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President Obama confronted two conflicting ideals in addressing the case of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
On the one hand, the United States has a stated policy of not negotiating with terrorists groups, a policy based on the premise that rewarding their illegal acts via some form of negotiated compensation will only encourage more bad acts.
On the other hand, the U.S. military has a policy of not leaving its soldiers behind. With President Obama having just recently announced a winding down of combat operations in Afghanistan, the administration confronted the prospect of violating this fundamental article of faith if it left Sgt. Bergdahl to die in the hands of the Taliban.
Given the circumstances, the president picked the right ideal to pursue.
The United States has been at war in Afghanistan for a dozen years and the enemy during that time has been primarily the Taliban. After 9/11, the United States invaded Afghanistan to wrest the Taliban from power there. Our military did so because the Taliban regime had provided sanctuary to the al-Qaida training camps from which the attacks on the U.S. were born.
So while the Taliban uses the terrorist tools of attacking civilian targets to generate fear and intimidation in furtherance of its goal of forced compliance with its radical and intolerant religious dogma, it is also the enemy the United States came to fight, the enemy with which the country had to negotiate to recover a captured soldier.
There is a long tradition of prisoner swaps in times of war. The only thing different this time is the nature of the war.
In releasing five high-level Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, the administration paid a high price, agreeing to an unequal trade. Did anyone expect a fair trade? The Taliban knew of this nation's fierce loyalty to its soldiers and exploited it. We suspect the trade terms were far more egregious when the talks began.
Then there is the argument that the swap will encourage terror groups to capture U.S. soldiers. Realistically, with the withdrawal from Afghanistan, our military is not likely to confront terrorists again on a traditional battlefield anytime soon. If such a scenario does arise, is it necessarily bad that the enemy might be motivated to capture, rather than kill, our military personnel?
What of the president's failure to comply with a law requiring a 30-day notice to Congress in advance of a prisoner release from Gitmo? Constitutionally, this law is unenforceable. The president is Commander in Chief, the U.S. Constitution is clear on that. As commander he has the authority to pursue and execute a prisoner exchange without inviting congressional meddling that could undo a fragile arrangement.
Adding to the complexity of this situation is the unusual circumstances surrounding Sgt. Bergdahl's capture. Soldiers who served with him have come forward to say they are convinced he deserted his post in 2009, prior to his capture. Vital resources were used and, some contend, lives lost searching for Sgt. Bergdahl.
While the allegations are troubling, they are irrelevant as to whether the nation should have pursued the sergeant's release.
President Obama said it well on Tuesday: "Regardless of circumstances, whatever the circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American prisoner back. Period."
Until an investigation and military judicial proceeding provide evidence of misconduct, Sgt. Bergdahl remains a soldier in good standing, entitled to make his case. The Army promoted him to his current rank while held as a prisoner.
The circumstances of his capture deserve investigation. The administration should resist any urge to make Sgt. Bergdahl a hero for purposes of political optics, if he is not. We are encouraged by the comments of Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stating that there will be a review to determine whether Sgt. Bergdahl left his post in 2009.
The president's decision would have been easy and roundly applauded if Sgt. Bergdahl had been snatched from a battlefield in a traditional war. Instead President Obama faced a tough decision in murky circumstances. He made the right one.