Bergdahl was the only American soldier held by enemies, and his return, after years of negotiations by the Obama administration, reflects the deeply held military principle of no soldier left behind. But for Rogers, other Republicans and some Democrats, the principle of “Bring our boys home” is vaguely qualified and, of course, politicized.
Rogers, as the lame-duck chairman of the House Intelligence Committee prepping for his planned conservative radio talk show, burnished his brand with a series of pronouncements and television appearances attacking Obamaīs actions and warning that these long-imprisoned Taliban operatives posed a grave threat to the United States. But mostly he seemed annoyed that he wasnīt consulted.
Particularly prominent was his appearance on MSNBCīs “Morning Joe” program where he said: “In 2011, they (the Obama administration) did come up and present a plan that included a prisoner transfer that was, in a bipartisan way, pushed back. We hadn’t heard anything since on any details of any prisoner exchange.”
He questioned the urgency of the exchange, dismissing reports that Bergdahl’s health was failing. “This notion that it was an acute health care — yesterday, we were informed that it wasn’t acute, they had no information that it was acute, I don’t know why you would say that.”
Reports this week indicated that Bergdahl was, in fact, held in a metal cage in total darkness for weeks at a time as punishment for trying to escape. Five years alone and isolated, likely tortured.
He didnīt have the fortune to be held captive by the U.S government, whose Guantanamo prisoners are treated inhumanely, according to Human Rights Watch: “Detainees have extremely limited contact with other human beings, spend 22 hours a day alone in small cells with little or no natural light or fresh air, are not provided any educational opportunities, and are given little more than a single book and the Koran to occupy their time. Even their two hours of ‘recreation’ time — which is sometimes provided in the middle of the night — generally takes place in single-cell cages so that detainees cannot physically interact with one another.”
No, Bergdahl was held by the Taliban, a brutal terrorist organization involved in what is essentially a civil war in Afghanistan.
As chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rogers has unique access to classified information. And he acknowledges that the basic outlines of the exchange were discussed in 2011. But unaware? There was an Associated Press article in August 2011 naming three of the Taliban prisoners to be released; a Reuters report in August 2012 added additional names. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius reported extensively on the exchange deal in April 2013.
Surely Rogers and his staff knew of these articles, and Rogers easily could have — in fact, should have — received intelligence briefings on the Taliban prisoners.
If he was surprised by the details of the release, then itīs on him.
Rogers has been a cheerleader for the intelligence community, most recently advocating, endorsing and supporting its massive and surreptitious gathering of phone and Internet data. He says Americans should trust intelligence agencies to do their job. Certainly, he does. Arenīt these the intelligence agencies that would review the Bergdahl prisoner exchange? Perhaps they concluded that the five Taliban detainees were not as bad as Rogers and his Republican colleagues contend. Others have.
“A closer look at the former prisoners … indicates that not all were hard-core militants,” the Chicago Tribune reported on last week. “Three held political positions in the Taliban government that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 and were considered relative moderates. A fourth was a mid-level police official, experts say. The fifth, however, has a darker past. Mohammed Fazl was chief of staff of the Taliban army and is accused of commanding forces that massacred hundreds of civilians in the final years of Taliban rule before the 2001 U.S.-led invasion,” the newspaper reported.
This past weekend two high-ranking military commanders weighed in on the release. Their views are reasoned. Retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, the former chief of the U.S. Central Command, said on CNNīs "State of the Union" that the release of the Taliban hardliners allows the military more combat latitude in Afghanistan since Bergdahlīs status is no longer a factor. Thatīs a good thing.
Also on CNN, Retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton said Rogers and other Republicans like Sen. John McCain are overestimating the value of the five Taliban prisoners on the battlefield. "These are not super-villains," Eaton said on CNN. "Weīre releasing five Joes out there who are not super-villains.”
For Rogers, these may just be inconvenient truths.
Our involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq and with real or straw-man terrorist groups can be most charitably described as messy business. A return of prisoners canīt be a clean transaction. Rogers on Sunday again hit the TV talking head circuit with this gem:
“The No. 1 way that Al Qaeda raises money is by ransom — kidnapping and ransom.
We have now set a price.” Of course. Thereīs always a price, he just doesnīt want to pay it. And as an arm-chair general, he doesnīt have to. Thatīs the job of the commander-in-chief, the president, who faced with choices like Bergdahlīs release canīt really win.
Consider the reaction Rogers and others would have had if Bergdahl had died while a Taliban captive. The criticism of Obama would have been blistering: “A weak commander-in chief,” “Leaves his injured troop on the field of battle,” “Doesnīt understand military values,” and the always popular Republican cant, “Should be impeached.”
Bergdahl may not have been a model soldier; it will all come out. But bringing home our soldiers — good or bad — is what we owe those who risk their lives in military service. The Israelis, whose position on terrorists is uncompromising, do in fact deal with those they despise to bring their own back home, trading at various times 1,027 Palestinians for single captive and 1,150 prisoners for three. There is always a price, and in this case, itīs the commander-in-chiefīs job to pay it.
Email Mickey Hirten at firstname.lastname@example.org.