The feel-good story of freed American prisoner of war Bowe Bergdahl continued to spiral into the latest of a long string of foreign policy messes for the Obama administration – with new reports confirming that Bergdahl, 28, had abandoned his Army post in Afghanistan before being captured.
A former senior military officer told The New York Times that in June 2009 Bergdahl left a note in his tent saying he did not support the mission in Afghanistan, that he was disillusioned with the Army, and that he was leaving to start a new life in the remote border areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. According to The Times, he left his weapon and body armor behind, bringing just a backpack, notebook, writing materials, knife and water.
Bergdahl was stationed in the Paktika Province along Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan, one of the most violent theaters in the entire war. His decision to leave unarmed - a huge error in judgment - almost ensured his capture.
This curious choice comes from a man with a unique upbringing. Bergdahl, raised in rural Idaho, was homeschooled and had interests from ballet to foreign languages to sailing. His father, Robert, grew a bushy beard popular with the Taliban in an effort to show kinship with the group. The elder Bergdahl said he was planning to go to Afghanistan to try to free his son if the government didn’t act.
Anger from Both Sides
The controversy also gained traction politically, with Republican strategists setting up interviews with soldiers who served alongside Bergdahl. These soldiers were upset that they were hunting for a deserter.
“Yes, I’m angry,” Joshua Cornelison, a former medic in Sergeant Bergdahl’s platoon, told The Times. “Everything that we did in those days was to advance the search for Bergdahl. If we were doing some mission and there was a reliable report that Bergdahl was somewhere, our orders were that we were to quit that mission and follow that report.”
These U.S. soldiers claimed that while the official search for Bergdahl lasted only eight days, they were ordered to follow up on any rumors about his disappearance for three months. It’s unclear whether eight soldiers were killed in the search, but at least two – Pfc. Matthew Martinek and Lt. Darryn Andrews – were killed in an ambush during what soldiers called a mission to find Bergdahl.
DOD officials told The Times it was not clear whether these two soldiers were killed looking for Bergdahl. In a statement, Secretary of the Army John McHugh said that they would speak to Bergdahl about the circumstances of his capture once he is healthy.
“The Army will then review this in a comprehensive, coordinated effort that will include speaking with Sgt. Bergdahl to better learn from him the circumstances of his disappearance and captivity. All other decisions will be made thereafter, and in accordance with appropriate regulations, policies and practices."
Whatever the outcome of the Army’s inquiry, it’s clear the Obama administration has been caught off guard by the controversy surrounding Bergdahl’s release and the trade for five Taliban members who were imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. Khair Ulla Said Wali Khairkhwa, Mullah Mohammad Fazl, Mullah Norullah Nori, Abdul Haq Wasiq and Mohammad Nabi Omari – the names of those who were released – are all high-ranking members of the Taliban. On Tuesday, congressional furor over their release, as well as Obama’s failure to tell lawmakers about the swap, continued to grow.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said the White House had informed Congress about efforts to free Bergdahl two years ago, but that it did not consult lawmakers before Saturday’s deal.
“There was every expectation that the administration would re-engage with Congress, as it did before, and the only reason it did not is because the administration knew it faced serious and sober bipartisan concern and opposition,” Boehner said.
“The administration has invited serious questions into how this exchange went down and the calculations the White House and relevant agencies made in moving forward without consulting Congress despite assurances it would re-engage with members on both sides of the aisle.”
Republicans aren't the only ones angry about the lack of consultation and the details of the swap, which could well become an issue in the elections this year and in 2016. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said she received a phone call from Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken on Monday, apologizing.
"He apologized and said it was an oversight," she added. She also said lawmakers were opposed to the idea of a prisoner swap when the administration raised the possibility back in 2011.
There are also reports that Bergdahl could have been freed years earlier. A 2012 Rolling Stone report said tribal elders from a village close to the American outpost arranged a deal in which Bergdahl would be swapped for 15 low-level prisoners and cash. An American officer refused the deal — though it's not exactly clear why.
The Daily Beast on Tuesday quoted a former administration official as saying that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton "was very skeptical" of negotiations for Bergdahl's release in 2011 and 2012. Clinton, the report said, demanded tougher conditions for a deal that what Obama accepted last week. Clinton on Tuesday offered a fairly tepid defense of the deal. "I think we have a long way to go before we really know how this is going to play out," she said.
Memories of Tillman
The Bergdahl affair is reminiscent of an earlier cover up in the Afghan war. When former NFL player Pat Tillman was killed in 2004, the Pentagon tried to paint his death as heroic. It was the opposite: He was killed by friendly fire.
The Obama administration tried to create a similar narrative by painting Bergdahl’s release as a simple tale of good vs. evil, as a fitting end to the war in Afghanistan. This was either a horrible miscalculation or a case of extreme naiveté; in war, nothing is black and white.
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