- By John HudsonJohn Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013.
Despite thunderous claims from lawmakers that the five Taliban prisoners released for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in May represented the "hardest of the hard core" — members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff hold a markedly different view of the threat posed by the former detainees.
On Thursday, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) released seven separate letters from the members of the nation’s senior military leadership explaining their supportive opinions on the concessions the United States made to free Bergdahl, who had been held prisoner by the Haqqani network since 2009.
Their reasons varied, but overall the responses fell into five basic categories, which we’ve condensed below.
- It Was a Smart Move: The Taliban 5 Are Washed Up Anyway
Noting that the Taliban 5 "posed a real threat at the time of their capture," the Army’s chief of staff, Gen. Ray Odierno, wrote that 12 years of incarceration significantly reduced the detainees’ relevance to the Taliban’s leadership structure. "Each of the ‘Taliban 5’ has been replaced from within the Taliban Organization some years ago," he said. "This will significantly reduce their tactical relevancy."
Adm. James Winnefeld, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, agreed: "If, in a year, these detainees travel to Pakistan to rejoin the Taliban leadership, they will be among leaders with 13 more years of experience living comfortably in Quetta doing the same thing, and in my view will provide marginal additive benefit."
- We Trust the Qataris
For Gen. Martin Dempsey, Joint Chiefs chairman, the assurances from the Qatari government, which helped broker the trade and agreed to keep the detainees in Qatar for one year, satisfied his concerns about the swap in the short term. "Qatari assurances significantly reduced the near-term risk," he said. "Longer-term risk is balanced by the fact that Afghanistan today is different from Afghanistan 12 years ago. The Taliban are widely challenged and control few areas. With continued international support and development of Afghan Security Forces, I believe the reintroduction of these former Taliban leaders will be managed at moderate risk."
- Never Leave a Man Behind
For Gen. James Amos, the Marine Corps’ commandant, the military’s sacred commitment to troops was paramount. "[I]t’s a fundamental principle of the Marine combat leadership that we do not leave our people behind on the battlefield," he said. "[I]t is our warrior code, and simply what we do as Marines and as a nation."
In his letter, chief of the National Guard Bureau, Gen. Frank Grass, agreed. "It is my personal assessment that the pledge to bring our service members home from captivity is sacred within the military community and our nation," he wrote.
- Bergdahl’s Health Was in Jeopardy — We Had to Act
Winnefeld also cited concerns about Bergdahl’s health, an issue that has been contentious given his reportedly clean bill of health from military doctors after his May rescue. "We were genuinely worried about Sergeant Bergdahl’s health." Noting the fog of war, he said, "we were looking through a glass darkly. His last proof-of-life video was taken seven months before his transfer was arranged.… CIA physicians at the time said his condition appeared to have significantly deteriorated." That diagnosis meant that six months later, "we simply had no idea whether his health had further declined, leveled off, or improved; we had to assume the worst."
- No One Consulted Me on This, but …
Other top military officers, who weren’t consulted about the operation, offered much shorter statements of support. "I was not privy to the specific details or the negotiations that led to the exchange in advance due to the fast-moving nature of this operation," said the Air Force’s chief of staff, Gen. Mark Welsh. "I do, however, support the return of Sergeant Bergdahl." In a similar response, U.S. Navy Adm. Jonathan Greenert said, "While not consulted on the specific decision to exchange Taliban detainees for the release of Sergeant Bergdahl … [i]t was understood that some type of action would be necessary to secure his release prior to U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan."
You can read all seven letters here.