With the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the last American POW in Afghanistan, from his Taliban captors now complete, a painful chapter in the more than dozen-year American conflict in Afghanistan has closed. A new chapter of debate, however, is going to reemerge in its place. The release of five senior Taliban leaders in exchange for Sgt. Bergdahl has and will continue to set off debates on the left and right sides of the political aisles.
The brutality of the Taliban is evident. The way they treat women, children and anyone who does not view the world through their warped sense of the religion is a solid fact only comparable to the worst images of history books and horror movies. When history records your country as “the graveyard of empires,” it’s a fair estimation that it’s a tough place to live, let alone survive. How Sgt. Bergdahl did that for 5 years while being held by the Taliban will be a graphic story to be told, but short of being held in a Nazi concentration camp or a North Korean “reeducation facility,” it’s hard to imagine the hell that Sgt. Bergdahl endured during his 5 years of captivity.
It’s been the long-standing policy of the United States and other nations around the globe that, “We don’t negotiate with terrorists.” For as good as that soundbite may sound to the chest-thumping patriots who hear it, the truth is we (and others) do negotiate with terrorists. We’ve just called it by different names from time to time.
In the mid-1980s, the Reagan Administration gave “Iranian moderates” a key-shaped cake and some spare military parts in exchange for the hoped release of Americans being held hostage by Iranian sympathetic groups in the Middle East. The Iran-Contra Affair (as it would become known) was probably one of the darkest periods of the Reagan Presidency.
Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, the British Government also negotiated with the Irish Republican Army, which led numerous attempts on the lives of Prime Ministers, Cabinet officers and the British monarchy. History is full of these examples, and as unsavory as it might be, talking with an adversary—even the most belligerent and violent of them—is a fact of global life.
What we (and others) give up in return in these situations is always hard to stomach. Does anyone really believe the five guys who “graduated” from Guantanamo are going to go home to be peaceful productive citizens and take up gardening? Like others who have left the most exclusive “resort” in the Caribbean, we will probably hear about them in the very near future having executed another brutal attack on Americans or Western interests or doing some other despicable act.
While I am more than concerned at the new precedent the Obama Administration has undertaken with this prisoner swap, I can fully understand the anguish the President and his team felt at the thought of leaving a lone American unaccounted for, knowing full well he was alive and held by people that want our eradication from the Earth as much as we want theirs. For as much as this President has used drone warfare and special forces units in unprecedented ways to take out some of the world’s most unsavory people, he would forever be branded as a coward or worse if he turned his back in his exit from Afghanistan and left Sgt. Bergdahl to remain in the hands of his captors. No Commander in Chief wants that written about them in the history books.
Bergdahl’s parents have had their own private Hell for 5 years not knowing if their son will ever return home to them, and if he does, what condition (physically and mentally) he might be in. Their anguish is one that has been felt by thousands of families in this country and elsewhere about loved ones who disappeared from war zones with no idea of happened to them. Bergdahl’s parents, however, have received the conclusion and closure that they’ve prayed for – a prayer that has gone unanswered for so many other families in this country and elsewhere. In an era of instant communications, non-stop 24-7 news cycles, and prolific social media access and utilization, a single POW/MIA would carry political weight and consequences the Administration could not ignore. Those elements didn’t exist in any prior U.S. military conflict the way they do today, and as such, the Obama Administration had to do something.
The Obama team was left with an undeniable Catch-22, “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” decision and made the deal with the devils they had to to get Sgt. Bergdahl home. What will be left for history to record is the Hell that fateful decision will yield. As Pentagon Secretary Chuck Hagel has shared, they had a limited window to make the decision and prisoner exchange happen, and they did it.
They’ll be catching hell for it from here on out, but when you make a deal with devils, Hell is really all you can ever expect.