The Taliban Five/Bergdahl news cycle continues churning at a dizzying speed, with a number of important developments breaking late yesterday. You've already seen James Rosen's report on classified intelligence documents assessing that Bowe Bergdahl converted to Islam and joined the Jihad some time in 2010. (US officials told Rosen that the information -- collected by a private intelligence firm subcontracted by the government -- was credible, while others denied having any such evidence). The intel also said that Bergdahl made at least one escape attempt relatively early in his captivity, and that his relationship with his captors wasn't always as cozy as it apparently became. Two thoughts on those wrinkles: It's entirely possible that he "converted" to Islam as a means of avoiding being beheaded, then grew into his new ideology as Stockholm Syndrome set in. It's hard to imagine what one might do to survive in such a setting. Still, excerpts like this are tough to read:
From the Bergdahl contact report Jim Rosen is reporting on: pic.twitter.com/PSHrK48epC— Gabriel Malor (@gabrielmalor) June 6, 2014
If the process of transforming Bergdahl into a laughing, armed, soccer-playing mujadhedeen was gradual -- and the early days were rocky -- what to make of the statements from fellow soldiers that intercepted radio transmissions indicated that he'd sought out the Taliban in the first place, and that attacks on US convoys became more sophisticated and effective in the aftermath of his Bergdahl's disappearance? Hmm. Meanwhile, a New York Times report quotes sources who say Bergdahl wandered away from his assigned post on two previous occasions, once State-side, and the other in Afghanistan. He returned both times. Some say this erratic behavior may suggest that he didn't deliberately desert in 2009, but that's contradicted by the statements he made in emails, to fellow soldiers, and in the supposed desertion note -- the existence of which has been reported by the Times and Fox, with another source confirming it separately. Nevertheless, Bergdahl's status as a deserter and possible collaborator is an interesting subplot to this story, with powerful political and optical implications, but it's still just that: A sub-plot.
The bigger picture involves an administration that negotiated with terrorists (more on that in a moment), caved to their demands, released five high-risk jihadist commanders, and failed to adhere to the law by notifying Congress in advance. On that last point, the White House has careened from one excuse to another. First, it was an "oversight," a risible claim on its face. Next, they said securing Bergdahl's freedom was incredibly urgent because a video showed him in terrible health. But that video was obtained five months before the deal was struck, and Bergdahl looked relatively healthy when he was handed over. He has reportedly been in stable condition for days. Finally, they told Senators on Wednesday evening that they didn't inform Congress ahead of time because Bergdahl's captors threatened to kill him if details of the deal leaked out. This explanation amounts to, we couldn't follow the law because the Taliban told us not to. It also makes little sense, for two reasons. First, why would the Taliban/Haqqanis kill their biggest bargaining chip? Second, and more compellingly, details of the proposed swap had percolated in the media for years. The AP reported in April that a deal might have been in the works, and that Bergdahl's captors were "anxious to release him." The Times published a story about proposed deal-making in 2012. And the Huffington Post reported that the Taliban explicitly introduced the idea of the trade on a phone call with reporters last year:
Those press shy Taliban suggested this prisoner swap on a call with AP last year: http://t.co/Hg8ZTznPRM— John Sexton (@verumserum) June 5, 2014
That blows a gaping hole through the story the administration peddled to Senators. But let's pretend for a moment that it's true, since that what Team Obama was obviously hoping people would believe. The White House has adamantly claimed that they did not negotiate with terrorists (I explain that technicality here) to arrange this exchange, swearing up and down that this was a prisoner swap (which has plenty of precedent). Time's Michael Crowley has a useful explainer on the players and dynamics in this scenario that casts doubt on the first claim. Bergdahl was being held by the Haqqani network, which the US has formally designated as a terrorist organization, so any deal for his release necessarily involved them. They can dress it up all they want. The United States made concessions to terrorists. On the second claim, the administration is now saying that it had to rush the plan through because the radicals holding Bergdahl threatened to kill him. That's...not how "prisoner exchanges" work. That's how hostage-takers and terrorists operate. Add in the detail that the US also considered paying a cash ransom as recently as December, and the "prisoner swap" facade crumbles. In this case, the White House's most recent excuse (they were going to kill him!) thoroughly undermines one of the central premises they've employed to defend themselves (it wasn't a terrorist/hostage situation). Finally, when I said that the White House "caved" to the Taliban's demands, I meant it. The Washington Post, on how things went down:
When the talks began as part of what U.S. officials hoped would be a broader Afghan peace effort, U.S. envoys were forbidden to offer any detainees held in the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as part of a trade for Bergdahl. According to people familiar with the process, negotiators were allowed to include only Taliban fighters held at the detention center at Bagram air base, outside Kabul. Those restrictions put Taliban moderates open to peace talks — including Tayeb Agha, who was appointed by Taliban leader Mohammad Omar to represent him in the negotiations — in a difficult position with the movement’s more hard-line elements...The Taliban countered with a list of six senior Taliban officials being held at Guantanamo Bay. The list included the five Taliban commanders released as part of the Bergdahl agreement, as well as a sixth who died during the talks, which stretched from February 2011 until June 2012...In Washington, initial resistance from many of those in Obama’s war cabinet faded into support in principle for a five-to-one swap.
Nobody takes our "red lines" seriously. We began by insisting, "no Gitmo prisoners, the people we release must come from somewhere else." The Taliban/Haqqanis obstinately stuck to their list, and we acceded on all five. Then US negotiators proposed releasing two of the five initially, then the other three a few months later. Not good enough, said the Taliban/Haqqanis, so we dropped that idea. The administration also decided against trying to win the release of other US citizens being held captive by the Taliban as part of the agreement, to make it less lopsided. Remarkably, a State Department spokesperson defended that decision by citing "longstanding U.S. policy not to make concessions to hostage-takers." It almost takes your breath away, doesn't it?