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The Unraveling

How the Obama administration’s story on Bowe Bergdahl and the Taliban fell apart

Jun 16, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 38 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Didn’t negotiate with terrorists? The United States engaged in “direct discussions with the Taliban in late 2011, early 2012,” a senior administration official acknowledged in a background briefing with reporters on May 31. The Taliban took possession of Bergdahl in Afghanistan, where the U.S. military can freely conduct operations, and quickly transferred him to the Haqqani network, a Taliban-associated group in Pakistan, where it cannot go. The Haqqani network held Bergdahl until shortly before his release. They were formally designated a terrorist group by the United States in September 2012. One of the early U.S. requests in the talks was a simple one: The Taliban had to renounce terrorism. They refused.

The freed Taliban figures will be carefully watched? A report by Reuters quoted a senior Gulf official on security provisions for the Taliban in Qatar as saying, “They can move freely within the country. Under the deal, they have to stay in Qatar for a year, and then they will be allowed to travel outside the country. .  .  . They can go back to Afghanistan if they want to.” Reuters further reported that the men “will not be treated as prisoners while in Doha and no U.S. officials will be involved in monitoring their movements while in the country.”

Bergdahl served with “honor and distinction”? “That’s not true,” Specialist Cody Full told The Weekly Standard. “He was a deserter. There’s no question in the minds of anyone in our platoon.” 

Bergdahl’s rapidly declining health required immediate intervention to save his life? In a video of the hand-over released by the Taliban, Bergdahl appeared gaunt but walked without apparent difficulty to the waiting helicopter. Doctors at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany said he was having nutritional issues but listed him in “stable” condition. And, according to the Wall Street Journal, the video that generated the sense of urgency was filmed in December 2013, six months before the “emergency” prisoner exchange. 

In the days following the announcement of the exchange, the public scrutiny of three aspects of the deal—Bergdahl’s disappearance, his health, and the threat posed by the release of the Guantánamo detainees—left Obama back where he started. His trip to Europe for a meeting of the G-7 was overshadowed by questions about the deal, and Obama found himself, once again, reacting to a crisis of his own making.

The Disappearance

Almost immediately after the Rose Garden ceremony, Bowe Bergdahl’s platoon mates began telling a story they’d been ordered to keep quiet. Bergdahl, they said, was a deserter. Specialist Full took to Twitter and in a long string of posts—interrupted only by short breaks for beer—provided his recollections of Bergdahl’s disappearance. 

In a subsequent interview with The Weekly Standard, Full was blunt. “He was not a hero. What he did was not honorable. He knowingly deserted and put thousands of people in danger because he did. We swore to an oath, and we upheld ours. He did not.” 

Specialist Josh Cornelison shared that view. “He walked off—and ‘walked off’ is a nice way to put it,” said Cornelison, the medic in Bergdahl’s platoon. “He was accounted for late that afternoon. He very specifically planned to walk out in the middle of the night.” 

In total, nine members of Bergdahl’s squad have accused him of walking out on his fellow soldiers. An AR 15-6 investigation conducted by the Army came to the same conclusion, though it stopped short of formally classifying Bergdahl as a deserter because such a label requires knowledge of intent, which the Army investigators lacked. 

Speaking out about the circumstances of Bergdahl’s departure took some courage. At the time of his disappearance, the soldiers were instructed not to talk about Bergdahl, his departure, or his possible whereabouts. That much is routine—any public discussion of the hostage could threaten his life and the lives of the troops and intelligence officials working to rescue him. But these soldiers were also asked to sign nondisclosure agreements. That step, a former senior Pentagon official says, is “highly unusual.”

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