The Taliban’s distribution of a video showing its release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl has added fuel to a spreading controversy that has led to the Obama administration drawing fire from friends and foes alike.
The video shows Taliban fighters under a makeshift white flag handing a nervous-looking Bergdahl over to American servicemen in civilian clothes who apparently pat him down before taking off in a helicopter. The footage ends with the caption “Don’ [sic] come back to Afghanistan,” a message that could equally apply to Bergdahl or US forces, whose exit from the region has just been announced by the President.
Such is the disquiet over allegations that Bergdahl deserted his post before his abduction that organisers in his hometown of Hailey in Idaho have cancelled plans for a public celebration for fear of protests.
In calling off the June 28 event, the officials cited concerns that they lacked the resources to safely manage the thousands of supporters and protesters who were expected to converge on the small mountain community of 8000 residents.
The Obama administration is now being criticised by its Republican foes for breaking the law by releasing five Taliban fighters from Guantanamo without notifying Congress, while even its supporters are angry for the political ineptitude the White House has displayed over the issue.
Meanwhile Bergdahl is being savaged by former comrades who believe he deserted his post, prompting search operations that led to the deaths of at least six other soldiers.
The attacks on Bergdahl have become so fierce that the Secretary of Defence, Chuck Hagel, has been moved to condemn the criticism.
“"We don't do that in the United States," Mr Hagel told reporters at a NATO defence ministers meeting in Brussels on Wednesday. "We rely on facts."
The Defence Department has said it will investigate the circumstances that lead to Bergdahl falling into Taliban hands five years ago, though others in his unit have already said he stacked his body armour and weapon, took a camera, a water bottle and a notebook and left his post.
There is growing consensus in Washington DC that Obama broke a law, saying that Congress should have 30 days' notice before prisoners are released from Guantanamo. Some on the far right are already calling for his impeachment though this demand has been made so often it now has little resonance.
The political impact could be far more significant. Among those who have savaged White House over the handling of the release is the Democratic Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Dianne Feinstein, who said on Tuesday, "It's very disappointing that there was not a level of trust to justify alerting us to that 30-day notification, why the chairs of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees weren't formally notified that this deal was in the works … I had a call from the White House last night from deputy national security adviser, Tony Blinken, apologising for it."
The White House spokesman Jay Carney told CNN that Congress was not notified because “the window of opportunity” to secure Bergdahl’s release may have closed. This seems to be fudging earlier suggestions that Bergdahl’s health was failing.
But even if that was the case, observers are stunned at the way the White House handled the politics of the situation.
While no one challenges the American mantra that no one be left behind in battle, if there was a cloud over the circumstances of his disappearance, why did advisers allow the President to put himself at the centre of the story by appearing with Bergdahl’s parents in the White House Rose Garden? Why did National Security Advisor Susan Rice appear on a Sunday morning talk show and say that Bergdahl had served with “honour and distinction”?
Another debate is raging over whether in securing Bergdahl’s release the administration negotiated with terrorists or legitimately conducted a prisoner exchange with a military adversary.
Those trying to read the tea leaves have come up with different theories about how the White House came to insert itself into this controversy. Some believe officials simply believed the good news of a lost soldier’s rescue would overwhelm questions about his loss. It might even serve to distract public attention from the scandal involving fraud and poor treatment by Veterans Affairs.
Some fear rank incompetence.
Either way the White House’s decisiveness does appear to be in keeping with Obama’s declaration in January that this was to be his “year of action”. Back then the president, frustrated by the gridlocked Congress, told reporters: “I've got a pen, and I've got a phone. And I can use that pen to sign executive orders and take executive actions and administrative actions that move the ball forward.”
Fairfax Media with Reuters