RANCHO SANTA FE, Ca., June 2, 2014 – The United States’ military commitment to “no man left behind” was briefly resuscitated from its politically-weakened condition when Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was retrieved from the Taliban-aligned Haqqani terrorist network in return for five members of the Taliban who had been held as prisoners in Guantanamo. The incongruities of Sgt. Bergdahl’s captivity and release accentuate the political maneuverings of our Nation’s major Parties and the pendulum of irrational action that swings between them.
The fact pattern surrounding the return of America’s last prisoner of war is particularly interesting.
Sgt. Bergdahl went missing on June 30, 2009. His official status was temporarily “Duty Status Whereabouts Unknown” (DUSTWUN). After he appeared in a Haqqani video three days later, his status was changed to “Missing-Captured,” which it remained until his release.
You will note that his rank changed during his captivity. He was promoted to Specialist on June 10, 2010, and to Sergeant on June 12, 2011. As a Missing-Captured, he was entitled to be considered for all promotions for which he was eligible (along with all associated pay and allowances). The significance of this should become obvious later.
The Haqqani network originally demanded the release of 21 Afghan prisoners along with Aafia Siddiqui and $1 million. One could argue that the $1 million was a tribute to Dr. Evil, but most people would agree with characterizing the 21 prisoners and Aafia Siddiqui as serious terrorists.
This ultimatum eventually eroded to a demand for the five Taliban operatives who ultimately were traded for Sgt. Bergdahl:
Mohammad Fazl, the Taliban’s former Deputy Defense Minister;
Abdul Haq Wasiq, the Taliban’s former Deputy Minister of Intelligence
Norullah Noori, a former interim Provincial Governor who, along with two other Governors, is accused of being responsible for alleged massacres of Shi’ite and Uzbek civilians;
Khairullah Khairkhwa, a former Taliban official and Governor of Herat; and
Mohammad Nabi Omari, who allegedly admitted serving Al Qaeda and/or the Taliban in a non-military capacity prior to 9/11 but who also claimed to be a loyal supporter of Afghan President Karzai as well as a covert operative for U.S. Intelligence.
The interesting component of this deal is that it appears to have been on the table since 2011. The only “significant” change is that the Qatar government has promised to receive these individuals and require them to stay with family members in Qatar for a minimum of one year. If that was the only “sticking point” and it still took three years to negotiate the exchange, we should be very concerned about how our nuclear negotiations are going with Iran.
To complicate matters, there are nearly as many stories about how and why Sgt. Bergdahl went missing as there are people in the exchange.
There are those who argue that Sgt. Bergdahl was a deserter. Perhaps that might explain why no attempt was made to extract him from his Haqqani captors. Then again, it is difficult to reconcile two promotions in rank with someone who was believed to have been a deserter.
The Taliban claimed that Sgt. Bergdahl was drunk when it captured him. Yet, in the first video that was released following his capture, Sgt. Bergdahl asserted that he had fallen behind his unit while on patrol. Why would the Taliban allow him to make that claim in a video if its story was true?
Others have suggested that Sgt. Bergdahl was mentally unstable and simply wandered away. On this week’s Face the Nation, CBS News’ National Security Correspondent, David Martin conjectured, “He (Bergdahl) went walkabout. He just walked off his base without his weapon, without telling anybody. I mean, he has a lot of explaining to do about how he was captured. He has some idea about being able to walk across the breadth of Afghanistan. And, you know, it was a bad mistake.”
This theory appears to be based upon a fellow soldier’s comment that Sgt. Bergdahl once said, “If this deployment is lame, I’m just going to walk off into the mountains of Pakistan.” It also appears to be somewhat irresponsible reporting since it ignores the other possibilities.
Whose version is accurate? Only Sgt. Bergdahl and a few members of the Taliban know for sure.
With this background, let’s explore the myriad of incongruities with which Democratic and Republican leaders have positioned this story as compared to how they view the attacks on the consulate and annex in Benghazi, which left four Americans dead.
Republican leaders, such as Sen. John McCain, have been quite vocal about the Obama Administration’s failure to honor the principle of “no one left behind” in the case of Benghazi. They excoriated the Administration for failing to authorize any attempt to save those who were under attack at the consulate. Yet, many of those same individuals have been critical of the Obama Administration for applying that principle of “no one left behind” to Sgt. Bergdahl.
In the latter case, they distinguish the circumstances by saying, “The United States should not negotiate with terrorists.” They claim that the Haqqani network is a terrorist organization and that the five released “detainees” are terrorists as well.
The latter point is particularly interesting because Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel stated on Meet the Press: “We didn’t negotiate with terrorists. Sgt. Bergdahl is a prisoner of war, that’s a normal process in getting your prisoners back.” It should be noted that our military abandoned the use of the term “prisoner of war” in the year 2000. Perhaps someone should tell Sec. Hagel.
Semantics aside: Should the principle of “no one left behind” be objectively or subjectively applied? If left to the latter, political influence can play a nefarious role. No less of an authority than former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says so.
In an excerpt from her soon-to-be-released book, Hard Choices, former-Sec. Clinton states that a “regrettable amount of misinformation, speculation, and flat-out deceit by some in politics and the media” exists with respect to Benghazi. Going forward, it appears that she intends to occupy the moral high ground when she writes: “I will not be a part of a political slugfest on the backs of dead Americans. It’s just plain wrong, and it’s unworthy of our great country. Those who insist on politicizing the tragedy will have to do so without me.”
Of course, 2012 was a different time. It was an election year. Some might suggest former Sec. Clinton was guilty of “politicizing the tragedy” when she was the first to assert that the attack was predicated upon a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Islamic Internet video. Is it possible that she was referring to her own actions when she referenced the “regrettable amount of misinformation, speculation, and flat-out deceit by some in politics”?
While Ms. Clinton ostensibly accepts responsibility for the associated loss of life, she quickly buffers that position by pointing to “the heartbreaking human stakes of every decision we make.” She also takes the liberty to blame the misinformation on our Intelligence community; suggesting that the video scenario was the best information they had at the time.
That explanation might be credible had Robert Lovell, a retired Brigadier General, not testified to the contrary before Congress. Ret. Brig. Gen. Lovell, who was serving as Deputy Director for Intelligence and Knowledge Development Directorate J-2 for AFRICOM at the time of the attack, testified, “… what we did know quite early on was that this was a hostile action. This was no demonstration gone terribly awry.”
To protect its Presidential nominee in 2012, the Democratic Party had to bury the principle of “no one left behind” beneath a storyline that remains as implausible today as it was then. However, with the Veterans Administration crisis hovering over President Obama’s head, it may have been time to trot the principal back out to demonstrate how committed his Administration is to every member of our military; besides, it’s another election year… and times change.
In his announcement of the “prisoner” exchange, President Obama even referred to the principle of “no one left behind” as an “ironclad promise.” One can only wonder why that was not the driving force behind his Administration’s reaction to the consulate attack on September 11, 2012.
Of course, the Republican Party, which has been championing every kind of investigation of Benghazi except a non-partisan one, now finds itself on the other side of the “no one left behind” argument. Where has the outrage of the Party been during the last five years when it comes to freeing Sgt. Bergdahl? Where is the conservative support for his return to the United States today other than from an obligatory perspective?
Instead, we are witnessing Republican indignation over the release of the five members of the Taliban who were required to make the exchange. After all, “we don’t negotiate with terrorists.”
While Sec. Hagel’s “prisoner of war” rhetoric may be dated, isn’t his theory somewhat correct? Aren’t we at war in Afghanistan? Wasn’t Sgt. Bergdahl stationed there as a member of our military? Must we always send a S.E.A.L. Team to attempt a dangerous rescue of Americans held in captivity to feel conservatively fulfilled?
If we did elect to pursue the latter course of action, the Republican Party might be further torn. Should it be delighted by the free market aspect of Hollywood’s inevitable portrayal of the mission, or should it be appalled by the blatant political exploitation it would inherently assign to any such movie that was produced while a Democrat served as President?
Rep. Adam Kinzinger (a Republican Member of the House and an Iraq and Afghanistan War veteran) raised other concerns on NBC’s Meet the Press. He said, “I’m going to celebrate him [Bergdahl] coming home, [but] the release of five mid- to high-level Taliban is shocking to me, especially not coming to Congress (referencing the Administration’s decision to execute the exchange without first informing appropriate Congressional committees as is required by law). You now are going to have five people on the ground targeting American troops, the Afghan troops, and the Afghan people. There are a lot of questions that need to be asked.”
It is not the first time the Bush or Obama Administrations have released “enemy combatants” and some have returned to terrorist activities. While records are scarce and the exact numbers are difficult to corroborate, approximately 700 detainees have been brought to Guantanamo. Only about 150 remain. Do the math.
With respect to the issue of “notice:” Selectively choosing whether to comply with Federal law does not seem to be a barrier to this Administration. It has aggressively decided which laws it will and will not apply (including elements of the Constitution). It will be interesting to see if this latest disregard for the law is just a test. Perhaps the Obama Administration is just trying to empty Guantanamo since it has failed to deliver on its 2008 campaign promise to close it.
Then again, maybe the hawkish Republicans need not worry about terrorists returning to the battlefield. Given the President’s propensity to use drones, maybe the released detainees are merely new targets.
Doesn’t the American public have the right to demand some degree of continuity from the Parties other than their routine disagreement? Consistency seems to be almost as foreign a concept to our elected officials as is the Constitution.
In the meantime, let’s put our unwavering allegiance to the concept of “no one left behind” in perspective. The Joint POW/MIA Accounting is still looking for about 83,436 U.S. service members. While the vast majority are from World War II, 1,666 are attributable to Vietnam, 7,957 to Korea, and 126 to Cold War. We may need to restock Guantanamo.
T.J. O’Hara is an internationally recognized author, speaker, and strategic consultant in the private and public sectors. In 2012, he emerged as the leading independent candidate for the Office of President of the United States and the first nominee of the Whig Party in over 150 years.
This article first appeared in T.J. O’Hara’s recurring column, A Civil Assessment, in the Communities Digital News (CDN).