The last American prisoner of war was released over the weekend in an eyebrow-raising exchange. Americans, while happy for the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, are wondering about the circumstances, the precedent it sets and the message it may transmit to the nation’s enemies. And hovering above it all are questions about process and the president’s apparent disregard for a law requiring 30 days notice to Congress.
To call the war on terror complicated would be an understatement. This incident, however, raises several vexing questions with implications for how that war will proceed in the future.
Some in the administration are hinting the exchange has opened a small window of trust between the United States and the Taliban that could lead to an end to the conflict. But unless the Taliban stops being the Taliban, that doesn’t sound like good news.
Meanwhile, the largest question looming over the release of Bergdahl concerns the five Taliban prisoners exchanged for his release. These are, in the words of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., “hardened terrorists who have the blood of Americans and countless Afghans on their hands.”
The administration said terms of the deal restrict the five to remaining within Qatar for one year, after which U.S. and Qatari officials will monitor their movements to ensure they don’t re-enter the fight against the United States. It is difficult to believe the five terrorists will remain peaceful, however, just as it is difficult to believe officials will be able to keep track of their whereabouts.
Does the exchange signal terrorists that the United States is open to other such deals? If so, look for further kidnapping attempts. The difficulty of this exchange (it took three years to negotiate) may argue against this, but time will tell.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Bergdahl was a prisoner of war, not a hostage. Does this signal a change in how the United States views the conflict? Washington has long claimed it didn’t need to follow terms of the Geneva Convention because the terrorists it captured were detainees without state affiliation, not prisoners of war.
What of Bergdahl himself? Details of how he came to be in Taliban hands are sketchy. Some fellow soldiers accuse him of desertion and say attacks on U.S. forces increased after he left. At the least, the Taliban knew there would be attempts to rescue him, which made troop movements more predictable. Should Bergdahl be prosecuted in connection with these allegations?
And what of the requirement that Congress be notified 30 days in advance of any deal with the enemy? The administration has a litany of excuses for ignoring this. Among these: Bergdahl’s health was failing, so quick action was required, Congress might compromise security, Congress had been notified long ago that negotiations might take place, and the Constitution grants the president the power to conclude such a deal.
It might be easy to overlook the 30-day requirement except that President Obama has a history of ignoring Congress and required processes. His insistence on changing the Affordable Care Act without legislative approval is a prime example.
In a conflict as long and difficult as the war on terror, little twists and turns are easily exaggerated beyond proportion. But prisoner exchanges with an enemy that is little more than a collection of fanatical outlaws can have far-reaching consequences.
Everyone should be happy that Bergdahl is coming home after five years. But we should hope the price of his homecoming does not prove to be costly.