Is Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl's release a success story – or a scandal?

Out of America: It's the American way to make politics out of everything, and this is no exception


Only in America. A US soldier held captive by the Taliban for five years is finally released. A moment, you might think, for national rejoicing. Instead, the affair is instantly transmuted into scandal and, for Republicans in Washington, becomes part of the case against Barack Obama and the Democrats – five months before mid-term elections in which they were already hoping to make substantial gains.

But is it a scandal at all? Here are the established facts: Private (now Sergeant) Bowe Bergdahl left his unit in Paktika province, eastern Afghanistan, in June 2009 and was captured by the Taliban; every effort to rescue him or to secure his release by negotiation failed, until 31 May when the President announced a deal for his return, in exchange for five former Taliban officials held at Guantanamo Bay.

The rest, to put it mildly, is murky. It has been suggested Bergdahl was a Taliban sympathiser, that he left his post in order to desert, or that he was in fact planning to return (according to some reports he'd "gone walkabout" twice before). Most serious perhaps, it has been claimed that six US soldiers lost their lives in the efforts to locate and free him. For the President's opponents, these allegations are already gospel. More of that in a moment.

First, two misconceptions about the affair must be disposed of: one is that America "never negotiates with terrorists". Please. Jimmy Carter negotiated with Iranians whom he called terrorists, for the release of the Americans taken hostage at the Teheran embassy in 1979. For seven years Ronald Reagan secretly negotiated with the same Islamic regime – in what would go public as the Iran-Contra affair – to secure the freedom of American hostages in Beirut.

Or take Bill Clinton, who in 1994 overrode the advice of Britain and his own State Department to entertain Gerry Adams, leader of the political wing of the IRA, which the US then formally designated a terrorist group. In that case, moreover, the consequences were wholly beneficial, hastening the entire Irish peace process. And, lest we forget, the Tory government of John Major at the time maintained its own backchannels to the IRA.

During the Iraq war, the administration of George W Bush reached out to Sunni militants who had killed American soldiers. Elsewhere, Israelis have dealt with Palestinian groups, and a Spanish government entered talks with the Basque organisation ETA. Negotiating with terrorists is a messy business, of unpredictable outcome. But the unspoken truth is that it is the norm, rather than the exception.

The second misconception is that the Americans gave away the store by exchanging five high-value Taliban officials to secure Bergdahl's freedom. By contrast, given that the Israelis have twice in recent years struck separate deals to free more than 1,000 Palestinians to recover a total of four captured soldiers, the price actually looks cheap.

Yes, the officials used to be important; but they were sent to "Gitmo" in its earliest days, and Afghanistan has moved on since 2002. The five are Taliban, not al-Qa'ida: were they to appear on the battlefield, drones would surely guarantee them a very brief life expectancy.

Bergdahl is released Bergdahl is released There are a couple of side-benefits as well. The US has never hidden its hope of a deal with the Taliban, if only to facilitate the final withdrawal of its own forces from Afghanistan, now set for 2016. The release of the five, brokered in part by Qatar, suggests that a channel exists to work for this end. And, last but not least, there are now five fewer detainees held without trial at that disgrace to America known as Guantanamo Bay.

This is not to say Obama has not put a foot wrong. Certainly, he was asking for trouble by not notifying Congress in advance, as he is required to for all transfers from Gitmo. The administration contends that, faced with evidence of Bergdahl's rapidly deteriorating health, it could not afford to wait.

The biggest blunder, though, was the celebratory White House photo-op with Bergdahl's parents to announce their son's release – even when it knew that the soldier's record wasn't spotless. Nor did it help when Bergdahl's father, Robert, looking like a convert to radical Islam with his long beard and hair, made some unscripted remarks in Urdu and Pashto. His motive was honourable enough – an attempt to understand the world in which Bowe was being held captive. Try telling that to hyperventilating Obama-haters, who have scented blood and some of whom demand impeachment, no less.

Bowe Bergdahl is released by the Taliban and handed over to Special Forces Bowe Bergdahl is released by the Taliban and handed over to Special Forces Trumping everything – not just for this president but for some conservative pundits as well – has been the sacrosanct principle that America moves heaven and earth to get back one of its own. "I make absolutely no apologies for making sure that we get back a young man to his parents," the President declared last week.

Not only liberals agreed with him. Supporters included Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, normally the most withering of Obama's critics, as well as the conservative-leaning David Brooks of The New York Times. Mistakes were made, the pair say, but basically Obama did the right thing. First you get your man back. If there is solid evidence Bergdahl is guilty of desertion or worse, then charge him and give him the opportunity to defend himself before a court martial. That is the American way.

But so too, in this hyperpartisan age, is to make politics out of everything. "The complicated nature of this recovery will never be properly comprehended," Robert Bergdahl said at the White House. But the politicians will not try to understand. What matters in the Bergdahl affair, as in the scandal revealed at veterans' hospitals, and the endless Benghazi embassy controversy, is to score electoral points. Naively you might think that Bowe Bergdahl has suffered enough, that it's time to move on. Alas, moving on is no longer the American way.

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