beating in the media as the truth about Bergdahl’s alleged desertion and America-bashing was revealed, as any sensible person must have always known it would be. Yet when offered a chance to back down from her egregious comments today on CNN, Rice again refused to do the sensible thing, instead again doubling down on her fibs, arguing that Bergdahl’s presence in a war zone in uniform entitled him to be described in this manner. Rather than acknowledging that her rhetoric made her seem like the administration’s chief fabulist, Rice turned her ire on those who questioned her latest foray into fiction.

But the second instance in which she has been outed as a purveyor of the most transparent “pants-on-fire” type of spin means that Rice can no longer be portrayed as a victim. Whatever you may think about Bergdahl or the decision to trade five top Taliban terrorists for him, there can be no debate about the fact that Rice has severely damaged her own reputation in this business. After all, her definition of what entitles a soldier to be termed as having served with “honor and distinction” would equally apply to Benedict Arnold as it does to Americans who actually have behaved heroically.

An official who not only spreads lies but also won’t disavow them even when caught red-handed has lost the right to be treated as a plausible spokesperson for anything, let alone an American government. Susan Rice must now face up to the fact that she is a one-woman credibility gap who is an embarrassment to the United States government.

Is Rice’s predilection for telling outrageous fibs while fronting for the administration more a commentary on the president who sends her out to do such things than on herself? It’s hard to say.

It is true that Rice does not bear total responsibility for these lies. As we now know, it took a committee of administration spinners to craft the Benghazi talking points. The decision to treat Bergdahl as a returning hero and to treat his parents to the full White House PR treatment surely came from the very top of the West Wing food chain. But Rice’s talent for overstatement and her inability to take responsibility for her mistakes, even when they have exposed her to the worst sort of public ridicule, cannot be attributed to the president or any of the clueless advisors that persuaded him to treat the prisoner swap as an opportunity to make political hay.

As we have seen with his treatment of other officials who failed him, the president is slow to hold his top staff accountable and seems to regard admitting bad personnel judgment as a form of capitulation to his Republican foes. In particular, Rice is a personal Obama favorite and he made no secret of his anger about the fact that her Benghazi lies killed her chances to be secretary of state. But a smarter president with a better grasp of political reality would understand that his national security advisor has fatally compromised her ability to speak for him on important issues. Surely if anyone would have known the truth about Bergdahl’s behavior last week it would have been Rice. Though the chances of Obama ever owning up to the fact that she is a liability are minimal, having a national security advisor who will be best remembered for her Benghazi and Bergdahl lies is not something any president should settle for.

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Thinking Through the Morality of the Bergdahl Deal

I oppose the deal the Obama administration struck to secure the return of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. People whom I admire have a different reaction, so I thought it might be useful to think through this matter, which can be analyzed on several levels. Let me deal with them in turn, starting with how we should view prisoner swaps in general.

We can begin with two givens: (a) every civilized nation should make heroic efforts to free its POWs; and (b) there are limits to the price a nation can pay. We are all drawn to the notion that “we don’t leave anybody behind.” What that means in reality is that we should make tremendous, good faith efforts to free captive soldiers. Anything more than that–to turn a humane impulse into an inviolable principle; to say there is nothing we will not do to win the release of a POW–would leave us at the mercy of the most malevolent among us.

In exchange for a captured soldier tyrants and terrorists could make entirely unreasonable demands of us–Kim Jong-un might insist we turn over to him nuclear technology and nuclear weapons in return for a prisoner of war–and we’d have no moral obligation to accede to them. In fact, we’d have a moral obligation to turn them down. What counts as reasonable and unreasonable depends on circumstance: what we do in a particular situation can’t be answered by some abstract principle; it’s a prudential judgment. 

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I oppose the deal the Obama administration struck to secure the return of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. People whom I admire have a different reaction, so I thought it might be useful to think through this matter, which can be analyzed on several levels. Let me deal with them in turn, starting with how we should view prisoner swaps in general.

We can begin with two givens: (a) every civilized nation should make heroic efforts to free its POWs; and (b) there are limits to the price a nation can pay. We are all drawn to the notion that “we don’t leave anybody behind.” What that means in reality is that we should make tremendous, good faith efforts to free captive soldiers. Anything more than that–to turn a humane impulse into an inviolable principle; to say there is nothing we will not do to win the release of a POW–would leave us at the mercy of the most malevolent among us.

In exchange for a captured soldier tyrants and terrorists could make entirely unreasonable demands of us–Kim Jong-un might insist we turn over to him nuclear technology and nuclear weapons in return for a prisoner of war–and we’d have no moral obligation to accede to them. In fact, we’d have a moral obligation to turn them down. What counts as reasonable and unreasonable depends on circumstance: what we do in a particular situation can’t be answered by some abstract principle; it’s a prudential judgment. 

In that context it’s worth noting that six former members of Sgt. Bergdahl’s platoon were interviewed by Fox’s Megyn Kelly, and to a person they opposed the Bergdahl deal. And it’s not simply based on how Bergdahl conducted himself. They made it clear they wouldn’t want or expect a similar deal for their return if they had been captured. In addition, according to this story in Time, the president’s actions overrode officials in the Pentagon and intelligence communities who had successfully fought off release of the five Taliban members in the past. So when the president says, as he did yesterday, that his actions simply reaffirm the “basic principle that we don’t leave anybody behind,” it may be that this principle isn’t as basic or self-evident as he thinks. What the president did to secure the release of Sgt. Bergdahl has rankled a lot of people in uniform, who presumably have some understanding of what their country owes those who are captured.

As a general matter, then, I believe that releasing experienced jihadist commanders in exchange for an American soldier is too high a price to pay, even as I understand why others would disagree with me.

This case, of course, is complicated–at least for some of us–by the fact that based on the publicly available evidence, including reported interviews with those who served with him, Sgt. Bergdahl seems to have been a deserter. If that’s the case, the moral question moves from swapping high-value, high-risk terrorists for a soldier to swapping high-value, high-risk terrorists for a soldier who betrayed his country. They are rather different things.

Citizenship isn’t simply what our nation owes us; it’s also what we owe our nation. There is reciprocity involved. The dictionary definition of citizenship is “the condition or status of a citizen, with its rights and duties.” [Emphasis added.] When an individual breaks faith with his country–when there are grave violations of duty–how his country views him and treats him ought to change. Mass murderers are citizens, too, but we rightly treat them differently than we do those who abide by the law. Under some circumstances we deny rights, including in some instances the right to life, to American citizens.

What makes this deal even more troubling for some of us is that several genuine American heroes may have died in order to free an individual who deserted them. If that’s the case, and more investigation has to occur before we know for sure, that has to be factored in as well. Mr. Obama spent a lot of time talking in moving terms about Sgt. Bergdahl’s parents. Perhaps someday he’ll find it within his heart to talk in equally moving terms about the parents and spouses and children of those who bore such a high cost trying to free Sgt. Bergdahl. The parents of a deserter have had the honor of standing next to the president in the Rose Garden. Will the parents of the heroes who tried to free him be accorded the same honor?

Let me now offer up a thought experiment. Assume for the sake of the argument that the five released terrorists return to the battlefield and as a result 50, or 500, or 5,000, or 50,000 Americans die as a result. Would those who favor this deal continue to defend it? If not, how many dead Americans tip the scales from supporting to opposing it?

My point is that this kind of decision often involves an element of ethical consequentialism. It’s not self-evident to me that if the result of winning the release of a man who deserted is the destruction of a large American city, securing that release is morally justifiable. To be clear: I’m not saying that the release of Sgt. Bergdahl will result in such an event; I’m simply saying that most of us would properly take into account what the consequences are. Yet some of those who defend the deal insist that what follows from it need not be taken into account.

Our nation has a special responsibility to those who put on the uniform, but they also a have special responsibility to our nation. They agree to uphold a code of conduct. By the accounts of those who served with him, Sgt. Bergdahl failed in his responsibilities. Which is why some of the strongest reaction against this deal comes from those in the military who have actually served our nation with honor and distinction; who felt summoned by a country whose voice (to paraphrase George Washington) they could never hear but with veneration and love. 

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Obama’s Dishonorable Deal

Even I, a consistent and at times quite a harsh critic of President Obama, have been taken aback by the latest turn of events.

To recapitulate: Mr. Obama released five high-value, high-risk terrorists from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who it appears was a deserter–and has been known to be a deserter for a couple of years. People who served with him are calling on the military to court martial Bergdahl. Media reports indicate that at least six Americans died  in their efforts to rescue him.

In de facto negotiating with the Taliban and acceding to their demands, the president violated a law he signed, requiring him to inform Congress 30 days in advance of any prisoner release from Guantanamo Bay. And the effect of this deal will be to incentivize the capture of more Americans, since it obviously pays dividends.

Yet the Obama administration took this humiliating accommodation and portrayed it as a victory of American values and purpose. The president held a Rose Garden event on Saturday extolling the deal. National Security Adviser Susan Rice referred to it as an “extraordinary day for America” that deserves to be “celebrated.” And Ms. Rice said of Sgt. Bergdahl, “He served the United States with honor and distinction.” 

Really, now? A deserter who, according to the New York Times, “left a note in his tent saying he had become disillusioned with the Army, did not support the American mission in Afghanistan and was leaving to start a new life,” is a person who served with “honor and distinction”? By what ethical calculus does she claim this to be so?

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Even I, a consistent and at times quite a harsh critic of President Obama, have been taken aback by the latest turn of events.

To recapitulate: Mr. Obama released five high-value, high-risk terrorists from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who it appears was a deserter–and has been known to be a deserter for a couple of years. People who served with him are calling on the military to court martial Bergdahl. Media reports indicate that at least six Americans died  in their efforts to rescue him.

In de facto negotiating with the Taliban and acceding to their demands, the president violated a law he signed, requiring him to inform Congress 30 days in advance of any prisoner release from Guantanamo Bay. And the effect of this deal will be to incentivize the capture of more Americans, since it obviously pays dividends.

Yet the Obama administration took this humiliating accommodation and portrayed it as a victory of American values and purpose. The president held a Rose Garden event on Saturday extolling the deal. National Security Adviser Susan Rice referred to it as an “extraordinary day for America” that deserves to be “celebrated.” And Ms. Rice said of Sgt. Bergdahl, “He served the United States with honor and distinction.” 

Really, now? A deserter who, according to the New York Times, “left a note in his tent saying he had become disillusioned with the Army, did not support the American mission in Afghanistan and was leaving to start a new life,” is a person who served with “honor and distinction”? By what ethical calculus does she claim this to be so?

This illustrates quite well the fundamental differences the president and his aides and I have. My response to what has occurred is not just intellectual but visceral. I consider what occurred, when everything is taken into account, to be substantively indefensible and morally dishonorable. The president, in my estimation, has rendered a great service to our enemies, and they know it. (Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban, hailed the release of the top five Taliban commanders from Guantanamo as a “great victory” for the mujahideen of Afghanistan.) The president’s decision may well endanger American lives down the road. And his administration has elevated an apparent deserter–one whose actions were reported on in the past (see this 2012 Rolling Stone article by Michael Hastings) and who is responsible for the death of fellow soldiers who tried to rescue him–into a hero. 

This strikes me as morally grotesque. Yet for Mr. Obama and some of those in the progressive movement, the events of the last few days count as a fantastic achievement, one worth venerating and exalting.

Years ago John Gray wrote a book called Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. In this case, it’s the president and I who occupy different worlds, including different moral worlds. Mr. Obama is proud of a series of acts that I would think he would, after careful reflection, feel regret for and even (when it comes to his administration lionizing Sgt. Bergdahl) some shame.

At times individuals interpret the same events at such different angles of vision that their actions are nearly incomprehensible one to another. I will confess that more than I ever imagined, I have that feeling with my president.

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Bergdahl Disgrace Not Like Israel’s Shalit

Did President Obama expect to be showered with praise for his exchange of five senior Taliban terrorists for U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl? The president defended the swap today while speaking in Europe as simply part of his obligation to leave no American behind on the field of battle, a position that is eminently defensible. But given the public splash made by the White House about this story over the weekend, it’s clear that some in the West Wing thought the retrieval of Bergdahl would dovetail nicely with the president’s West Point speech extolling his decision to abandon the war in Afghanistan. The return of the only missing American soldier from that conflict would put a period on the war Democrats once extolled as the “good war” in contrast to George W. Bush’s “bad war” in Iraq.

If a Bergdahl photo op with the prisoner’s parents at the White House was not quite the moral equivalent of the Situation Room photos on the night of Osama bin Laden’s killing, it’s possible that some in the presidential echo chamber believed it would still boost Obama’s image in a second term badly in need of a triumph. But only two days after the president walked arm-in-arm with the Bergdahl family at the White House, those expectations have been exploded.

News stories about the anger felt by Bergdahl’s army comrades who allege that he deserted rather than being captured have tainted any good feelings about the exchange. National Security Advisor Susan Rice’s tone deaf comments on ABC’s This Week claiming Bergdahl “served the United States with honor and distinction” now look to be as big a lie as her September 2012 Sunday show blitz about the Benghazi attack being the reaction to a video rather than terrorism. Congress is rightly grousing about the executive branch violating the law by not informing them of the prisoner exchange and many voices are being raised questioning the wisdom of releasing five top Taliban officials likely to return to the war against America for the freedom of a man who, if reports are correct, hated his country and abandoned his post on the field of battle.

Yet as the debate continues to rage about Bergdahl, the administration’s defenders have been able to put forward one coherent argument. If the Israelis can trade more than 1,000 terrorists for Gilad Shalit, one of their soldiers who had been kidnapped by Hamas, what’s so terrible about Obama bartering five Taliban prisoners for one American? As I wrote on Sunday, there are good arguments to be made that the seniority of the five released Taliban operatives as well as the implication that the U.S. is bugging out of the conflict in Afghanistan makes the American swap look even more lopsided than the Shalit deal. But the nature of the two redeemed hostages should also have told the White House that it was a mistake for them to expect to garner the applause that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got for his decision on Shalit.

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Did President Obama expect to be showered with praise for his exchange of five senior Taliban terrorists for U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl? The president defended the swap today while speaking in Europe as simply part of his obligation to leave no American behind on the field of battle, a position that is eminently defensible. But given the public splash made by the White House about this story over the weekend, it’s clear that some in the West Wing thought the retrieval of Bergdahl would dovetail nicely with the president’s West Point speech extolling his decision to abandon the war in Afghanistan. The return of the only missing American soldier from that conflict would put a period on the war Democrats once extolled as the “good war” in contrast to George W. Bush’s “bad war” in Iraq.

If a Bergdahl photo op with the prisoner’s parents at the White House was not quite the moral equivalent of the Situation Room photos on the night of Osama bin Laden’s killing, it’s possible that some in the presidential echo chamber believed it would still boost Obama’s image in a second term badly in need of a triumph. But only two days after the president walked arm-in-arm with the Bergdahl family at the White House, those expectations have been exploded.

News stories about the anger felt by Bergdahl’s army comrades who allege that he deserted rather than being captured have tainted any good feelings about the exchange. National Security Advisor Susan Rice’s tone deaf comments on ABC’s This Week claiming Bergdahl “served the United States with honor and distinction” now look to be as big a lie as her September 2012 Sunday show blitz about the Benghazi attack being the reaction to a video rather than terrorism. Congress is rightly grousing about the executive branch violating the law by not informing them of the prisoner exchange and many voices are being raised questioning the wisdom of releasing five top Taliban officials likely to return to the war against America for the freedom of a man who, if reports are correct, hated his country and abandoned his post on the field of battle.

Yet as the debate continues to rage about Bergdahl, the administration’s defenders have been able to put forward one coherent argument. If the Israelis can trade more than 1,000 terrorists for Gilad Shalit, one of their soldiers who had been kidnapped by Hamas, what’s so terrible about Obama bartering five Taliban prisoners for one American? As I wrote on Sunday, there are good arguments to be made that the seniority of the five released Taliban operatives as well as the implication that the U.S. is bugging out of the conflict in Afghanistan makes the American swap look even more lopsided than the Shalit deal. But the nature of the two redeemed hostages should also have told the White House that it was a mistake for them to expect to garner the applause that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got for his decision on Shalit.

At the time of the Shalit exchange, many in both Israel and the United States for the deal with Hamas blasted Netanyahu. He was reminded of his own writings on the subject of such prisoner swaps which spoke of the harm they do in encouraging terrorism and undermining his country’s ability to deter its enemies. But despite these compelling arguments, the overwhelming majority of Israelis cheered his decision. Gilad Shalit was a typical conscript who was merely doing his duty along with thousands of other young men and women when he was snatched by terrorists who crossed into Israeli territory. There was no question of misconduct on his part and concern about his welfare during his years of captivity became a national obsession. Shalit was considered every Israeli’s son. Leaving him in the hands of Hamas, even if the cost was the freedom of hundreds of terrorists, was unthinkable.

But unfortunately for Obama, Bergdahl is not an American version of Shalit. The emails he wrote damning the United States and the U.S. Army undermine sympathy for his plight. So do the angry denunciations of his fellow soldiers who not only resent his abandonment of his post but also point out that six Americans were killed trying to rescue a man who wasn’t loyal to his comrades. That the freedom of such a person was bought with the release of dangerous terrorists only makes it worse.

Rather than Bergdahl’s release being a cause for celebration as Rice foolishly described it, it is developing into yet another scandal dragging down the president’s public standing. And rather than diminishing in the days to come, it will only get worse as the Army is forced to begin an investigation of his behavior that is not likely to have a happy outcome for Bergdahl or his commander-in-chief.

It would have been far better for all concerned for the swap to be treated as an unfortunate necessity rather than a cause for cheering. The president didn’t have to host the Bergdahls—whose bizarre statements have only added to the embarrassment—or send Rice and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel onto the Sunday news shows to tell the American people things that were obviously not true. Obama may have thought he would bask in the applause of a grateful public like Netanyahu did after Shalit was freed, but that was never going to happen. It is arguable that had the administration done this deal without trying to sell it as a triumph, it might have come across less like another public deception. But in the days, weeks, and months to come, they will continue to pay for yet another unforced error that revealed their lack of honesty.

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Can the White House Be Trusted on Iran Deal?

President Obama’s decision to release five senior Taliban prisoners in exchange for a captive American soldier who, according to numerous media reports, was also a deserter was political malpractice. The terrorists released were not simply Taliban, but rather the Taliban leadership who helped forge the group’s relationship with al-Qaeda. Secretary of State Chuck Hagel both denied that the deal was equivalent to negotiating with terrorists and also denied that releasing such high-value terrorists in exchange for a traitor would incentivize further terrorism.

Hagel is either being disingenuous or intellectually incompetent. That Obama violated the law with the release is simply icing on the cake of poor White House judgment. National Security Advisor Susan Rice again rushed to appear on Sunday talk shows for which she was unprepared and in which she was not truthful when characterizing Bowe Bergdahl’s service. The Taliban are rightly celebrating their victory, while Obama and some of his senior aides appear genuinely surprised at the uproar which their deal has sparked.

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President Obama’s decision to release five senior Taliban prisoners in exchange for a captive American soldier who, according to numerous media reports, was also a deserter was political malpractice. The terrorists released were not simply Taliban, but rather the Taliban leadership who helped forge the group’s relationship with al-Qaeda. Secretary of State Chuck Hagel both denied that the deal was equivalent to negotiating with terrorists and also denied that releasing such high-value terrorists in exchange for a traitor would incentivize further terrorism.

Hagel is either being disingenuous or intellectually incompetent. That Obama violated the law with the release is simply icing on the cake of poor White House judgment. National Security Advisor Susan Rice again rushed to appear on Sunday talk shows for which she was unprepared and in which she was not truthful when characterizing Bowe Bergdahl’s service. The Taliban are rightly celebrating their victory, while Obama and some of his senior aides appear genuinely surprised at the uproar which their deal has sparked.

Given the detachment of the White House from reality, perhaps it’s time now to double down on the demand that the White House not be trusted to make a deal with Iran without Congress carefully vetting the terms of that deal. The United States and regional states will have to live with whatever Obama’s negotiators decide, but Obama’s team has clearly demonstrated that they have little sense of strategic consequences. Perhaps if there’s any lesson that can be learned from the Bergdahl debacle, it can be that it provides warning that Obama left to his own devices uses secrecy to shield himself from criticism, but is prone to damaging American credibility. What’s at stake with Iran’s nuclear program is simply too important to defer to Obama’s judgment alone.

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How Not to Handle a Prisoner Swap

Ronald Reagan traded arms for hostages. Benjamin Netanyahu traded more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for Corporal Gilad Shalit. Ehud Olmert traded five living terrorists–one of them responsible for killing a four-year-old girl by crushing her skull with the butt of his rifle–for two dead Israeli soldiers. So there is nothing new about making deals with terrorists or exchanging captives with them. It’s even possible that President Obama did the right thing by freeing five senior Taliban leaders in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who has been held by the Taliban since 2009. Certainly Obama as commander in chief had the power to do so even if some members of Congress are miffed at not being consulted. 

What I find offensive is that the president and his team are not treating this as a grubby and inglorious compromise–an attempt to reconcile our competing ideals of “don’t deal with terrorists” and “leave no man behind.” Instead the administration seems to be taking a victory lap. The president held a White House event with Bergdahl’s parents. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel flew to Afghanistan to commemorate the occasion. National Security Adviser Susan Rice called it “a great day for America.”

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Ronald Reagan traded arms for hostages. Benjamin Netanyahu traded more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for Corporal Gilad Shalit. Ehud Olmert traded five living terrorists–one of them responsible for killing a four-year-old girl by crushing her skull with the butt of his rifle–for two dead Israeli soldiers. So there is nothing new about making deals with terrorists or exchanging captives with them. It’s even possible that President Obama did the right thing by freeing five senior Taliban leaders in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who has been held by the Taliban since 2009. Certainly Obama as commander in chief had the power to do so even if some members of Congress are miffed at not being consulted. 

What I find offensive is that the president and his team are not treating this as a grubby and inglorious compromise–an attempt to reconcile our competing ideals of “don’t deal with terrorists” and “leave no man behind.” Instead the administration seems to be taking a victory lap. The president held a White House event with Bergdahl’s parents. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel flew to Afghanistan to commemorate the occasion. National Security Adviser Susan Rice called it “a great day for America.”

If only the president and his team showed as much passion about actually winning the war in Afghanistan. Sadly, it appears that the handling of this whole issue is symptomatic of the administration’s approach to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: Their emphasis has always been on bringing the troops home, no matter the price, not on making sure that the troops accomplish their objectives.

In the case of Bergdahl the price includes encouraging the Taliban (and other Islamist terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda) to think that we are weak and can be rolled–to think that they can win American concessions if they take Americans hostage. This makes a mockery of our criticism of allies such as France, Italy, and South Korea, which have provided payoffs to get their hostages released. And it exposes our troops to greater danger down the line, once the Guantanamo releasees return to the fight–as they surely will, even if Qatar sticks by its pledge to keep them out of trouble for a year.

And what makes it all the more annoying is that Bergdahl is hardly a hero as he is now being portrayed. We still don’t have a definitive accounting of how he was captured, but members of his unit believe he was a deserter who walked off his guard post. And they’re angry about the whole situation–as former army officer Nathan Bradley Bethea writes in the Daily Beast

Bethea served in the same battalion as Bergdahl and participated in attempts to free him in the summer of 2009. Bethea is upset, and understandably so, because good men died trying to free Bergdahl–not only in the search itself but, he argues, indirectly, because the search pulled in so many intelligence and surveillance assets that other units were left exposed to Taliban attack. Bethea writes: “The truth is: Bergdahl was a deserter, and soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down.”

If those assertions are true, then Bergdahl, now that he’s freed, should be court-martialed, because desertion in the face of the enemy is a serious offense. Whatever his ultimate fate, Bergdahl deserves our sympathy for his ordeal. His parents deserve sympathy for what they have had to endure too. But he should not be canonized and the administration should not treat his release as a high point of its foreign policy. Because surely they must have some more worthy achievements to boast of. Right?

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Only Five for One? The Bergdahl Swap is Actually Worse Than Israeli Prisoner Deals

Speaking today on ABC’s This Week National Security Advisor Susan Rice described the homecoming of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl after five years of captivity at the hands of the Taliban as “a joyous day.” No doubt, all Americans are happy that his ordeal is at an end. But as with the most famous of Rice’s previous appearances on the Sunday morning news shows when she wrongly claimed that the Benghazi terror attack was the result of film criticism run amok, the messaging was slightly off kilter. Ransoming Bergdahl is defensible but the notion that what has occurred was not a case of the U.S. negotiating with terrorists, as Rice and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel claimed on the same show, is an absurdity. At least when Israel releases terrorists to gain the freedom of one of its soldiers, the country’s leaders have the grace to treat the decision as a regrettable action made out of necessity and nothing to celebrate.

The debate over the Bergdahl swap raises comparisons to Israeli actions, such as its prisoner swap to gain the freedom of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit. Some congressional Republicans, such as House Intelligence Committee chair Mike Rogers, are criticizing the swap for the same reasons many Israelis and Americans denounced the deal in which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traded over 1,000 Palestinian terrorists to Hamas, including many murderers, for Shalit. Rogers believes that negotiating with the Taliban not only strengthens these Islamist foes of the United States but also sets a high price on hostages that will make it difficult to free others who are held by terrorists and encourage more attacks on Americans.

These are all fair points, but I have to confess that my first reaction to the headline about the five-for-one agreement mediated by officials in Qatar was puzzlement as to how the Obama administration had managed to make such a deal for only five prisoners when the Israelis are routinely forced to release hundreds or more than a thousand terrorists for only one of their own people. Is it that the Israelis are simply too easy a mark in such negotiations? Are Americans better at driving a hard bargain? But the more I’ve read about the five prisoners who have been freed in exchange for Bergdahl, the less impressed I am with the negotiating acumen of the administration. Far from cutting a better deal than the Israelis tend to be able to do, this swap may actually be far worse in terms of the potential danger of the particular individuals involved and the administration’s future attitude toward the conflict. While the Israelis often pay too high a price for their hostages, they do so without conceding defeat in the long-term struggle in which they are engaged. The Bergdahl deal appears to be not just a lopsided swap but also an indication that the U.S. may be conceding defeat to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

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Speaking today on ABC’s This Week National Security Advisor Susan Rice described the homecoming of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl after five years of captivity at the hands of the Taliban as “a joyous day.” No doubt, all Americans are happy that his ordeal is at an end. But as with the most famous of Rice’s previous appearances on the Sunday morning news shows when she wrongly claimed that the Benghazi terror attack was the result of film criticism run amok, the messaging was slightly off kilter. Ransoming Bergdahl is defensible but the notion that what has occurred was not a case of the U.S. negotiating with terrorists, as Rice and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel claimed on the same show, is an absurdity. At least when Israel releases terrorists to gain the freedom of one of its soldiers, the country’s leaders have the grace to treat the decision as a regrettable action made out of necessity and nothing to celebrate.

The debate over the Bergdahl swap raises comparisons to Israeli actions, such as its prisoner swap to gain the freedom of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit. Some congressional Republicans, such as House Intelligence Committee chair Mike Rogers, are criticizing the swap for the same reasons many Israelis and Americans denounced the deal in which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traded over 1,000 Palestinian terrorists to Hamas, including many murderers, for Shalit. Rogers believes that negotiating with the Taliban not only strengthens these Islamist foes of the United States but also sets a high price on hostages that will make it difficult to free others who are held by terrorists and encourage more attacks on Americans.

These are all fair points, but I have to confess that my first reaction to the headline about the five-for-one agreement mediated by officials in Qatar was puzzlement as to how the Obama administration had managed to make such a deal for only five prisoners when the Israelis are routinely forced to release hundreds or more than a thousand terrorists for only one of their own people. Is it that the Israelis are simply too easy a mark in such negotiations? Are Americans better at driving a hard bargain? But the more I’ve read about the five prisoners who have been freed in exchange for Bergdahl, the less impressed I am with the negotiating acumen of the administration. Far from cutting a better deal than the Israelis tend to be able to do, this swap may actually be far worse in terms of the potential danger of the particular individuals involved and the administration’s future attitude toward the conflict. While the Israelis often pay too high a price for their hostages, they do so without conceding defeat in the long-term struggle in which they are engaged. The Bergdahl deal appears to be not just a lopsided swap but also an indication that the U.S. may be conceding defeat to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Anyone who thinks the U.S. got off cheap, especially in comparison to the lopsided Israeli deals, needs to read the report by Eli Lake and Josh Rogin in the Daily Beast today about the five men who have been sprung from Gitmo for Bergdahl. These are not run-of-the-mill terror operatives but key figures in the war being waged against the U.S. and its allies. As Lake and Rogin wrote:

While not as well known as Guantanamo inmates like 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Taliban 5 were some of the worst outlaws in the U.S. war on terror. And their release will end up replenishing the diminished leadership ranks of the Afghan Taliban at a moment when the United States is winding down the war there.

The dossier on their activities is a compendium of involvement in the terror campaign against the U.S. as well as other assorted crimes such as heroin trafficking. But the main point here is that these are not, as was the case with most of the people Israel released, rank-and-file terrorists. Many of those freed by the Israelis are criminals with blood on their hands, including participation in notorious atrocities. But the Israelis have rarely released anyone in the chain of command of groups dedicated to their destruction. As Lake and Rogin detail, the five Taliban operatives are key players in the war against the U.S. in Afghanistan. Though they are not the people who pulled the triggers or exploded the bombs that killed U.S. troops and our allies, they are the people who gave some of the orders for the shedding of American blood and are thus far more important. Seen in that light, some of the outrageously lopsided deals concluded by the Israelis don’t seem quite so ill advised.

But there is more to this controversy than just the price of Bergdahl’s freedom. By releasing these five top Taliban commanders, the U.S. is demonstrating that it is throwing in the towel in the long struggle against the Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies in Afghanistan. It is spinning this mindset as a sign that the war is already either over or coming to an end, as the president said in his West Point speech this week. But the Taliban hasn’t gotten the memo about the end of the conflict. Indeed, the circumstances on the ground in Afghanistan are little different from where they were prior to the president’s correct decision to order a “surge” of U.S. troops to seize the initiative in the war. This administration has done a good job seeking to hunt down al-Qaeda operatives with drone strikes but the notion that it can keep Afghanistan from falling into the hands of these killers while both drawing down U.S. forces to a bare minimum and releasing senior Taliban commanders is laughable. Wars don’t end just because one side decides they are tired of the conflict. The Taliban have been waiting patiently for the end of the U.S. presence in the country and along with their terrorist allies believe their 2001 ouster from Kabul can be reversed.

Rice is right that President Obama had a “sacred obligation” to do whatever he could to gain the release of Sergeant Bergdahl. No American should ever be left behind if they can be rescued. But the problem here is not just the price the U.S. paid for the lone American unaccounted for after more than a dozen years of fighting in Afghanistan. Say what you will about the Israel prisoner releases and the unfortunate celebrations in which the Palestinians have celebrated the murderers freed to gain the freedom of hostages or even to restart peace negotiations. But there has never been any doubt about Israel’s determination to continue the struggle against its enemies. The same can’t be said about the Obama administration today.

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A U.S.-Taliban Prisoner Swap?

Now that peace talks are sort of on again with the Taliban–at least hopes of such talks have risen again, even if Kabul’s outrage at Taliban preening in opening an embassy of sorts in Qatar has blocked the actual start of talks–the air is once again filled with talk of a prisoner exchange. The Taliban would love it if, as a sweetener for the talks and in exchange for the release of the only American prisoner they are holding, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the Obama administration would release five senior Taliban detainees from Guantanamo.

The New York Times today has a profile of the five, and it would be hard to imagine a more repugnant bunch. As the Times notes:

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Now that peace talks are sort of on again with the Taliban–at least hopes of such talks have risen again, even if Kabul’s outrage at Taliban preening in opening an embassy of sorts in Qatar has blocked the actual start of talks–the air is once again filled with talk of a prisoner exchange. The Taliban would love it if, as a sweetener for the talks and in exchange for the release of the only American prisoner they are holding, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the Obama administration would release five senior Taliban detainees from Guantanamo.

The New York Times today has a profile of the five, and it would be hard to imagine a more repugnant bunch. As the Times notes:

Two were senior Taliban commanders said to be implicated in murdering thousands of Shiites in Afghanistan. When asked about the alleged war crimes by an interrogator, they “did not express any regret and stated they did what they needed to do in their struggle to establish their ideal state,” according to their interrogators.

There is also a former deputy director of Taliban intelligence, a former senior Taliban official said to have “strong operational ties” to various extremist militias, and a former Taliban minister accused of having sought help from Iran in attacking American forces.

If administration officials think they will win Taliban goodwill by releasing this rogue’s gallery, even as the Taliban continue to kill American soldiers, they are dreaming. Detainee releases make sense when it is clear that the movement to which the detainees belong is tired of fighting and seriously interested in making peace. That was the case with most Sunni insurgents in Iraq in 2007, which is why Gen. David Petraeus released so many of them from coalition custody. It’s not the case with the Taliban today: They remain convinced, reportedly, that they will take Kabul “in a week” once U.S. troops pull out. Making peace is not on the Taliban’s agenda in Qatar; gaining international legitimacy is.

Yet for all that, I am not completely opposed to the release of the five Taliban detainees–as long as it is understood that the point is simply to win Sgt. Bergdahl’s release. It is in general not a good policy to deal with terrorists, but democracies such as the U.S. and Israel have a long history of doing just that to win the release of their citizens; such concessions are perhaps inevitable in a liberal democracy which cares so much about its troops in particular. Israel, most recently, released some 1,000 Palestinian detainees to get Sgt. First Class Gilad Shalit out of Hamas’s hands. By Israeli standards, the exchange of five Taliban detainees for one American sergeant is a good bargain.

Would the release of the Taliban prisoners increase the risk to American troops in Afghanistan? Possibly, but the difference these five would make would be minimal, especially when so many other Taliban detainees have already been released from coalition and Afghan custody. Many more will be sprung in the future now that the Kabul government, which is notoriously corrupt, has taken control of all detention facilities in Afghanistan from the U.S.

If the administration does decide to make the prisoner swap, at least it should not fool itself that it is helping to bring peace to Afghanistan. It would simply be a gesture of mercy for an imprisoned American soldier.

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Forgotten POW Marks 3 Years of Captivity

During the weekend, the only remaining POW in Afghanistan, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl of Idaho, marked three years in captivity.

The details of his capture are still a mystery. In a recent Rolling Stone article, the Bergdahl family released previously unseen emails which detailed Bowe’s discontent with his service in Afghanistan. Many of his fellow soldiers told Rolling Stone they believe he was captured because he deserted his post. The White House and Pentagon have both refused to comment on how the Taliban captured Bergdahl and have given few details about how they have worked to return him to his family. The Pentagon has not classified him as a deserter and gave him promotions while in captivity.

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During the weekend, the only remaining POW in Afghanistan, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl of Idaho, marked three years in captivity.

The details of his capture are still a mystery. In a recent Rolling Stone article, the Bergdahl family released previously unseen emails which detailed Bowe’s discontent with his service in Afghanistan. Many of his fellow soldiers told Rolling Stone they believe he was captured because he deserted his post. The White House and Pentagon have both refused to comment on how the Taliban captured Bergdahl and have given few details about how they have worked to return him to his family. The Pentagon has not classified him as a deserter and gave him promotions while in captivity.

Despite the murky details of his capture, Bergdahl has, according to reports, attempted to escape as recently as late last year. The Daily Beast reported on his heroic attempt after years of gaining his captors’ trust:

Bergdahl successfully avoided capture for three days and two nights. The searchers finally found him, weak, exhausted, and nearly naked—he had spent three days without food or water—hiding in a shallow trench he had dug with his own hands and covered with leaves.

Even then, he put up a ferocious fight. The two gunmen who found him first were unable to subdue him. “He fought like a boxer,” [Afghan militant Hafiz] Hanif was told. It took five more militants to overpower him. Now back in custody, he is kept shackled at night, and his jailers are taking no chances.

Soon after publishing this blog post in May about Taliban prisoner exchanges, it became clear Bergdahl was the centerpoint of secret (and stalled) negotiations between the Taliban and the U.S. government. The Bergdahl family released the details of the negotiations in an attempt to pressure the Obama administration into action. Robert Bergdahl, Bowe’s father, has also reached out to insurgents himself and is in “regular e-mail contact with a man he believes is a member of the Taliban with accurate knowledge of his son.” The Bergdahl family have told the media  they feel abandoned by the Obama administration and feel the need to try to secure their son’s release themselves.

The piece in Rolling Stone speculated, while naming anonymous sources, that there are elements within the Pentagon who are loathe to exchange prisoners from Guantanamo Bay for a potential deserter. Rolling Stone also speculated that the reluctance to negotiate on the part of the Obama administration is due to their not wanting to be seen negotiating with terrorists during an election year.

Whatever the reason for the breakdown in negotiations, one would hope the Pentagon and Obama administration’s number one priority remains the safety of an American soldier held captive by a terrorist organization as ruthless as the Taliban. During his imprisonment, Bergdahl’s health has visibly deteriorated as demonstrated on videos released by his captors. The anniversary of his capture was marked locally by friends and family in a massive Crossfit workout in honor of the missing soldier but was largely absent from the national consciousness. Going into his fourth year of captivity his family released a statement, which closed with:

We’d also like to ask each of you as individuals and as a nation for your continued awareness as Bowe begins his fourth year as a prisoner. We want this to be the year we see our only son safely returned home.

We owe it to Bergdahl and his family to keep his name in our hearts and minds as we, as a nation, prioritize his release as we would if Bowe were our own son or brother.

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Taliban Exploits Grief of U.S. POW Family

The hearts of all Americans go out to the family of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, the only known U.S. soldier being held captive by the Taliban. Bergdahl was captured by the enemy in June 2009 and is thought to be in the control of the Haqqani network in the tribal areas of northwestern Pakistan. He has never been allowed to send his parents any word nor has he been visited by the Red Cross. He was last seen in a Taliban video, but U.S. officials believe he is still alive. But after years of keeping silent about the ongoing negotiations that the government has attempted to free him, the Bergdahl family went public today and discussed their son’s plight with the New York Times. Their goal is to heighten the pressure on President Obama and his foreign policy team to give in to the demands of the Taliban on the release of prisoners held by the United States and our Afghan allies.

While their frustration with the slow pace of the negotiations is understandable, we can only hope the president will resist the pressure to give in to unreasonable demands not only on the prisoner exchange but concessions that would affect the future of Afghanistan. Though the United States should make every effort to secure Sergeant Bergdahl’s safe return, his situation should not be used as a pretext for handing Afghanistan back to the Taliban and their terrorist allies.

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The hearts of all Americans go out to the family of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, the only known U.S. soldier being held captive by the Taliban. Bergdahl was captured by the enemy in June 2009 and is thought to be in the control of the Haqqani network in the tribal areas of northwestern Pakistan. He has never been allowed to send his parents any word nor has he been visited by the Red Cross. He was last seen in a Taliban video, but U.S. officials believe he is still alive. But after years of keeping silent about the ongoing negotiations that the government has attempted to free him, the Bergdahl family went public today and discussed their son’s plight with the New York Times. Their goal is to heighten the pressure on President Obama and his foreign policy team to give in to the demands of the Taliban on the release of prisoners held by the United States and our Afghan allies.

While their frustration with the slow pace of the negotiations is understandable, we can only hope the president will resist the pressure to give in to unreasonable demands not only on the prisoner exchange but concessions that would affect the future of Afghanistan. Though the United States should make every effort to secure Sergeant Bergdahl’s safe return, his situation should not be used as a pretext for handing Afghanistan back to the Taliban and their terrorist allies.

To its credit, the Times had not previously run a story on the effort to free Bergdahl because it was understood that publicity did not enhance his safety and merely aided the Taliban’s negotiating position. But the recent decision of the Taliban to break off the talks about Bergdahl prompted his family to go to the Times with their complaint that the administration isn’t being sufficiently accommodating to their son’s captors. The Bergdahls are worried that pressure from Congress not to negotiate with terrorists is influencing the president to be too tough. They hope by going public with their son’s story, they can generate pressure on the administration to give in. Moreover, the Times seems to think there are some in the government who welcome this pressure as they, too, would like to craft a deal with the Taliban that would effectively sell Afghanistan out.

I don’t fault the Bergdahls. The fact that, as the Times reports, they are Ron Paul supporters who oppose the war in Afghanistan is irrelevant to their mission to push for any deal to get their son back. Their only interest is in getting him home in one piece. The future of Afghanistan, the Taliban and the security interests of the region or the United States isn’t their concern–but it is the responsibility of the administration. As Bethany noted earlier this week, the administration has considered releasing Taliban prisoners without seeking the release of Sergeant Bergdahl in return.

If the Bergdahl case was like the lopsided prisoner exchanges conducted by Israel in order to obtain the release of prisoners like Gilad Shalit, drastic concessions would be understandable if regrettable, as it could be defended as part of the commander-in-chief’s duty not to leave any soldier behind. But as the Times makes clear, the Taliban’s goal is not so much to extract the highest possible price in prisoners for Bergdahl as it is to enhance its diplomatic efforts to force a peace deal that would bring them back to power. That is not something the administration should countenance. Nor should ordinary Americans who sympathize with the Bergdahls allow their emotions to cloud their reason.

Far from helping to free their son, the Bergdahls’ publicity offensive and any pressure they can help generate on the administration will only strengthen the bargaining position of Islamist terrorists. Much as Hamas and Hezbollah used Israeli prisoner families to make it harder for Jerusalem to negotiate, the Taliban will ruthlessly use the Bergdahls as long as it suits them.

The president should do everything in his power to bring Sergeant Bergdahl home including the paying of a ransom of some sort. But he cannot allow the family’s publicity efforts to influence him to sacrifice everything Americans have fought for in Afghanistan in the last decade.

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Why Are We Releasing, Not Exchanging, Taliban Prisoners?

Today, the Washington Post reported,

The United States has for several years been secretly releasing high-level detainees from a military prison in Afghanistan as part of negotiations with insurgent groups, a bold effort to quell violence but one that U.S. officials acknowledge poses substantial risks.

As the United States has unsuccessfully pursued a peace deal with the Taliban, the “strategic release” program has quietly served as a live diplomatic channel, allowing American officials to use prisoners as bargaining chips in restive provinces where military power has reached its limits.

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Today, the Washington Post reported,

The United States has for several years been secretly releasing high-level detainees from a military prison in Afghanistan as part of negotiations with insurgent groups, a bold effort to quell violence but one that U.S. officials acknowledge poses substantial risks.

As the United States has unsuccessfully pursued a peace deal with the Taliban, the “strategic release” program has quietly served as a live diplomatic channel, allowing American officials to use prisoners as bargaining chips in restive provinces where military power has reached its limits.

Almost exactly four years ago, in May 0f 2008 during an address before the Israeli Knesset then-candidate Barack Obama stated,

George Bush knows that I have never supported engagement with terrorists, and the president’s extraordinary politicization of foreign policy and the politics of fear do nothing to secure the American people or our stalwart ally Israel.

Besides a general easing of tension which this policy is trying to foster, there is one very real concession that the president has seemed to ignore in his concessions to the devil (they’re only called deals if you get something in return, which we have not).

On June 30, 2009, almost three years ago, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl of Idaho was kidnapped by the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network. He is the only prisoner of war currently held by the Taliban and recent video releases seem to indicate that he is being kept alive for ransom by the group. A month after his capture the president issued a statement, explaining that he was “heartbroken” over Sgt. Bergdahl’s situation and vowed to bring him home. In three years, this seems to be the only public statement made by the President about Bergdahl.

In December, The Daily Beast was the only outlet to report on a heroic escape attempt by the sergeant. After working for over two years to gain the trust of his captors, Bergdahl jumped out of a first-story window, running into the wilderness. The Daily Beast tells the story,

Mullah Sangin and his brother Mullah Balal, who had been put in charge of the prisoner, organized a search as soon as the escape was discovered. Nevertheless, the sources say, Bergdahl successfully avoided capture for three days and two nights. The searchers finally found him, weak, exhausted, and nearly naked—he had spent three days without food or water—hiding in a shallow trench he had dug with his own hands and covered with leaves.

Even then, he put up a ferocious fight. The two gunmen who found him first were unable to subdue him. “He fought like a boxer,” Hanif was told. It took five more militants to overpower him. Now back in custody, he is kept shackled at night, and his jailers are taking no chances.

This is the caliber of soldier that the United States and its military produces, the American that the president seems to have forgotten about for almost three years.

Shortly before Bergdahl’s kidnapping, the United States was comfortable negotiating the release of terrorists in exchange for British hostages. Andrew McCarthy at National Review made the connection:

And although the administration has attempted to pass off Laith Qazali’s release as a necessary compromise of American national interests for the purportedly greater good of Iraqi reconciliation, the camouflage is thin indeed. Transparently, the terrorist has been freed as a quid pro quo for the release of British hostages. According to the New York Times, Sami al-Askari, another Maliki mouthpiece, told an interviewer:

This is a very sensitive topic because you know the position that the Iraqi government, the U.S. and British governments, and all the governments do not accept the idea of exchanging hostages for prisoners. . . . So we put it in another format, and we told them that if they want to participate in the political process they cannot do so while they are holding hostages. And we mentioned to the American side that they cannot join in the political process and release their hostages while their leaders are behind bars or imprisoned.

In 2008 it was Barack Obama’s policy not to engage with terrorists under any circumstances. In 2009, his administration was comfortable exchanging American prisoners for British hostages. In 2012, it has become clear it was the long-standing policy of the administration to release American-held terrorist prisoners while asking for nothing in exchange, not even an American POW.

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