Soldier deserved to be rescued, but not at so high a cost

Robert A. Cohn is Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of the St. Louis Jewish Light.

BY ROBERT A. COHN

According to six of his former comrades-in-arms, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl willingly walked off his base in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, he deserved to be rescued on the bedrock principle that the United States never leaves a soldier behind – without regard to his possible responsibility for his plight.

The question on the minds of many American citizens, including members of Congress, the military, journalists and foreign policy observers is: Was the release of five of the “highest value” Taliban prisoners from the detention center at Guantanamo justified in order to secure Bergdahl’s freedom?

To raise that question and others about the Bergdahl-Taliban swap is not unpatriotic or unfeeling. Whether Bergdahl was a deserter who intended at some point to actually defect to the Taliban, he was a member of the U.S. military and as such deserved the best efforts of his countrymen to secure his release from the band of Haqqani network terrorists who held him for nearly five years. Indeed, several military missions were launched in which special forces troops attempted to find Bergdahl, including one in which six of them were killed.

Bergdahl, as an American citizen, is constitutionally innocent until proved guilty and entitled to a fair trial, probably by court-martial. The various stories swirling about the circumstances of his taking leave of his unit, and the more recent unconfirmed stories that in captivity he tried to escape and was tortured by his captors, can be sorted out later.

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But some questions should be answered promptly. Among them:

a) If members of Bergdahl’s unit were united in their belief that he deserted, why was the announcement of his release staged in a White House Rose Garden event that had the atmosphere of an unqualified victory lap?

b) Why did the White House repeat the mistake of sending National Security Adviser Susan Rice to again appear on the Sunday talk shows (with the pointed omission of Fox News) to state that Bergdahl served his country with “honor and distinction?”

c) Why did President Barack Obama take it upon himself to ignore the explicit language in statute he signed into law that requires him to inform Congress at least 30 days before such an action is undertaken?

d) Why were the five Gitmo detainees flown to Qatar in exchange for Bergdahl among the worst of the worst of Taliban leadership?

Let’s look at the record, as described in a Page 1 New York Times article by Eric Schmidt and Charlie Savage on June 1, who reported that what the government “believes it knows about the five former Taliban leaders (was) made public in classified military files given to WikiLeaks by Pfc. Bradley, now Chelsea Manning.”

• Mohammad Nabi Omari is described in the files as “one of the most significant former Taliban leaders detained” at Guantanamo. 

He is said to have strong ties to anti-coalition militia groups, including al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the Haqqani network.

• Both Mullah Norullah Noori and a third detainee among those exchanged, Mohammad Fazl, a former Taliban deputy defense minister, are accused of having commanded forces that killed thousands of Shiite Muslims, a minority in Afghanistan, before the Taliban were toppled in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The administration’s assurances that the government of the tiny emirate of Qatar will monitor the five hard-core Taliban and restrict their actions have already proved hollow. The Taliban itself released a video of the five freed terrorists hugging, smiling and giving high-fives to their supporters on arrival in Qatar.

At least one congressman said that while he supported the principle of not leaving U.S. soldiers behind, he would “not have traded (World War II hero) Audie Murphy for this group of five.”

Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, has called the swap a “great victory” for the Taliban, and in this instance he is right; he has his Cabinet back.

When the fog of war that is swirling around the Bergdahl-Taliban trade clears, it is hoped that the above questions will be answered directly, honestly and without regard to scoring political points.