Fred Kaplan writes: My guess is that very few among us remembered — or had ever heard of — Bowe Bergdahl until his release made headlines this weekend. Still, the U.S. military cherishes this same principle (leave no soldier behind) [as does Israel], and his recovery is cause for satisfaction — but not much more than that.
One difference between this case and many others is that Bergdahl wandered off his base. He wasn’t abducted or captured while on patrol. Rather, on the night of June 30, 2009, he simply got up, took his compass and a few other supplies (though not his weapons), and walked away. It’s not clear why. (After he’s nursed back to health, an Army investigation will presumably find out.)
In a lengthy 2012 Rolling Stone article, Michael Hastings painted a picture of Bergdahl as a moralistic home-schooled adventurer, enticed by the romance of do-good soldiers (he tried to enlist in the French Foreign Legion), who studied Pashto, took the nation-building doctrine seriously, grew disillusioned with the Army’s mission and disgruntled by his own unit’s incompetence — and walked off into the mountains. On the other hand, Nathan Bradley Bethea, a retired Army captain who served in the same battalion, recalls Bergdahl — in the Daily Beast and a BBC interview — as a mentally unstable misfit who should never have been allowed to join the service.
Either way (and the two portraits aren’t mutually exclusive), Bethea is probably right that soldiers from Bergdahl’s own unit “died trying to track him down.” Not in some Saving Private Ryan–like search, but aircraft and drones were probably diverted from normal military tasks in the hunt for Pfc. Bergdahl, leaving several units unprotected in the process. (He has been promoted to sergeant, for service, during the years of his captivity.) Again, this is what servicemen and women do for comrades lost in harm’s way; it’s part of their mission, a vital aspect of military culture. But it’s a bit less noble, it feels more like a burden than a duty, when the lost soul got lost on his own free will, when he deserted his post and abandoned his fellow soldiers — whatever the reason.
And so, it felt a bit discordant when Secretary Hagel made a victory lap around Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, proclaiming, “This is a happy day, we got one of our own back.” And, though more understandable, it seemed a bit excessive, as well, when President Obama called it “a good day” while standing before the White House press corps alongside Bergdahl’s parents. (A low-profile photo-op might have been more appropriate.)
There are a couple more misconceptions in this saga. First, while Obama and his diplomats made the deal on their own (in line with his powers as commander-in-chief), it’s not true that he left Congress out of the picture. He briefed a small group of senators in January 2012, when a deal first seemed in the offing. Sen. John McCain reportedly threw a fit, objecting that the detainees to be released had killed American soldiers, but after talking with John Kerry (at the time, still a senator and a friend), came around to the idea. (This may be why McCain, though displeased with the detainees’ release, is not raising his usual hell in public appearances now.)
Second, it’s not the case — at least if things work out as planned — that the five detainees, some of whom were high-level Taliban officers in their younger days, will go back and rejoin the fight. The deal requires them to remain in Qatar for one year; after that, Americans and Qataris will continue to monitor them — though it’s not yet clear what that means; in the coming days, someone should clarify things.
There’s one more potential bit of good news. This whole exercise has demonstrated that the Taliban’s diplomatic office in Qatar does have genuine links to the Taliban high command. (A few years ago, when fledgling peace talks sputtered and then failed, many concluded that it was a freelance operation unworthy of attention.) And the fact that the exchange came off with clockwork precision (see the Wall Street Journal’s fascinating account of how it happened) suggests that deals with the Taliban are possible, and that a deal signed can be delivered. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: The five were all high-level Taliban members, in their mid-to-late forties, with prominent political or military careers dating back before the American invasion. Counterterrorism experts described the men as effectively gray beards, and unlikely to go back to active fighting. But a concern held by some of those experts and many American officials, including some senior military officers, is that the men will give a boost to the Taliban and provide the leadership with proof of its cohesiveness.
The most important figure is Khirullah Said Wali Khairkhwa, 47, a founding member of the Taliban and a confidant of Mullah Omar. He was the governor of Herat Province in western Afghanistan when the Taliban ruled, and is viewed by many officials in the Afghan government as a reasonable figure and possible interlocutor for future talks.
Mullah Mohammad Fazl, also known as Mullah Fazel Mazloom, was the deputy defense minister and commander of all Taliban troops in northern Afghanistan at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. A short, thickset man with a reputation for cruelty, he is accused by human rights organizations and his opponents of presiding over the massacres of Shiite and Tajik Sunni Muslims across parts of central and northern Afghanistan.
Trapped with thousands of his Taliban fighters in northern Afghanistan under the American bombing campaign in 2001, he surrendered to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, along with the Taliban governor of Balkh Province, Mullah Norullah Noori, who was also released Saturday.
The other two detainees, Abdul Haq Wasiq, the Taliban’s former deputy minister of intelligence, and Mohammad Nabi Omari, a former high-level Taliban security official, were both detained after reaching out to American officials after the invasion in an offer to help the new power in their country, officials said.
Though the released men have played no role in the renewed Taliban insurgency during their incarceration, many in the Taliban put a high premium on getting the five men back. That included members of the Haqqani militant network, who have claimed loyalty to Mullah Omar even though they carry out independent operations, and who were the people holding Sergeant Bergdahl.
“The Haqqanis will get kudos for being seen to deliver something for the movement,” said Michael Semple, an Afghanistan expert and former adviser to the European Union Mission in Kabul. “They can say, ‘We are Taliban, and we are integral to the movement.’ ”
On Sunday, Mullah Omar himself broke a long silence to hail the men’s return, saying it brought the insurgents “closer to the harbor of victory.” [Continue reading…]