Obama's Bergdahl Fiasco

Obama's Bergdahl Fiasco

By Toby Harnden - June 9, 2014

In the town of Pocatello, Idaho, last Tuesday, Jason Carey stood waving a yellow sign that read: “BOWE IS NOT AS HERO. He Deserted America.” It struck a chord. “People were honking their horns, giving me the thumbs-up,” Carey said. “I only had one guy giving me the middle finger.”

Until last weekend Carey, a burly, goateed veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, had been a staunch supporter of Bowe Bergdahl. He gave money to the “Bring Bowe home” campaign. “He was included in my prayers every night.”

His first reaction to Bergdahl’s release after nearly five years in captivity was that of many Americans: “Hell, yeah — Bowe’s coming back.”

But within hours, soldiers who had served with Bergdahl were dismissing any notion that he was an all-American hero. They recounted how Bergdahl, then a 23-year-old private, had finished his guard shift at Outpost Mest, a remote base in Paktika province, southeastern Afghanistan, and simply slipped away into the night.

In a final email to his father, published in Roling Stone, he had said: “I am ashamed to be an American. And the title of US soldier is just the lie of fools.”

Carey made a YouTube video of himself burning his Bergdahl POW-MIA (missing in action) T-shirt and telling the freed soldier: “You better pray to Allah I don’t catch you on the streets of Idaho, punk.” A photograph of him with his sign went viral after being posted on a “Bowe Bergdahl is a Traitor” Facebook page.

He was particularly incensed that Bergdahl was automatically promoted to sergeant during his captivity: “I had to work to get my sergeant’s rank. All he did was sit in a cave and chill out with his Taliban buddies.”

Carey’s change of heart reflected a sharp swing in public opinion last week against President Barack Obama’s decision to secure Bergdahl’s release in exchange for five Taliban leaders who had each spent well over a decade in Guantanamo Bay prison. US intelligence judged them almost certain to “return to the fight” against America.

On a balmy evening last Saturday Obama had walked into the White House rose garden, holding hands with Bergdahl’s beaming mother Jani, apparently expecting a surge of patriotic gratitude that America’s last military captive in Afghanistan had been returned.

“We’re committed to winding down the war in Afghanistan and we are committed to closing Gitmo,” he said, using the military abbreviation for Guantanamo Bay. “But we also made an ironclad commitment to bring our prisoners of war home.”

Standing beside him with Jani was Bergdahl’s father Bob, sporting a ponytail and a long, Afghan-style beard. Obama grinned as Bob broke into Pashto, using words from the Koran — “In the name of Allah the most gracious and most merciful” — to address his son.

The president then kissed and hugged Jani before going back into the White House with his arms around the couple, who were said to be in Washington, 2,300 miles from their Idaho home, by chance. It was a ceremony so schmaltzy it might have been sponsored by Hallmark.

Television clips of Bob speaking Pashto at the White House, followed by the disclosure that Obama had not told Congress about the release of the Guantanamo prisoners, as he was required by law to do, fuelled a political firestorm.

Far from being a tale of sacrifice reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan, Bergdahl’s story was compared to the television series Homeland, in which Sergeant Nicholas Brody converts to Islam in captivity and emerges as an al-Qaeda operative. Was Bergdahl a naive young man overwhelmed by the experience of war or was he more conspirator than captive?

As for Obama, what consequences will his misjudgment of America’s mood have for his plans to end the war in Afghanistan and close Guantanamo?

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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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