On May 31, 2014 the only remaining POW being held by the Taliban was freed in exchange for five Guantanamo Bay detainees. While that may sound like cause for national celebration, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s release and the events surrounding it have quickly become a political lightning rod, with implications far broader than the fate of one American soldier. Because so many factors are at play in the situation, it can be hard to grasp the specifics of the controversy. So, to provide a big-picture view of what’s been going down, here's a breakdown of what of what the hell is happening with the Bowe Bergdahl exchange.
Who is Bowe Bergdahl?
Bowe Bergdahl was a U.S. army soldier who went missing from his base on July 2, 2009. He was last seen by Americans leaving the base with three Afghans. Bergdahl was held by the Islamist insurgent group the Haqqani network for five years before his release.
Was Bowe Bergdahl really a deserter?
Probably. Bergdahl had become disillusioned with the U.S. Army and had said as much to his parents via email. Before his capture, he sent them messages such as:
“The future is too good to waste on lies. And life is way too short to care for the damnation of others, as well as to spend it helping fools with their ideas that are wrong. I have seen their ideas and I am ashamed to even be American.”
This email and the events before his capture were reported by Rolling Stone in the article “America’s Last Prisoner of War.” It now also being reported that he left a note with his plans to desert before he went missing. The evidence that he went AWOL is solid.
How was Bergdahl’s release orchestrated?
America, together with the governments of Afghanistan and Qatar, brokered his release in exchange for five detainees held at Guantanamo Bay. The detainees, sometimes referred to as the Taliban Five, were handed over to the Qatari government, while Bergdahl was released to Delta Force.
These Taliban Five guys sound pretty serious.
Yep, you don't get a name like The Taliban Five for nothing. The group includes two senior Taliban officers, a former Taliban interior minister, a Taliban army chief of staff/division commander, and a Taliban deputy minister of intelligence. Two of the Taliban Five, Mullah Mohammad Fazi and Mullah Norullah Noori, are wanted for war crimes by the UN.
Why was the exchange so controversial?
The legality of the exchange is questionable. According to U.S. federal law, Congress must be informed of any transfers from Guantanamo Bay by at least 30 days in advance. However, for the Bergdahl deal, prior notice wasn't given. The fact that Bergdahl was probably a deserter also raises questions about whether he was worth exchanging for potentially valuable prisoners in the first place. Put bluntly, the situation could be seen as the U.S. releasing a potential traitor in exchange for some seriously bad dudes.
How is the GOP reacting?
As you might have guessed, Republicans are not happy with the away Obama has handled this situation. While some GOP members were initially celebratory, the mood among Republicans has quickly soured. Republicans are hoping to turn the controversy around the exchange into a second Benghazi. Republicans have focused particularly vitriol on Obama’s national security advisor Susan Rice, who told CNN that Bergdahl had served his country with “honor and distinction"—a seemingly dubious claim since he likely deserted.
Who else is upset about this?
Some liberals are also angry, mostly because the exchange points out the fact that Guantanamo is still in operation despite years of Democratic promises that it’s closing. On the flip side, releasing five Guantanamo detainees could, in fact, be signalling that Obama is finally serious about closing down Guantanamo.
How does this play into the current political situation in Afghanistan?
Afghans also view the exchange as particularly troubling, since the Taliban Five pose a serious threat to the stability of the current Afghan administration. Though their movements will be limited, freeing senior Taliban officers is a scary thought for a country still at war.
What happens now?
The conversation will probably keep talking heads going. Obama certainly foresaw all the criticism coming and stands strongly by his decision. The exchange was inevitably going to be politicized, so Republican criticism isn’t really a surprise. Meanwhile, the military will continue to investigate Bergdahl’s desertion claims and make its own decision about how to proceed.
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