The Bowe Bergdahl Deal

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The Bowe Bergdahl Deal

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1Bretzky1
juny 5, 2014, 8:58am

"A Taliban commander close to the negotiations over the release of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl told TIME by telephone Thursday that the deal made to secure Bergdahl’s release has made it more appealing for fighters to capture American soldiers and other high-value targets." This quote can be found here: http://time.com/2826442/taliban-kidnappings-bergdahl/

While prisoner swaps aren't inherently idiotic deals, you should make sure that you don't overvalue your own prisoners in such an exchange. It is very clear that the five prisoners the US released from Guantanamo were of much greater value to the Taliban than Bergdahl is to the US military. That assessment even puts to the side that: 1) Bergdahl is never going to be in uniform again so is of zero value at this point to the fight against the Taliban/al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan and 2) there are credible accusations being made by his fellow soldiers that Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban after having deserted his unit, one of the most awful things a soldier can do in a war zone.

Obama has made some questionable calls in his time as President, but most of them seem to have been the result of inexperience rather than poor judgment. But I don't think that can be said about this one.

2kiparsky
juny 5, 2014, 9:55am

Hard to see how you can "overvalue" a captured soldier. We sent him there, we bring him back. End of the story, if you ask me.
Does anyone really believe that the Taliban has suddenly changed their views about capturing American soldiers? That maybe last week, they wouldn't have bothered to try to capture someone, but now they suddenly think it's a good idea? I'm going to put it politely and say that seems quite unlikely to me.

3BruceCoulson
juny 5, 2014, 11:19am

Kidnapping people for ransom is a popular criminal activity in many places in the world. Making it more appealing might not be the best course of action, but unless you're prepared to either be ruthless ("We located where you were holding the hostage, and launched a Hellfire missile on the target") or willing to expend the resources for a full criminal investigation to locate and charge the offenders, there's not a lot of options.

4theoria
juny 5, 2014, 11:36am

The politicians who are whining about the Bergdahl case should think twice before sending US soldiers into harm's way. Soldiers can be captured as prisoners of war and the politicians who send them into battle have an ethical obligation to return them safely. All the rest is just demagoguery in an election year.

5jjwilson61
juny 5, 2014, 12:30pm

1. Berghdahl was a pow captured on the battlefield. Prisoner exchanges are a whole different deal than negotiating with terrorists.

2. With the Afghan war winding down the Taliban prisoners would have to be released soon anyway.

6BruceCoulson
juny 5, 2014, 12:54pm

#5

You mean, like the prisoners at Gitmo?

7Bretzky1
juny 5, 2014, 1:12pm

#2,

Hard to see how you can "overvalue" a captured soldier.

You can overvalue a captured soldier by trading away prisoners who are far more important to the enemy than the soldier you are getting back is to you. Yes, Bergdahl was sent to Afghanistan by the US government, but he wasn't drafted and forced to enter a war zone. And even if he were drafted, that still wouldn't justify making an exchange that harmed US national security. These determinations of prisoner exchange value are made all the time in war. For example, you don't trade an enemy's general for one of your privates.

Does anyone really believe that the Taliban has suddenly changed their views about capturing American soldiers? That maybe last week, they wouldn't have bothered to try to capture someone, but now they suddenly think it's a good idea? I'm going to put it politely and say that seems quite unlikely to me.

This isn't a situation where the Taliban is deciding between just capturing and not capturing an American soldier. The full range of options are capture, kill, and avoid. Prior to this exchange, they might not have seen as much value in trying to capture US soldiers as there was in trying to kill or avoid them. The irony of this is that it might actually be in the interests of the US to have Taliban forces trying to capture US soldiers rather than trying to kill or avoid them because, generally speaking, they'll have to run greater risks in trying to capture a soldier than even in trying to kill one, let alone in trying to avoid them in a given situation. The greater the risks they run, the more likely they are themselves to become a casualty or to be taken prisoner.

8Bretzky1
juny 5, 2014, 1:16pm

#4

Soldiers can be captured as prisoners of war and the politicians who send them into battle have an ethical obligation to return them safely.

But the more important obligation that US government officials have is to the security of the United States. If the ethical obligation of seeing POWs returned home clashes with that obligation, then it must yield to the national security interests of the US and the American people.

9Bretzky1
juny 5, 2014, 1:34pm

#5

1. Berghdahl was a pow captured on the battlefield. Prisoner exchanges are a whole different deal than negotiating with terrorists.

While I agree that this isn't a straight "negotiating with terrorists" situation, I do question the assertion that he was captured "on the battlefield." Most of the accounts that I've read so far say that he disappeared from camp some time during the night. Bergdahl himself claims that he was out on a patrol and that he got lost and separated from the unit, but other soldiers have flatly denied that he was on patrol that night. This is why the accusations of desertion that some of his fellow soldiers have been making ring especially true to me. Desertion is not an accusation that soldiers throw around lightly as it is a particularly grievous thing for a soldier to do in a war zone. The emails that he sent to his family right before his capture also back up that accusation.

2. With the Afghan war winding down the Taliban prisoners would have to be released soon anyway.

Assuming that's true, it doesn't mean that they would have to be returned to the Taliban, or even to a neutral third country, like Qatar. They could have been handed over to the Afghan government. Though the Afghans haven't exactly had a sterling record in making sure that captured Taliban fighters remain captured.

But it's not necessarily the case that they would have had to be released. Under the rules of war, when a conflict ends, each country has a reasonable time within which to repatriate POWs. But that only applies to regular soldiers. The US has all along denied the Taliban fighters such status and has claimed that they are in fact irregulars and terrorists, who may be prosecuted as such under the rules of war. Though I disagree with that classification of Taliban fighters (the Taliban might not have been the legal government of Afghanistan, but they were the de facto one), I'm certainly willing to acknowledge that the US at least has room to make that argument.

10kiparsky
juny 5, 2014, 9:11pm

>7 Bretzky1: I guess I don't see American soldiers as disposable, and you're not going to convince me that they are. As Colin Powell famously observed to Madeline Albright, "these are not toy soldiers". Or, as Heinlein put it, "men are not potatoes".

>4 theoria: I think you're right to note the election-year timing of the thing. It's interesting to speculate on the likely reaction if Obama were to announce that he'd decided to abandon an American service member to his fate in the hands of enemy combatants who are not signatory to the Geneva Conventions. I don't think it would have been quite as positive as you'd expect from all the people advocating that position today.

11madpoet
juny 6, 2014, 1:16am

Wait a minute: who deserts in the middle of Afghanistan? Where did he think he was going to escape to: Pakistan? Iran? To get to Pakistan, he'd have to travel straight through the Taliban's home turf. I suppose he could go north to Turkmenistan or Tajikistan, but that's a long journey, on foot. So, if he was deserting, it makes you wonder about his state of mind.

12prosfilaes
Editat: juny 6, 2014, 2:19am

>1 Bretzky1: It is very clear that the five prisoners the US released from Guantanamo were of much greater value to the Taliban than Bergdahl is to the US military. That assessment even puts to the side that: 1) Bergdahl is never going to be in uniform again so is of zero value at this point to the fight against the Taliban/al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan

"Commander, the Taliban have captured Sergeant Smith. They're demanding a bag of rice and a 24-pack of Coca-Cola."

"Lieutenant, Sergeant Smith had finished his tour of duty and was going to be sent home tomorrow. Do you know how much a transatlantic flight costs? Then we have retirement and VA. They just saved us thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars."

Seriously, you're going to tell an all volunteer army that they're only worth the value they have left on the battlefield, and that if they get injured or captured and aren't worth anything more in a military capacity, you'll stop caring for them? That sounds like a very bad idea, of the type that causes widespread desertions or military coups

13theoria
juny 6, 2014, 10:17am

David Brooks: "The president and vice president, the only government officials elected directly by the entire nation, have a special responsibility to nurture this national solidarity. So, of course, President Obama had to take all measures necessary to secure the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Of course, he had to do all he could do to not forsake an American citizen.

It doesn’t matter if Bergdahl had deserted his post or not. It doesn’t matter if he is a confused young man who said insulting and shameful things about his country and his Army. The debt we owe to fellow Americans is not based on individual merit. It is based on citizenship, and loyalty to the national community we all share." http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/06/opinion/brooks-president-obama-was-right.html?...

14BruceCoulson
juny 6, 2014, 11:08am

#13

All true, but given the actual treatment of many veterans and active-duty servicemen (as opposed to how they should be treated) speculations as to the political value of this exchange are quite reasonable.

15kiparsky
juny 6, 2014, 11:51am

Since the VA has been failing vets in every administration in recent memory - at least back to Reagan - I think that speculation is somewhat vacuous, and clearly more politically driven than fact-based.

16prosfilaes
juny 7, 2014, 6:36am

The Washington Post article on how fast the Republicans spun on this.

"What Nugent wanted, he told a crowd at a rally for Bergdahl’s release in February, was for “the United States to do everything possible not to leave any members of the armed forces behind.” But today, Nugent says that when he said “do everything possible,” did not actually mean everything. Now that Bergdahl is free, the Florida congressman has become a critic of the deal that freed him." One would think that a native English speaker would find "everything possible" a fairly simple phrase to understand, but I guess it's beyond some of our congressmen.

17margd
juny 7, 2014, 9:10pm

Cover of TIME: Was he worth it?

My opinion: TIME sure isn't (worth its readers' time) regardless of how the article is argued...