WASHINGTON (AP) — That feel-good moment in the Rose Garden seems like a long time ago. Just a week after the president announced that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl had been freed in Afghanistan, details emerging about the soldier, the deal and how the rescue came together are only adding to the list of questions.
Why did Bergdahl leave his military post in the first place? Should he be punished as a deserter? Did U.S. troops die looking for him? Was the swap — Bergdahl’s freedom for that of five Taliban commanders — a good deal for the United States or the Taliban, or both? Did the U.S. negotiate with terrorists? Why did President Obama OK the prisoner swap? And why now?
A look at what’s known — and unknown — about saving Sgt. Bergdahl:
On June 30, 2009, when he disappeared from his infantry unit, Bergdahl was a 23-year-old private first class who had been in Afghanistan just five months. Back home in central Idaho, he’d been known as a free spirit who worked as a barista and loved to dance ballet. After he disappeared, fellow soldiers recalled, he’d made some odd comments about the possibility of getting lost in the mountains and whether he could ship belongings home. Rolling Stone magazine later reported that Bergdahl had sent his parents emails suggesting he’d lost faith in the Army’s mission there and was considering deserting. By 2010, the Pentagon had concluded that Bergdahl had voluntarily walked away from his outpost. During the five years he was held by the Taliban, he was automatically bumped up in rank to sergeant. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says Bergdahl’s next promotion to staff sergeant, which was to happen soon, is no longer automatic now that he has been freed.
Within weeks of Bergdahl’s disappearance, video surfaced revealing that he had been taken captive by the Taliban, who were embroiled in a bloody battle to topple the Afghan government and reclaim power. It’s believed that Bergdahl was held in eastern Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan under supervision of the Haqqani network, a Taliban ally that the U.S. deems a terrorist organization. Over the next five years, the Taliban trickled out at least a half-dozen videos of Bergdahl in captivity. The most recent one was a proof-of-life video taken in December that seemed to show him in declining health. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said Bergdahl was held under “good conditions,” and was given fresh fruit and any other foods he requested. He said the soldier enjoyed playing soccer as well as reading, including English-language books about Islam. Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar said the swap of Bergdahl for five of his men was a significant achievement for the organization, which is angling to increase its influence in post-war Afghanistan.
The Pentagon initially said it was “sparing no effort” to find Bergdahl, with members of his own unit involved in the hunt for their former comrade. But the search effort waned after it appeared he had been taken to Pakistan — out of bounds for American forces. No high-stakes rescue effort was launched, mostly because of a lack of actionable intelligence and fears that Bergdahl might be killed during a raid. Instead, the U.S. kept tabs on him with spies, drones and satellites as negotiations to get him back played out in fits and starts. Some of Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers have said he should bear the blame for any deaths of soldiers killed or harmed while searching for him. The military hasn’t confirmed a link to any such deaths.
Bergdahl’s freedom was negotiated in exchange for the release of five high-level Taliban officials from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The five were the most senior Afghans still at the prison, all held since 2002. They are: Mohammad Fazl, whom Human Rights Watch says could be prosecuted for war crimes for presiding over the mass killing of Shiite Muslims in Afghanistan in 2000 and 2001 as the Taliban sought to consolidate their control over the country; Abdul Haq Wasiq, who served as the Taliban deputy minister of intelligence and was in direct contact with supreme leader Mullah Omar as well as other senior Taliban figures, according to military documents; Mullah Norullah Nori, who was a senior Taliban commander in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif when the Taliban fought U.S. forces in late 2001. Khairullah Khairkhwa, who served in various Taliban positions including interior minister and as a military commander and had direct ties to Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden, according to U.S. military documents, and Mohammed Nabi, who served as chief of security for the Taliban in Qalat, Afghanistan, according to the military documents.
Several factors helped seal a deal after all this time. Interest in bringing Bergdahl home increased as Obama worked to complete plans for withdrawing nearly all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, which would leave fewer resources to keep tabs on the soldier and get him out. U.S. officials say they were increasingly worried about Bergdahl’s health, although the video they used to justify those concerns was six months old. Then, this week, administration officials told senators in a closed-door briefing the Taliban had threatened to kill Bergdahl if the proposed prisoner exchange became public, requiring quick action. The administration decided it couldn’t follow a legal requirement to give Congress 30 days’ notice of plans to release detainees from Guantanamo.
Critics are asking whether one soldier was worth trading for five Taliban figures, especially when that soldier’s loyalty to the Army has been questioned. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., complained the U.S. had released the “Taliban dream team.” On the other hand, State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said the five were likely to be transferred to another country at some point anyway. So the dealmakers reasoned “we should get something for them,” she said. Still, Rob Williams, the national intelligence officer for South Asia, told the Senate Intelligence Committee this week that four of the five were expected to resume activities with the Taliban, according to two senior congressional officials who were not authorized to speak publicly because the session was classified. The officials did not say which four.
It was a celebratory moment when Obama stood in the Rose Garden with Bergdahl’s parents last Saturday to announce that their son had been released. But the White House soon was on the defensive both for failing to notify Congress about the arrangement and for the terms of the deal. Obama cast Bergdahl’s rescue as an easy call, regardless of how he came to be captured, saying: “Whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American soldier back if he’s held in captivity. Period. Full stop.”
Senior legislators had been briefed more than two years ago about the possibility of the prisoner swap, stirring up significant opposition among both Democrats and Republicans to the idea of trading Bergdahl for the five Taliban. More than a year went by without further consultation on the matter, and then suddenly it was a done deal, despite a law requiring 30 days’ notice to Congress before Guantanamo detainees are released. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said — before the explanation of the death threat — that the administration couldn’t afford to wait a month in a tense, fast-moving situation. “That would have seriously imperiled us ever getting him out,” he said of Bergdahl. The White House apologized to senior lawmakers for failing to give them advance notice.
Obama said his determination to bring Bergdahl home was grounded in a “pretty sacred rule” that the U.S. doesn’t leave behind men or women in uniform. But his critics say the deal violated another basic U.S. tenet: Don’t negotiate with terrorists, making it more likely that other Americans will be snatched as bargaining chips. “Every soldier on the ground should be upset by this,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. The Obama administration insisted the U.S. didn’t make concessions to terrorists; it simply negotiated a prisoner swap with enemies, just as has been done in previous wars. While the Haqqanis are listed as a terrorist organization by the State Department, the Taliban are not.
The administration made sure that the negotiations that produced Bergdahl’s release went through intermediaries to keep the Taliban at arms’ length. Enter Qatar, a tiny Gulf state with channels to Islamist groups relationships with the West. The Qataris served as a go-between for months, including the intense final days of negotiations. Qatar has an ongoing role in ensuring the five released prisoners remain there for at least a year, under a memo of understanding with the U.S.
The military has a program to ease a former captive back into normal life. In military parlance, it’s known as “reintegration,” and Bergdahl, is working his way through its early stages at a U.S. military hospital in Germany. Each case is different, and Bergdahl’s is especially complicated. That is partly because he was in captivity for so long and partly because he has been — or soon will be — made aware of accusations that he deserted his post and willingly sought out the Taliban. A military psychologist who briefed reporters at the Pentagon said negative publicity can “hugely” complicate the process of preparing a former captive or hostage for his return home. That would seem to suggest that Bergdahl faces a potentially lengthy reintegration.
At some point Bergdahl will be transferred to an Army hospital in Texas. Hagel has cautioned against a rush to judgment against the 28-year-old soldier. But Dempsey has said U.S. military leaders have no intention of “looking away from misconduct.” There are a variety of possible offenses related to an unapproved absence, and a number of potential actions: Bergdahl could be tried by court-martial for desertion. He could be dishonorably discharged. He could be given a non-judicial punishment for a lesser charge, such as being away without leave. If convicted and sentenced, he could be given prison credit for time already served under the Taliban.
The deal may be done but the politics of the matter are just revving up. Congressional hearings begin in the next week, and members of Congress will be eager to criticize the terms of the release and the administration’s foreign policy. Despite criticism from both parties, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., accused Republicans of playing politics. On Wednesday, he read aloud past statements from Republicans who said no U.S. service member should be left behind.
THE PRISON AT GUANTANAMO: The Bergdahl deal underscores the difficulties that Obama has had in delivering on his 2008 campaign promise to shut down the U.S. prison. Congress has gradually eased its restrictions on releasing Guantanamo detainees, but there is still considerable concern that freed detainees could resume hostilities against the U.S. Of the remaining 149 prisoners at Guantanamo, 78 have been approved for transfers to their homelands or a third country, and 30 have been referred for prosecution. The U.S. says nearly 40 prisoners are too dangerous to release but can’t be charged for a number of reasons, often because there isn’t enough evidence against them. Officials have been trying to chip away at that number with a Periodic Review Board. The five Taliban released in exchange for Bergdahl came from that last group.
THE TALKING POINTS
National Security Adviser Susan Rice said the day after Bergdahl’s release that he had served with “honor and distinction,” a phrase that rankled some who consider his actions less than honorable. It was Rice’s second problematic TV appearance, the first being her now-debunked comments after the attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. This time, Rice said she was speaking respectfully of anyone who volunteered for the military in a time of war.
THE WIDER CONTEXT: Could the Bergdahl swap be part of a larger effort to start peace talks with the Taliban? The United States has indeed made past efforts to connect with the Taliban, unrelated to Bergdahl. Talks about releasing the five senior Taliban reach back to at least late 2010. In the beginning, the name of Bergdahl was not part of the talks. The Taliban wanted prisoners released and the U.S. sought confidence-building gestures with the ultimate aim of bringing hostilities in Afghanistan to an end. But when Afghan President Hamid Karzai found out about the talks, he was furious and they fell apart. U.S.-Taliban talks began again in 2013, again with prisoner swaps as a first confidence-building step, but again fell apart. Now, with a swap done, the question is whether the U.S. would try again, whether the next Afghan government will risk talks with the militants, and whether the Taliban themselves wish to negotiate or stay on the course of war.