Bergdahl: Five for one
By : Mahir Ali
The political firestorm that has engulfed the United States in the wake of the prisoner exchange earlier this month whereby the Taleban handed Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl to American troops after the US dispatched five of the leading Taleban held in Guantanamo Bay to Qatar ought not to have come as a surprise.
Some American media reports suggest that the White House was taken aback by the mainly conservative backlash, including claims that the liberated soldier was a deserter and a traitor. These insinuations are nothing new, though. They were initially aired soon after news of Bergdahl’s capture broke in the summer of 2009.
Back then, Fox News “strategic analyst” Ralph Peters, otherwise known to those who read him as a writer of action thrillers, described Bergdahl as an “apparent deserter” and suggested the Taleban would do the US a favor by executing him. Not surprisingly, the Rupert Murdoch-owned network has waded deep into the case once more in recent days, with Bill O’Reilly declaring that Bowe’s dad, Bob Bergdahl, “looked like a Muslim” in his unruly beard, while another Fox stalwart, Brian Kilmeade, said it made him “look like a member of the Taleban”.
Bowe’s parents, who appeared alongside Barack Obama as he announced the prisoner of war’s release, have lately been at the receiving end of death threats, and a homecoming celebration planned in the Bergdahls’ hometown of Hailey, Idaho, has been canceled after the police decided they wouldn’t be able to cope with an influx of detractors.
The Guardian has quoted a neighbor of the Bergdahls, interior designer Lee Ann Ferris, as saying: “Fox has been horrible. I’m a conservative, but I’m disgusted by how they’re trashing him. It’s a modern-day lynch mob.”
That’s a reasonably accurate description of Fox’s tendencies, although it’s arguable whether the lynch mob’s primary target is Bergdahl or Obama. After all, a number of conservative legislators who are now claiming that the US administration has paid too high a price for Bergdahl’s freedom were not long ago complaining it wasn’t doing enough to obtain his release. It’s not hard to imagine what line they would have taken had the soldier died in custody or been abandoned to his fate when the US military presence in Afghanistan sharply diminishes by the end of this year.
At the same time, it is reasonably likely that had such an exchange been negotiated by a Republican administration, plenty of Democratic detractors would have emerged to denounce it as a travesty.
One of the primary arguments against the deal is that the five Taleban leaders will re-enter the anti-American fight, even though Qatar has vowed to confine them within the country for a year. US Secretary of State John Kerry has countered that, well, were they to do so, America knows how to deal with them. His comment has broadly been construed as a death threat.
Perhaps inevitably, much less has been reported about the five than about Bergdahl. Their relatively high status in the Taleban hierarchy has occasionally been mentioned, but the circumstances in which they were bundled off to Guantanamo Bay are little known, as are the conditions in which they were kept — in contrast to the quite conceivably accurate claim that Bergdahl was kept in a small cage for weeks and possibly months after his captors foiled an escape attempt.
It is not hard to insinuate from the senior military and administrative posts that at least four of the five held that they are likely to have been guilty of crimes against humanity — albeit most probably against fellow Afghans. If so, they ought to have been tried and imprisoned on Afghan soil. The sheer illegality of the detention facilities at the Guantanamo Bay naval base — a Cuban outpost occupied by the US for more than a century — simply hasn’t been included in the unfolding narrative.
And there can be no prizes for guessing how many of the Bergdahl deal’s most virulent opponents, most of them ardent supporters of Israel, criticized the Netanyahu administration in 2011 for its agreement to swap Gilad Shalit — a Hamas captive for five years — for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. At the same time, though, it’s worth noting that the Obama administration took offense when the Karzai regime released prisoners in a deal with the Taleban. And now Kabul is upset while Mullah Omar purportedly is ecstatic.
It is still unclear exactly what was on Bowe Bergdahl’s mind when he walked out of his base in June 2009, but the last e-mail the then 23-year-old sent his parents before wandering off said: “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 be American. The horror of the self-righteous arrogance that they all thrive in. It is all revolting …
“I am sorry for everything here. These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live … The horror that is America is disgusting.”
It is easy to see how such words could be interpreted as a traitor’s rant. But they could also be read as a cry of despair from a young patriot who made the mistake of buying into his nation’s absurd self-image of benign omnipotence.