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Obama's Bergdahl Fiasco

By Toby Harnden - June 9, 2014

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The deal to free Bergdahl was first mooted at least as early as 2011. Obama hoped that releasing the five from Guantanamo and a Taliban renunciation of international terrorism could lead to a settlement that would end the Afghanistan war.

The prospects evaporated but Obama, determined to end the war anyway, wanted Bergdahl back rather than be accused of leaving a soldier behind - a charge that haunted American presidents after the Vietnam war.

The final agreement was brokered in a week by Qatar and dovetailed with Obama’s announcement of a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of 2017. Engulfed in a scandal over hospital car for veterans, it also provided him an opportunity to demonstrate he was helping those who had served.

His larger purpose seems to be a desire to close Guantanamo Bay, where 149 prisoners remain. But the backlash over the release of the “Taliban Five” might well set back that aim, especially if they are linked to future attacks. Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator, has threatened impeachment proceedings if Obama breaks the law again to free prisoners.

Four days before his son’s release, Bob sent a tweet — now deleted — to a Taliban spokesman, saying: “I am still working to free all Guantanamo prisoners. God will repay for the death of every Afghan child, ameen.[sic]” Some suspect father and son have developed a form of Stockholm syndrome.

A Taliban propaganda video of Bergdahl’s handover showed US special forces troops shaking hands with his captors and then hastily running to their Black Hawk helicopter and checking that the released soldier was not carrying a suicide bomb. It could become footage as resonant as images of helicopters lifted people from the roof of the US embassy in Saigon in 1975.

The negotiations that brought about that moment might provide a template for a US exit, with the Taliban’s agreement to hold fire, a deal that could undermine the Afghan government.

A day after Bergdahl’s release, Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, opined on a Sunday television talk show that he had served with “honour and distinction”. It was this jaw-dropping statement that prompted Vierkant and five other soldiers from the platoon to speak out.

The soldiers’ media appearances have been facilitated by Capitol Media Partners, a consulting firm run by a firebrand Republican operative called Richard Grenell, prompting claims of a “Swift-boating” — similar to attacks on John Kerry’s Vietnam war record during the 2004 presidential campaign by comrades who had served with him on Swift boats in the Mekong delta.

But the soldiers’ unanimous certainty that Bergdahl deserted is hard to dismiss and has been bolstered by their willingness to raise doubts about some of the more emotive claims. For instance, Vierkant said reports that Taliban attacks became more effective because of information from Bergdahl or that eight soldiers were killed searching for him were impossible to substantiate because “there are so many variables” in war.

The Pentagon has delayed Bergdahl’s imminent automatic promotion to staff sergeant and intimated he may face a court martial — something flatly ruled out by the White House days earlier.

While scandals such as the one over the deaths of US ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi in 2012 have been fuelled almost solely by Republicans, many of Obama's fellow Democrats have joined in the chorus of anger over the Bergdahl deal.

There have been shifting explanations from the White House for why Congress wasn’t informed of the deal, ranging from Bergdahl’s poor health – which is not evident from the handover video – to the notion that he was about to be killed. Senators on both sides of the aisle suspect that the true reason was that Obama knew the deal would be rejected.

Administration officials have even attacked Vierkant and his comrades for speaking out. Brandon Friedman, an Obama-appointed housing department official, suggested that Bergdahl was justifiably “disillusioned” and speculated via Twitter: “What if his platoon was long on psychopaths and short on leadership?”

Vierkant, 27, called this “misinformation”. Bergdahl had told a friend in Hailey that he had witnessed an Afghan child being killed, but this was “a bald-faced lie - nothing like that happened”, Vierkant said.

On the eve of the solemn commemorations of the 70th anniversary of D-Day, even Obama himself appeared to denigrate the soldiers, saying in Brussels that concern about the Bergdahl deal was a partisan campaign against him “whipped up in Washington”.

John Bohl, who served as a US army special forces captain in Vietnam, said: “Obama doesn’t understand the military culture at all. He has the obligation as a commander-in-chief to bring everyone home, but not at any price. The very idea of celebrating this at the White House or in Idaho is crazy.”

Back in Hailey, Lee Ann Ferris said: “I’ve known Bowe for 18 years. He has a good heart, something went wrong and he walked away. But a sympathiser or a collaborator? No. No way.” 

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Toby Harnden is the Washington bureau chief of The Sunday Times. You can follow him on Twitter here.

This article originally appeared in The Sunday Times. It is reprinted here with permission.

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