- By Paul D. MillerPaul D. Miller is assistant professor of international security studies at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. He served as director for Afghanistan on the National Security Council staff under U.S. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
It doesn’t matter if U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl turns out to have been a deserter. It was the right call to try to get him back. Every soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine in the U.S. armed forces needs to know that if the enemy captures them, the U.S. military will stop at nothing to get them back. That confidence helps American troops take risks and act with courage and boldness.
Even if Bergdahl deserted his post, which seems probable judging from the reports now emerging about him, that was not a widely known or proven fact over the past five years. His recovery was still important for the morale of the rest of the force. Staying loyal to the men and women in uniform — even if they do not reciprocate that loyalty — is a matter of national security.
The means of his recovery — a swap for five high-ranking Taliban commanders — is more worrying, but only slightly. Prisoner swaps have ample historical precedent, although it seems more prudent to wait until after a war is over before returning potential combatants to the battlefield. The issue today is more legally complex — but not morally so — because of the Bush and Obama administrations’ decisions to classify the Taliban as illegal combatants. Legal niceties notwithstanding, a war is a war.
The silver lining to this swap is that it might lead to serious talks with the Taliban. It is likely that the Obama administration agreed to this exchange precisely because it hoped to spur talks to end the war in Afghanistan as the U.S. withdraws. Considering the administration’s intent to withdraw American forces and the military situation in Afghanistan, its desire to resolve the Bergdahl situation and simultaneously jump-start talks with the Taliban is understandable.
And talks with the Taliban appear to be the best option for stabilizing Afghanistan, under the circumstances. It seems unlikely that the U.S. military will defeat the Taliban with the resources and time allotted to it by the administration; thus, negotiations are the best option. The exchange seems to be the administration’s attempt to wrap up loose ends as it gears up for the full withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of 2016.
In other words, the United States backed itself into a corner with its strategy towards Afghanistan — by sending too few troops under the Bush administration, and undermining their efforts with a premature withdrawal deadline under the Obama administration — such that it now has no good options for the endgame, or for resolving situations like Bergdahl’s.
Acceding to a prisoner swap for Bergdahl is a highly visible symptom of a much larger problem. The problem is that the United States never explicitly made its goal in Afghanistan the defeat of the Taliban insurgency; never built up the forces required to secure its interests; and is withdrawing before the war is over. It never leveraged its power to compel the enemy to do its will, which is the essence of war. The United States treated Afghanistan more like a management problem than a war.
Given those realities, negotiating for Bergdahl and for the end of the war as a whole is the next-best option. Better to negotiate for Bergdahl than let him rot as a hostage to the United States’ political unwillingness to do what is necessary to defeat his captors.
Critics upset at the prisoner exchange, or at the prospects of negotiating with the Taliban, are either late to the game or are disingenuous with their critique. The right time to be outraged was years ago, when U.S. policymakers made the decisions that created the situation that forced the United States into swapping prisoners and negotiating with the enemy. By the same token, critics who supported the withdrawal deadline cannot now in good faith be upset at the conditions the deadline has created.
As for Bergdahl, if he is convicted of desertion, perhaps his prison time should be reduced to time already served in a Taliban cell. That, and the dishonor he will carry with him for the rest of his life, should be punishment enough.