Bergdahl critics desert U.S. values

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 3, 2014 - 5:57 PM

Trading for POWs is nothing new, and honors obligation to troops.

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In an undated handout photo, U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was taken prisoner in Afghanistan in June of 2009. Bergdahl was released in good condition on May 31, 2014 in exchange for five Taliban prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, after negotiations carried out by Qatari intermediaries, according to U.S. officials. (U.S. Army via The New York Times) -- FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY.--

Photo: U.S. ARMY, NYT - NYT

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After five years as a prisoner of war, Bowe Bergdahl’s freedom is what matters, not the circumstances of his capture.

It’s to our nation’s disgrace that rather than welcome the young man home from Afghanistan, some have marred this occasion with attacks on Bergdahl’s character because it’s unclear how he fell into enemy hands.

Even worse are those in Washington, D.C., who are using Bergdahl’s release to score election-year points by attempting to paint the Obama administration as soft on terrorism. Their rationale? That the administration negotiated with the Taliban for Bergdahl’s release or that it didn’t get enough in return for moving five Taliban members from Guantanamo Bay to Qatar for monitoring by that nation’s government.

Sorry, we must have missed the asterisk tacked onto those “support our troops” bumper stickers. From the uproar over Bergdahl’s release after five years of captivity, it looks as if that support was only for those serving who never made a mistake on the front lines.

And if there isn’t national consensus on the right ratio of enemy prisoners to one American soldier? Or if the approval process was expedited for an American soldier’s release? Tough luck.

To be sure, it’s unclear how Bergdahl went missing in June 2009 shortly after he was deployed in eastern Afghanistan. There have long been lingering questions about whether the Idaho native walked off on his own after becoming disillusioned with the U.S. mission.

We haven’t heard yet from Bergdahl about what happened. And while the Pentagon concluded in 2010 that he walked off, the bureaucracy’s self-serving coverup in the death of Pat Tillman, the NFL player killed in Afghanistan, continues to leave its credibility in question.

It’s understandable that some of Bergdahl’s former comrades feel betrayed because they believe he left his post; the rescue mission put other Americans in harm’s way. But even if Bergdahl did leave on his own, it wouldn’t justify abandoning him to his fate. No one knows how he or she will react to combat stress. While most cope, not all do. Some soldiers commit suicide. And then there are horrifying cases like that of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who killed 16 civilians in Kandahar in 2012.

Lower-profile breakdowns likely also occur — such as a poorly considered decision to walk away. If it was indeed a moment of weakness, Bergdahl has more than paid the price as a Taliban prisoner of war for five years.

The reprehensible political gamesmanship over negotiating for his release also needs to end. Negotiating prisoners’ release, even high-ranking ones, is nothing new. The U.S. negotiated downed spy-plane pilot Gary Powers’ freedom in 1962, releasing a Soviet spy in exchange. Israel released 1,027 prisoners in 2011 for the release of Gilad Shalit, a soldier who had been held by Hamas for more than five years.

Another noteworthy precedent in negotiating for captives’ release involved the United States agreeing to sweeping terms with one rogue nation. The terms: agreeing to stay out of its internal affairs indefinitely, drop all trade sanctions against it and return all of its substantial assets held in U.S. banks.

That agreement was dubbed the “Algiers Accords.” The signatories were the U.S. and Iran. The date was Jan. 19, 1981. A day later, the 52 Americans held hostage in Tehran since 1979 were released. That these were diplomatic staff, not a soldier like Bergdahl, makes no difference.

The Iran hostage affair also offers a cautionary reminder to those arguing that military action would have been preferable to free Bergdahl. The failure of Operation Eagle Claw, the doomed attempt to rescue the Tehran hostages, shows that there are no guarantees of success.

The message sent by Bergdahl’s return is that Americans don’t leave their own behind, no matter what. That is a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness. Those second-guessing the president’s decision in order to gin up the latest scandal du jour would do well to remember this most American of values.

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