American paranoia and Bowe Bergdahl

The Taliban prisoner swap for Bowe Bergdahl might do some good, but fear and anger are getting in the way of a realistic appraisal.

This file image provided by IntelCenter on Dec. 8, 2010, shows a frame grab from a video released by the Taliban containing footage of captured US soldier Bowe Bergdahl, left.

Richard Hofstadter opened his 1968 essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," with this line: "American politics has often been an arena for angry minds."

He continues, "Behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind."

One wonders what Mr. Hofstadter would have to say about the great gnashing of teeth and anger today over President Barack Obama's prisoner swap for US soldier Bowe Bergdahl. Lurking behind this is not just disagreement with the decision – to release five men, four of them very senior Taliban leaders at the time of their detention in 2001, in exchange for the army sergeant – but a seemingly deep-seated belief that Obama is unpatriotic, more interested in helping American enemies than helping America.

Lending to the outrage is credible evidence that Bergdahl, an odd duck who had grown to hate the war according to people who served with him, deliberately walked off post before his capture. Nathan Bradley Bethea, who was serving in Afghanistan at time with Bergdahl's unit (the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment) makes it clear that Bergdahl went AWOL from his platoon's small outpost in Paktika Province in an in-depth piece on the events before his capture and how members of his unit, which lost soldiers trying to track him down, feel about the event. Many are understandably angry and consider the man a deserter.

Bethea writes that Bergdahl left most of his gear – his flak, his rifle – behind, taking only his compass. "His fellow soldiers later mentioned his stated desire to walk from Afghanistan to India," he writes.

Was this "Going After Cacciato" moment in fact a desertion, a desire to join up with the Taliban? Or was it simply an absence without leave, a lesser crime? That's for the military justice system to work out.

But wanting to bring this man home doesn't depend on whether he was a model soldier or a terrible one. So the question becomes: Was the release of the five Taliban members too high a price to pay?

To some members of Congress, it was reckless and dangerous. House Intelligence Committee head Mike Rodgers said the swap sent "a message to every Al Qaeda group in the world that there is some value in a hostage that it didn’t have before.” In fact, Al Qaeda and the Taliban (which are distinct groups, though this is often ignored in US discourse) have always been highly motivated to catch US soldiers and would have remained so whatever happened this weekend.

Or take former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who wrote on her Facebook page: "You blew it again, Barack Obama, by negotiating away any leverage against the bad guys as these bad guys – Osama Bin Laden's partners in evil crime – joyfully celebrate their 'win' in the deal you sealed."

That is not remotely what Obama has just done. And amid all the fear and anger and, yes, paranoia, is the chance that the release of the Taliban five maybe – just maybe – will do some good. None of the men were ever charged with any crime against US citizens or soldiers, and the Afghan government has been eager to pen a reconciliation deal with the Taliban. US-installed President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly sought talks with the group, downplayed their threat, and criticized the money spent and blood spilled on his government's behalf in America's longest war.

Ending wars almost always requires hard choices, and that moment has arrived for the US. A hard choice may prove to be a wrong choice, but it isn't betrayal, and people that seek black and white clarity over Afghanistan need to look elsewhere.

Make no mistake, the US military leverage in Afghanistan, which has failed to end the insurgency there over 13 years, is on the wane. The current plan is to leave just 10,000 troops in the country beyond the end of this year and to fully withdraw by the end of 2016. But that's one reason for the Afghan government to seek to cut a deal with a group that it hasn't been able to defeat, despite massive NATO support.

Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, who said he approved of a prisoner swap four months ago, was also furious.

"These are the hardest of the hard core. These are the highest high-risk people, and others that we have released have gone back into the fight,” he told Face the Nation. "If they are able to (after) a year in Qatar to do whatever they want to do there’s no doubt they will reenter the fight."

Perhaps. But it's also possible that these men, older and wiser heads than many of the commanders in the field who have little political experience, will be interested in cutting deals with the Afghan government after so much bloodshed. With the group in Qatar for the next year, government representatives will have a chance to find out.

Journalist Anand Gopal, writing in 2010, told the tale of senior lieutenants of Taliban leader Mullah Omar getting together and planning to surrender to Karzai's government just as Kandahar was about to fall in 2001. The group sent a letter to Karzai, acknowledging him as the leader of Afghanistan, and promised no resistance when NATO sought to take Kandahar. The men sought immunity from prosecution in exchange for all this.

Karzai, aware that many of the warlords who had fought the Taliban were eager for revenge and that the US was not interested in dealing with the group, ignored the overture.

"Widespread intimidation and harassment of these former Taliban ensued," Gopal writes. "Sympathetic figures in the government told (Muhammad) Haqqani and others in the group that they should flee the country, for they would not be safe in Afghanistan. So the men eventually vanished across the border into Pakistan's Baluchistan Province. Many of the signatories of the letter were to become leading figures in the insurgency."

The Haqqani mentioned above was part of the Haqqani network, a powerful Taliban offshoot that is believed to have held Bergdahl in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The point of this history lesson is that refusing to negotiate or brook compromise can often be more dangerous than the alternative.

What of the future?

Abdullah Abdullah, who appears to be the presidential frontrunner after securing the endorsement of powerful warlord Abdul Rasul Sayyaf ahead of the vote tomorrow, is also eager for peace talks.

"Talking to the Taliban should continue, the door to talks and negotiations should be open," he told France 24 last month. "At the same time, we have to assure our people that we are going to defend our people against violence. So we'll take the issue of talks and negotiations very seriously. At the same time, the country should be prepared. If the negotiations do not work, of course, we will have to defend our people, their lives, their rights.”

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