American Hypocrisy: Maltreatment of Veterans and the Crucifixion of Bowe Bergdahl

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Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, prior to his 2009 capture. (United States Army/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

On Friday, June 13, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl arrived in the United States after six years of Taliban imprisonment in Afghanistan. There were no flags or banners. The Idaho town that had held vigils every year since his disappearance and formed a support network for the family that only wanted their son back was forced to cancel the welcome-home celebration in his honor. His family received death threats. He was labeled a deserter by Congressional Republicans and the media. His release caused a political firestorm. This is not how our soldiers deserve to be treated, especially those who have been prisoners of war. Bowe Bergdahl deserved to be brought home at any price. He does not deserve the character assassination and political uproar that has ensued as a result of his release.

The war in Afghanistan is the longest armed conflict in United States history. As it comes to a close, veterans will return to this country with wounds visible and invisible, and our Coalition partners will look to us for leadership on the care of those veterans. If there is one group of people that do not deserve to be subject to the whims of domestic politics, it is our nation’s veterans. Our men and women in uniform fight to keep our political process strong, not to be victims to its peculiarities at best, and its hypocrisies, at worst. Especially recently, our government has failed at this mission.

It has been a troubled few weeks for United States veterans. First, there were revelations that administrators at Veteran’s Affairs (VA) hospitals across the nation lied about wait times for treatment and cooked the record keeping books in order to make bonuses and meet performance quotas at the expense of providing healthcare to veterans. The scandal led to the resignation of General Erik Shinseki, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

Then, in a prisoner exchange on May 31, 2014, the Taliban released Bergdahl in exchange for five of their own incarcerated at Guantanamo under the condition that they remain in Qatar for one year. Nearly five years earlier, on June 30, 2009, Bergdahl walked off his military base in the dead of night – whether he intended to return remains a mystery – and was captured by the Taliban in the hours that followed. The Haqqani Network, a Taliban outlet created by the United States’ early mishandling of the war, help Bergdahl captive.

While veterans in Phoenix waited in pain for essential treatment, Bergdahl too languished in Taliban prison. Bergdahl was tortured and, in a proof of life video provided to the United States government in December, appeared to be drugged, non responsive and frail. The plight of Bowe Bergdahl is, in many ways, similar to the plight of veterans back home in the United States who waited weeks, even months, for healthcare from their country. Both Bergdahl and veterans denied coverage at the VA made incalculable sacrifices for their country. Both Bergdahl and the veterans back home found themselves at a moment when they needed their country most.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of American civil society has inexplicably failed to make this connection. The media and the public have expressed indignation at the failings of the VA to provide adequate healthcare to our veterans, while politicians in Congress have – in uncharacteristically fast fashion, for Congressional standards – passed legislation to overhaul the VA. Their bill would give veterans access to more providers, give the department secretary more power to fire employees and force more transparency to fix problems like fudged wait times before they become an epidemic.

This outrage is justified, and we should be proud of our leaders for taking steps to remedy the problem. But the question still remains: where is the equal outrage to the treatment of Bowe Bergdahl? Where too is the appreciation for his safe return?

Politicians and the media were quick to condemn Bergdahl’s release in a public relations blitz tantamount to character assassination. The objections – mostly from Congressional Republicans – were numerous. They included allegations that the Obama administration had released dangerous enemy prisoners, used vital resources to free an alleged deserter and broken a law requiring the administration to give Congress a 30-day notice before transferring any detainees from Guantanamo.

An article in the Washington Post, shamefully titled “Why the Bowe Bergdahl deal is a political loser,” cited a CBS news poll that revealed 49% of Americans think that the deal will increase the threat of terrorism against the United States, and 56% think that the price paid was “too high,” statistics likely borne out of the statements of politicians and pundits, and statistics that miserably fail a fact check. First, though the five Taliban officers released have been connected to al-Qaeda, there is no evidence that they supported its international jihad against the United States. Captured just weeks after the United States invaded Afghanistan, the Taliban five were actually fighting other Afghans in the country’s civil war, according to CIA director John Brennan. Second, the deal mandates that they stay in Qatar for a year—by the time they “return to the battlefield,” the US will be well on its way to a full withdrawal from Afghanistan. Taliban expert Anand Gopal has said that of the five – who haven’t been with the Taliban since 2001 – only two have the potential to impact the battle between Afghanistan and insurgents.

Articles like the one above are self-fulfilling prophesies, because their misinformation is to blame for the very statistics they cite. If anything, the Taliban five and their allies are more likely to pose a threat to the United States because of how they were treated and detained in Guantanamo, not because of the ties they had to an organization 13 years ago.

I don’t know if Bergdahl was a deserter. It is appalling that some would suggest an American soldier who fights to defend the right to be innocent until proven guilty is convicted of desertion in a trial by media, and not in a trial by a jury of his peers. Anyone who doesn’t wait for the facts to come in is making a terrible mistake.

The Taliban threatened to execute Bergdahl if news of the prisoner exchange leaked. This obviously does not absolve the Obama administration of breaking the law, but it does offer a compelling reason why they chose secrecy over transparency. This should be the sole source of outrage over the Bergdahl release, because it is completely isolated from Bergdahl’s character. Tragically, elected officials have mixed criticism of the Obama administration with criticism of Bergdahl and the deal that saved his life.

Both the swap for Bergdahl and the scandal over healthcare provisions at the VA have highlighted a dangerous misconception among politicians and the media that demands fixing. Our veterans have risked their lives to defend the principles of life and liberty that we hold dear. Some have made the ultimate sacrifice and all return scarred. For those who live on, it is the duty of the United States to honor their sacrifices, and every time we fall short of this goal is one time too many.

For politicians and pundits, it is unfortunately too easy to speak out in favor of domestic solutions to domestic veteran problems while treating the Bergdahl case with such a different eye. That needs to change. Our veterans have fought to defend the right of “all men to be created equal.” That means that all veterans, whether they are home or imprisoned abroad, deserve equal assistance when they are in their darkest hour of need. Whether we have to pass legislation or exchange the prisoners of the enemy, no price is too high to pay.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.

No, America’s War in Afghanistan Was Not Worth It

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Nathaniel Haas argues against America’s War in Afghanistan in this “Face Off” edition (Photo by author). Please see J.T. Blakely’s “Face Off” article for a counter opinion.

Mousa: “This is Afghanistan…Alexander the Great try to conquer this country… then Genghis Khan, then the British. Now Russia. But Afghan people fight hard, they never be defeated. Ancient enemy make prayer about these people… you wish to hear?

Rambo: “Um-hum.”

Mousa: “Very good. It says, ‘May God deliver us from the venom of the Cobra, teeth of the tiger, and the vengeance of the Afghan.’”

-Rambo III, 1988

Kabul during the First Anglo-Afghan War 1839-42

“Afghaunistan (1839-1842),” a lithograph by Lieutenant James Rattray, shows the British army before its “total annihilation” near Kabul during the first Anglo-Afghan War. (The British Library/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain).

With the full withdrawal of coalition forces from Afghanistan set to be completed by the end of 2016, Barack Obama is gearing up to join Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Lord Auckland and Leonid Brezhnev in a club that appears to add a new member every few decades: the club of world leaders who have miserably failed to successfully reshape Afghanistan, a country that historians have come to call “the graveyard of empires.” Reflecting on this withdrawal, it is clear that America’s War in Afghanistan has not been worth the cost, measured in terms of the loss of human lives, financial resources and international credibility.

American engagement began with airstrikes in October 2001. By May 2003, President Bush declared the end of major combat and NATO assumed the responsibility of managing the transition to a civilian Afghan government. In 2004, for the first time, Afghanistan democratically elected Hamid Karzai, who subsequently announced a partnership with President Bush on the War on Terror. He opened bases in Afghanistan to US soldiers in exchange for training the Afghan national army.

In 2006, violence erupted again. In December 2009, Obama announced a troop surge, which sent 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan and officially stamped his application to the graveyard of empires club.

13,000 Afghan soldiers, 3,440 coalition soldiers and almost 20,000 civilians have died to date in Afghanistan. Accounting for the future cost of medical care and fighting, a Harvard Kennedy School of Government study estimated the cost of Iraq and Afghanistan combined at $4-6 trillion.

Less quantifiable in terms of dollars and body counts, but equally as significant is the cost of the war on the United States’ image in the world. The Karzai regime’s refusal to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement, which would allow continued US presence in the country after 2014, speaks to the lack of credibility in the American war machine, namely due to the use of drones and night raids that have a dismal history of civilian casualties. These problems make it not only impossible to negotiate with Afghanistan, but will also directly hamper allied cooperation in the future.

The United States should also commit to end the indefinite detention of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and abroad, which was established during the first months of the War in Afghanistan. Guantanamo Bay and covert rendition programs have come to be seen by Americans and our allies as the most egregious manifestation of America’s post-9/11 foreign policy. The Germans may have raised a diplomatic fuss over the tapping of Chancellor Merkel’s cell phone, but I would bet her data plan that they took much more seriously the unlawful detention and alleged torture of Turkish citizen Murat Kurnaz, a German resident who was captured in Kabul by US forces.

The kicker is that for all of the aforementioned costs, we have gained almost nothing.

As the Taliban launches its spring offensive and begins to control larger territories, the thousands of Afghani citizens who have been displaced over the past ten years say little progress has been made. Gaetan Drossart, the chief of the Kabul branch of Medecins sans Frontieres, has treated such refugees for years and observed the violence that has gripped the country. “The truth is there is no such success story at all,” Drossart told RT. “The international forces are leaving the country so they need a reason and they need also a rationale to explain to their population why now they can leave.”

Beyond the Taliban, Afghanistan will continue to suffer from the potent attacks of the Pakistan-based Haqqani Network. In a book out this year, Anand Gopal, who covered the war for the Wall Street Journal, recently wrote in her book, No Good Men Among the Living: America the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes, that the War in Afghanistan was misguided from the start. Though almost no insurgencies existed in mid-2002, the war, through faulty alliances with Afghani drug lords and power brokers, created the very enemies it sought to eradicate. Haqqani and his network were two of them. “By classifying certain groups as terrorists, and then acting upon those classifications, the U.S. had inadvertently brought about the very conditions it had set out to fight,” Gopal commented.

When this counter-terrorism evolved into a full-fledged counterinsurgency and nation building, the war efforts in Afghanistan fell prey to the concept known as mission creep – the phenomenon where a mission of limited scope morphs into one much more complex. Though the most tangible accomplishment of the war is the establishment of the Afghan National Security Forces and the success of a democratic election that will be completed by the end of the year, proponents of the war should ask themselves: couldn’t we have done that in the first 6 months of conflict? Did it really take 12 years (the longest war in American history), a few trillion dollars and over 2,000 soldier lives to train 350,000 Afghani soldiers and hold an election? We aren’t even out of the woods – the instability and accusations of corruption in the election to select President Karzai’s successor demonstrates it has come at too high a price.

Three-star Army lieutenant general Daniel Bolger, whose 35 years of experience culminated in extensive work in Afghanistan and Iraq, is publishing the first after-action report on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the book, aptly titled “Why We Lost,” Bolger argues that the mission creep described above sacrificed the key gains made within the first six months of each war. Like the Gulf War, Bolger argues that after the removal of the hostile government (in Afghanistan’s case, the Taliban), the United States should have packed up and gone home. Instead, perpetual war and nation building that will take decades longer than the US (and the public) is willing to commit to have created more enemies than friends.

The failure in Afghanistan certainly won’t kill the American empire, but like Rambo, America hasn’t escaped Afghanistan unscathed. Afghanistan, like Vietnam, has exposed the limitations of the US war machine for all to see, and made the leaders and nation behind it less credible in the process. That doesn’t bode well going forward—just ask Colonel Trautman, Rambo’s mentee: “You expect sympathy? You started this damn war, now you’ll have to deal with it.”

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.

 

Yes, America’s War in Afghanistan Was Worth It

J.T. Blakely argues in favor of America’s War in Afghanistan in this “Face Off” edition (Photo by author). Please see Nathaniel Haas’s “Face Off” article for a counter opinion.

This week there will likely be a terrorist attack in Afghanistan – an attack that, like the recent one that left 15 dead, will target civilians, Afghan police, and/or NATO peacekeepers. In the same time period, the number of US soldiers killed in action will likely rise from 2,170 to 2,180. These events will occur as US officials assess Afghanistan’s ability to fend off insurgencies amid seemingly unending bombings, kidnappings, and wavering support for the war both at home and abroad. If, after 12 of years fighting, these are the meager results of thousands of lives lost and trillions of dollars spent, one may wonder: “was it worth it?”

Typically, the answer is an assessment of the War in Afghanistan through a security perspective – how safe is the US from terrorist threats or how stable is the Afghan government from Taliban insurgents? But this approach ignores a critical angle I’d like to address: the Afghani people.

13 years ago, Afghanistan was in the midst of conflict – a conflict that began with a communist coup in 1978, was precipitated by the Soviet invasion in 1979, and was furthered by a decade of civil conflict starting in 1992. America’s intervention in 2001, if even for questionable reasons, reduced unending violence and allowed for the first serious reconstruction efforts since 1978.

Since 2001, life expectancy in Afghanistan has risen by as much as 18 years per person while GDP has increased tenfold and billions of dollars of foreign aid have been unlocked. Similar improvements can be observed through other metrics such as infant mortality, which despite seeing little improvement during the 1990s, dropped by 50% after the Taliban’s fall.

Additionally, it is difficult to ignore the swell of liberties and political rights acquired by the average Afghan since America’s invasion. In the Taliban’s Afghanistan just 13 years ago, women were oppressed on historically unprecedented levels while everything from parakeets to public laughter was outright banned. Public beatings, shamings, and executions were not uncommon and though enforcement of laws was often uneven and arbitrary, these laws suffocated economic activity. Discriminatory policies and mismanagement of public facilities resulted in the ineffectiveness of many accommodations, most notably medical services.

Moreover, when in power, the Pakistan-funded Taliban showed no regard for Afghan culture or history as it deemed countless invaluable cultural artefacts sacrilegious. Just several months before Operation Enduring Freedom began in October of 2001, the Taliban demolished a pair of Buddhist statues known as the Bamiyan Buddhas despite fierce international objection. The two statues, built 1500 years ago, were registered UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

America’s war in Afghanistan has also made way for a new democratic system. The elections in 2004 were the first Afghanistan had seen in decades and the 2014 elections have marked the first time that power was transferred democratically in Afghanistan. And though Afghanistan’s first two elections were marred by controversy (something not uncommon in countries so poor) this year’s election has seen few issues aside from the threat of Taliban violence. Record turnouts rates have shocked the world.

America’s war itself has not wrought the destruction many seem to think it has. In the period between 1978 and the present, over 2 million people were killed in Afghanistan. However, nearly all of these deaths occurred before the 2001 invasion. Of those deaths since 2001, three-quarters were attributed to the Taliban. Meanwhile increased access to aid and medical services has saved countless lives among Afghanistan’s poorest residents.

So in addition to deposing a sacerdotal tyranny, allied forces in Afghanistan have offered the country an end to decades of conflict, have established a representative government, and have given Afghanistan a chance for reconstruction. The Taliban is gone and, given new data suggesting that only 35% of Afghans have any sympathy for armed resistance groups like the Taliban, it seems unlikely to return. Three-quarters of Afghans claim to be better off now than during Taliban rule and the same number feel satisfied with the current government’s performance. So as American military officials plan the troop withdrawal later this year, Americans may argue over whether the war was worth it for the United States, but there’s no debate that it was for Afghanistan.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.