Outcry on Hill Over Swap to Free Bergdahl as Case Reveals Lacking POW Strategy
As the years of Bowe Bergdahl's captivity wore on, two fundamental sentiments floated around Capitol Hill: the desire to bring the Army sergeant home without capitulating to the Taliban, and the frustration that the capture of one soldier revealed a lack of cohesive strategy to recover prisoners of war.
The only American POW in Afghanistan, Bergdahl wandered off his base in eastern Afghanistan in June 2009 and was captured by Taliban forces. A proof-of-life video, the first received in three years, surfaced in January, reigniting attention on Bergdahl's case.
"To every single person who worked so hard to make this recovery possible, WE LOVE YOU! GOD IS GREAT AND HIS MERCY ENDURES FOREVER!" Bowe's father, Robert Bergdahl, tweeted today. The family had been planning a June 28 rally in Hailey, Idaho, to lobby for his release; Carole King agreed to perform for free.
Before appearing in the Rose Garden with Bergdahl's parents, President Obama thanked the amir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, and the government of Afghanistan for helping secure Bowe's release -- one that didn't come without a price.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he informed Congress today of the decision to transfer five detainees from Guantanamo Bay to Qatar. "The United States has coordinated closely with Qatar to ensure that security measures are in place and the national security of the United States will not be compromised," Hagel said. "I appreciate the efforts of the Emir of Qatar to put these measures in place, and I want to thank him for his instrumental role in facilitating the return of Sgt. Bergdahl."
The trade did seem to catch Congress off-guard. Just yesterday, PJM spoke with Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees and Bergdahl's home-state senator. While he couldn't divulge the bulk of information shared with the committees because of its classified nature, Risch did note the difficulties of negotiating with captors that are "very fragmented."
"I'm convinced that Department of Defense is doing everything they can to get Bergdahl out," Risch said Friday. "We're all praying every day to get him out of there -- and this needs to be done before we clear Afghanistan."
In a statement today, Risch simply said it was "welcome news" that Bergdahl would be returning to Idaho. “Bowe has been held for five years against his will by the Taliban and Haqqani networks," the senator said. "I can only imagine the joy and relief that Bowe and his family are feeling at this moment."
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said in a statement that he's "pleased" Bergdahl will be returning home, but there's a big problem with the manner in which the soldier was freed.
"I am extremely troubled, however, that the United States negotiated with terrorists and agreed to swap five senior Taliban leaders who are responsible for the deaths of many Americans," Rogers added. "This fundamental shift in U.S. policy signals to terrorists around the world a greater incentive to take U.S. hostages."
"Further, I have little confidence in the security assurances regarding the movement and activities of the now released Taliban leaders and I have even less confidence in this administration's willingness to ensure they are enforced," the chairman continued. "I believe this decision will threaten the lives of American soldiers for years to come.”
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) and Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) said in a joint statement that Congress will need to carefully examine the swap that secured Bergdahl's freedom.
"America has maintained a prohibition on negotiating with terrorists for good reason. Trading five senior Taliban leaders from detention in Guantanamo Bay for Berghdal’s release may have consequences for the rest of our forces and all Americans. Our terrorist adversaries now have a strong incentive to capture Americans. That incentive will put our forces in Afghanistan and around the world at even greater risk," McKeon and Inhofe said.
“In executing this transfer, the president also clearly violated laws which require him to notify Congress 30 days before any transfer of terrorists from Guantanamo Bay and to explain how the threat posed by such terrorists has been substantially mitigated," the leaders added. "Our joy at Sergeant Berghdal’s release is tempered by the fact that President Obama chose to ignore the law, not to mention sound policy, to achieve it."
The State Department has been pushing a 5-1 prisoner swap, sparking concern among lawmakers this past winter that the administration was considering the exchange and negotiations with the Taliban a viable course of action.
Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement today that Bergdahl's case was "deeply personal to me as someone who has worn the uniform of my country – and as someone who was deeply involved in those efforts with respect to the unfinished business of the war in which I fought."
"We work every day with Qatar on a range of critical foreign policy priorities. This effort – one that was personally so close to our hearts here – exemplifies how vital our partnership with Qatar is and will remain," Kerry added. "I spoke today with Afghan President Karzai to brief him on this development and to discuss President Obama’s announcement this week about our efforts there."
But the Bergdahl case for years was mired in confusion about who was taking the lead -- the State Department or the Pentagon -- with what strategy, stoking fears about how this could bode for future POWs.
"While the State Department should retain involvement in the Bergdahl situation, my concern is that reports of a possible prisoner swap, regardless of the viability of that option, undermine Defense Department kinetic and non-kinetic planning and create a false all-or-nothing proposition," Rep. Duncan Hunter Jr. (R-Calif.) wrote to Obama in March. "Instead, a clear line of distinction, drawn by you as Commander-in-Chief, would prioritize Defense Department planning and prevent interference by other government entities."
Hunter, a Marine vet, didn't coordinate his efforts with the Bergdahl family but pressed the case with the administration because of the implications it held for not just the Army sergeant but future POWs, the congressman's spokesman told PJM earlier this month.
Joe Kasper stressed that over the past five years they've had "reason to believe, based on all sourcing, there's been ample opportunity to secure his release."
"Has the bureaucracy been too overwhelming and too restrictive? The definitive answer is yes," Hunter's spokesman added. "We don't know what leads were wasted and what information was squandered. We are in a much better place right now than we were ever before."
"…If we can't do it for one guy, we're not going to be able to do it for more."
At the end of February, Hagel appointed former Navy SEAL and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict Michael Lumpkin to oversee the Pentagon's effort to bring Bowe back.
"Give the significance and necessity for centralized command and control, which I have been informed is little to nonexistent," Hunter urged Hagel in a mid-February letter to appoint someone to coordinate the Bergdahl effort, including pulling together the disjointed work of numerous federal agencies.
Hunter was pleased with the DoD finally naming a point man to the effort, and with Hagel's choice: Lumpkin once unsuccessfully ran against Hunter for his San Diego County congressional seat. "They had a good laugh about it," Kasper noted.
Kasper acknowledged the speculation over why Bergdahl walked off his base. "Right or wrong, he's still an American and we still have an obligation, all of us who ever fought or are fighting, to do everything we can to bring him home."
Hagel called Bergdahl's release today "a powerful reminder of the enduring, sacred commitment our nation makes to all those who serve in uniform."
"The United States government never forgot Sgt. Bergdahl, nor did we stop working to bring him back," he said. "I am grateful to all the military and civilian professionals from DOD and our interagency partners who helped make this moment possible, and to all those Americans who stood vigil with the Bergdahl family."
At the Rose Garden ceremony with Obama, Robert Bergdahl indicated his son "is having trouble speaking English," then followed with a few words in Pashto, adding "I'm your father, Bowe."
"The complicated nature of this recovery was -- will never really be comprehended," the elder Bergdahl said. "…We just can't communicate the words this morning when we heard from the president."
"So we look forward to continuing the recovery of our son, which is going to be a considerable task for our family. And we hope that the media will understand that that will keep us very preoccupied in the coming days and weeks as he gets back home to the United States."