The United States has paid a high price for the return of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl by exchanging him for five high-level Taliban leaders held at Guantanamo.
It’s hard not to be touched watching Bergdahl’s parents rejoice in their son’s pending return after almost five years in captivity, and apparently the administration had humanitarian reasons to go forward with the exchange related to the man’s physical and mental health.
But the exchange is also cause for concern. Americans can only hope releasing those five enemies — including a former deputy defense minister and a former deputy minister of intelligence for the Taliban — won’t come back to haunt us.
Some previous Gitmo detainees have again taken up arms against American interests, including Said Ali al-Shihri, who was the deputy leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula until he was killed in a drone strike in Yemen last year. It’s not an immediate concern in this case, as the five men will be under a one-year travel ban in Qatar, the country that served as the go-between in the exchange. But they likely will be able to at least communicate with their former Taliban compatriots.
Critics of the exchange are understandably worried that other Americans — military and civilian — might be kidnapped and held to win the release of more high-value enemies. Others ask whether this exchange signals a change in U.S. policy against negotiating with terrorists. That’s a valid question. Refusing such negotiations has been an important way to protect Americans abroad.
Bergdahl disappeared under mysterious circumstances from his base in eastern Afghanistan in June 2009. Whether he was forcibly taken or left his post voluntarily isn’t known yet. He reportedly had made some statements in emails that suggest he was disenchanted with the U.S. mission and “ashamed to even be an American.”
A preliminary Pentagon investigation in 2010 concluded that Bergdahl had walked away from his unit, but on Monday a Defense Department spokesperson said that report was missing Bergdahl’s side of the story.
Even if he left his post voluntarily, it’s possible that he came to regret that action. He might have been suffering some kind of emotional distress. The mayor of Bergdahl’s hometown of Hailey, Idaho, makes a good point when he urges people to reserve judgment until all the facts are in.
That’s sound advice, but it doesn’t change the fact that as welcome as Bergdahl’s release is, how it was secured may play out in a way the U.S. might someday regret.