One question about the controversy over the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five Taliban prisoners held at Guantánamo is: If it’s clear that various GOP hawks, including the irrepressible and irresponsible John McCain, will go all out to use the story to paint President Obama as an appeaser, a negotiator-with-terrorists, and worse, then will former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton join them? Because back when she was secretary of state, Clinton opposed the exchange for Bergdahl, and on the same grounds that Republicans are blasting the deal now.
Fact is, talking to the Taliban—indeed, negotiating with them, freeing some prisoners and perhaps offering them some power in a rebalanced government of Afghanistan—is the smartest strategy for making sure that Afghanistan can be stabilized by 2016. And if the Bergdahl deal leads to that outcome, then it will have been a very, very smart thing. In the meantime, if Bergdahl—assuming that he isn’t permanently traumatized by his years of captivity—speaks out about the craziness and illegitimacy of the war since 2001, then he might become a hero to and spokesman for the antiwar forces in the United States.
Already, the nonsensical furor over Bergdahl’s release, after five years of being held as a prisoner by the Taliban in Pakistan, has done the impossible: it’s eclipsed another nonsensical non-scandal, the one over Benghazi. And if the Benghazi flap is designed to undermine Clinton’s presidential posture, the Bergdahl flap may boost her image—even though Clinton has now come out defending the deal that she opposed, privately, to support it publicly.
The best place to start in understanding the Bergdahl story—and, after all, both he and the efforts to free him have been in the news for half a decade—is with Michael Hastings’ brilliant piece in Rolling Stone back in July 2012. (Disclosure: I knew Hastings, who died tragically in a car accident, and we both wrote for Rolling Stone about Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s insurrection against the White House. It was Hastings’s piece, of course, that brought McChrystal down.) As Hastings makes clear—in a piece called “America’s Last Prisoner of War”—Bergdahl was a questioning, home-schooled Idahoan who joined the army and went to Afghanistan because he thought he’d be doing good, but when he arrived he was quickly disillusioned by the brutality he witnessed, by the sheer incompetence and witlessness that he experienced by American officers and others.
Once Bergdahl gets home, gets treatment and counseling, and recovers from his harrowing captivity, we may learn more about him and about his story. Clearly, he hears the beat of a different drummer—and what he expected or hoped to accomplish by walking off base in 2009 into the hands of the Taliban—who apparently captured him while he was defecating—isn’t known, exactly. Whether he was simply a quirky loner who snapped, or whether he was carrying out some sort of protest aimed at bringing home the insanity of the Afghan war, or something else, isn’t clear. But, in emails to his family, quoted in the Rolling Stone article, Bergdahl fairly explicity denounces the war and America’s military. In one, worth quoting at length (edited slightly for grammar), he wrote: