WASHINGTON – President Obama’s trade of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five top Taliban commanders was a blunder that has made the world more dangerous, according to the man charged with finding the missing soldier.
“Every Afghan I have spoken with in the past weeks, from civil society to government officials, is stunned that we would release these individuals back into their society,” U.S. Army Special Forces Commander Mike Waltz testified before Congress Wednesday afternoon.
Waltz was an Army major commanding a U.S. Special Forces company in eastern Afghanistan at the time Bergdahl disappeared. He had responsibility for operations in the Afghan provinces where Bergdahl went missing on June 30, 2009, and conducted several week’s worth of missions searching for the soldier.
“We must keep in mind that these men are household names of the worst kind in Afghanistan, particularly amongst women and the ethnic minorities that were slaughtered at their hands,” said Waltz, who is now senior national security fellow at the New America Foundation.
When asked about that insight, committee member Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., readily agreed, telling WND that the exchange undermined the confidence in the United States of “every woman and child in Afghanistan.”
Waltz said one had to wonder why, “of all the terrorists held in Guantanamo, the Taliban chose these five, essentially their top five draft picks.”
Waltz said their return had essentially “restocked the Taliban War Cabinet.”
Additionally, Waltz told the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Berdahl “handed our enemies a significant propaganda tool that they used repeatedly in videos to denounce the United States and recruit for their cause.”
Saying the trade was not responsible or wise, the former special forces commander called it “a policy decision that was certainly not worth the sacrifices of the soldiers that gave everything to stabilize Afghanistan.”
Waltz said the return of Bergdahl carried too high a price in more ways than one.
“I am confident in saying that Sgt. Bergdahl endangered the lives of the thousands of men and women sent to search for him,” added Waltz.
Andy Andrews, father of deceased Army 2nd Lt. Darryn Andrews, testified that he had learned from veterans who served in Afghanistan that his son was killed why trying to find Bergdahl.
But he said the Army lied to him and told him his son had died while looking for a high-value Taliban target.
The younger Andrews was killed on Sept. 4, 2009, by an attack involving an improvised explosive device and a rocket-propelled grenade in Paktika province, Afghanistan.
In response to a question from a congressman, Andrews’ father replied, no, he was not invited to a White House Rose Garden ceremony, as were the parents of Bergdahl.
A hush fell over the hearing room when the father was asked a difficult question, would he exchange his son for five top Taliban members?
Andrews poignantly observed, “Not if my son had been a deserter.”
His voice dropping to a near-whisper, he added, “But my son was a man of honor.”
The hearing is primarily examining the wisdom of the Obama administration’s exchange of Bergdahl, a possible deserter and traitor, for the top five Taliban commanders in U.S. custody.
Many lawmakers wonder whether the cost for Bergdahl was too great, because it turned loose five top terrorists, expected by most observers to rejoin the fight, in exchange for a soldier accused by those in his unit of deserting his post and possibly collaborating with the enemy.
The biggest concern is that by exchanging terrorists for a U.S. soldier, terrorists will now have an incentive to kidnap Americans.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., said the Obama administration had, in fact, done the U.S. a great disservice by putting more Americans at risk.
Yes, President George W. Bush, did release 500 prisoners from Guantanamo, the congressman acknowledged. But he did not make a deal.
Bush, the lawmaker said, did a survey to find the least dangerous prisoners, then released them. President Obama did just the opposite by releasing the most dangerous prisoners as part of a deal.
Bergdahl did not just spontaneously decide to leave his platoon, but had a thought-out plan and began concocting his alibi beforehand, and should be charged with desertion and numerous other serious charges, his former platoon mate testified.
Retired Army Spc. Cody Full, who served with Bergdahl in Blackfoot Company, Second Platoon, told Congress, now that he’s had a chance to connect the dots, it is clear Bergdahl had a plan to desert his platoon in Afghanistan before he disappeared on June 30, 2009.
“The facts tell me that Bergdahl’s desertion was premeditated. Bergdal had a plan and was trying to justify it in his head. How long he planned this, I don’t know.”
Full said, contrary to what Bergdahl had emailed his father, he was not interested in helping the Afghans at all, and that he was concocting an alibi and feigning compassion for the local Afghans merely to explain his disappearance.
Full testified, “What Bergdahl was telling his platoon members and what he was telling his parents were polar opposites.”
Bergdahl had emailed his father that the platoon was, in Full’s words, “committing atrocities instead of helping the local population.”
“He was complaining to his parents about events that weren’t happening,” testified the soldier, and that the story Begdahl emailed his father about “running children down in the street with our armored trucks, this is completely false. Our unit did not run over a child. In fact, we didn’t run over anyone at all.”
Full testified, “In reality, we were doing exactly what Bergdahl was telling his parents we should be doing.”
The soldier said, “Bergdahl said in emails he wanted us to help the Afghan people, but in real life he disagreed with this and wanted to kill more,” and that Bergdahl even wondered why they were doing so many humanitarian missions, and couldn’t, instead, dress up as locals and ambush the Taliban.
Appearing on Fox News recently, Full contradicted the claim made by National Security Adviser Rice that Bergdahl served with honor and distinction.
He said Bergdahl “violated his oath and put Americans in jeopardy” and wanted to see him court-martialed as a deserter.
Full testified Wednesday that Bergdahl should also face seven other serious charges, including insubordination and disobeying his superior officer.
Lawmakers were worried that the U.S. violated a longstanding policy against negotiating with terrorists in swapping Bergdahl for the five Taliban commanders, formerly held at the prison at Guantanamo.
“The five members of the Taliban that the administration released are extremely dangerous and their release can harm our national security interests in the region,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said before the hearing began.
At a House hearing last week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said, because the U.S. negotiated with the Taliban (which, for some reason, is not listed as a terrorist group by the State Department), it had not negotiated with terrorists.
However, Bergdal was held by the Haqqani Network, which the U.S. does classify as a terrorist group.
Lawmakers at last week’s hearing wondered, if the administration negotiated with the Taliban, and they negotiated with the Haqqani Network, wasn’t that the same as negotiating with terrorists? The only difference being the presence of a middleman.
Some congressmen were also concerned about squandering the high cost in blood and treasure in capturing the Taliban in the first place.
Also, some lawmakers are extremely concerned that the Obama administration apparently obtained no guarantees that the five Taliban leaders are not on the Internet in Qatar at this very moment, plotting to kill more Americans. In fact, that is what many critics have said they would expect.
President Obama is under intense bipartisan criticism for the swap of Bergdahl for the terrorists, who, the administration has admitted, it cannot guarantee will not return to killing Americans. The Taliban commanders were sent to Qatar, where they are supposed to be detained for a year.
Critics say the Taliban leaders were far too dangerous to be released from prison at Guantanamo. Members of Congress were outraged they weren’t given the 30-day advance notice of the deal, as required by law. And several former platoon mates say Bergdahl was a deserter and likely collaborated with the Taliban. No former platoon mates have contradicted those claims.
At last week’s hearing, lawmakers from both parties complained that Obama failed to notify Congress ahead of time, as the National Defense Authorization Act requires for transfers of Guantanamo detainees.
During testimony by Hagel, Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., called explanations for not notifying Congress made by White House officials at the classified briefing “misleading and at times blatantly false.”
Hagel admitted the administration should have tried harder to let Congress know about what he called rapidly moving developments, saying, “We could have done a better job of keeping you informed.”
“As the opportunity to obtain Sgt. Bergdahl’s release became clearer, we grew increasingly concerned that any delay, or any leaks, could derail the deal and further endanger” him, Hagel added.
Some members of the committee expressed angry frustration that the administration felt it could not trust Congress to keep a secret.
And, like committee members at Wednesday’s hearing, some wondered about the wisdom of releasing the Taliban five.
McKeon said he was concerned the Taliban five “still pose a threat to Americans and Afghans alike” because “in a year, they will be free to return to Afghanistan.”
Meanwhile, the White House is planning to transfer even more Guantanamo prisoners, officials said a week ago, Tuesday.
Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said the White House was “making progress on a number of additional promising opportunities.”
“While we do not generally discuss transfers before they take place, we are fully committed to implementing the president’s direction that we transfer detainees to the greatest extent possible, consistent with national security and our humane-treatment policy, as we work toward closing the facility at Guantanamo Bay,” she said.
Hayden said 17 inmates had been moved out of Guantanamo in the last 13 months, including the five Taliban commanders swapped for Bergdahl.
Here is what Bergdahl’s former squad mates, including Full, have said about him.
Former Army Sgt. Evan Buetow was the team leader when Bergdahl disappeared on the night of June 30, 2009.
He said he heard Afghans from a nearby village say on the radio, “There’s an American here looking for someone who speaks English so he can talk to the Taliban.”
Buetow said “we were incredibly worried” about what Bergdahl might tell the Taliban, and their improvised explosive device, or IED, attacks became much more effective in the weeks after the soldier left his post.
“Following his disappearance, IEDs started going off directly under the trucks. They were getting perfect hits every time. Their ambushes were very calculated, very methodical,” said Buetow.
“Bergdahl is a deserter, and he’s not a hero,” Buetow told CNN. “He needs to answer for what he did.”
Fellow soldier Nathan Bradley Bethea told the Daily Beast, “Bergdahl was a deserter, and soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down.”
Bethea wrote that one morning, Bergdahl simply failed to show for the morning roll call.
“The soldiers in 2nd Platoon, Blackfoot Company, discovered his rifle, helmet, body armor and web gear in a neat stack. He had, however, taken his compass. His fellow soldiers later mentioned his stated desire to walk from Afghanistan to India.”
The soldier wrote that Bergdahl did not “lag behind on a patrol, as was cited in news reports at the time. There was no patrol that night.”
Rather, Bethea said, Bergdahl was “relieved from guard duty, and instead of going to sleep, he fled the outpost on foot. He deserted.”
Another member of Bergdahl’s platoon when he went missing, Sgt. Matt Vierkant, told CNN, “Bowe Bergdahl deserted during a time of war, and his fellow Americans lost their lives searching for him.”
Vierkant said Bergdahl needs to face a military trial for desertion under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Army Sgt. Josh Korder bluntly told CNN that Bergdahl was “at best a deserter, and at worst, a traitor.”
Former Pfc. Jose Baggett said he was close to two men “killed because of his (Bergdahl’s) actions.”
He told MSNBC that not only was Bergdahl not a hero, he “left his guard post and got real heroes killed,” referring to the men who went searching for the missing soldier.
Full and Sutton
Former Army specialists Cody Full and Gerald Sutton were platoon mates of Bergdahl who appeared on Fox News.
Full contradicted the claim made by National Security Adviser Rice that Bergdahl served with honor and distinction. He said Bergdahl “violated his oath and put Americans in jeopardy” and wanted to see him court-martialed as a deserter.
Although Sutton was a friend of Bergdahl, he agreed, it was desertion.
At least six soldiers were killed in searches for Bergdahl, according to soldiers who looked for him.
Follow Garth Kant on Twitter @DCgarth