WASHINGTON—Andy Andrews didn’t know until last Saturday that his son Darryn died in 2009 on a mission to find recently exchanged POW Bowe Bergdahl. Soldiers who served with Darryn confirmed the mission’s purpose, five years after an Army captain called the fateful operation a search for a high-ranking Taliban official.
A teary Rep. Randy Weber, R-Texas, asked Andrews during a hearing Wednesday on Capitol Hill if he would trade five more Taliban detainees to see his son again. “If my son had been a deserter, then no, absolutely not,” Andrews said. But asked what if his son had served with honor, Andrews had a different answer: “Then I’d do almost anything.”
The Army has given Bergdahl a grace period before facing a two-star general’s investigation of the events surrounding his disappearance and capture. A reintegration team at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio insists he remember what it feels like to live free before he is held accountable for his actions. Some members of Congress are not willing to wait.
During Wednesday’s hearing, House Foreign Affairs Committee members and witnesses argued over whether Bergdahl’s release honored military principles, and whether it came at too high a price. Some defended the former captive’s innocence until proven guilty. Others claimed to know exactly what sentence Bergdahl deserves.
Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, began the hearing with a wager that all five Taliban leaders the Obama administration exchanged for Bergdahl would return to terrorism. Several Republicans doubted the power of a one-year travel ban in Qatar or years of inactivity at Guantanamo Bay to keep the five former fighters from instigating new violence against American troops in Afghanistan.
Michael Waltz, a national security expert, summed up the previous detainees’ value to the Taliban by calling them “essentially their top five draft picks.” Weber likened the five-to-one trade to a bad arms deal: “We got one conventional weapon; they got five nuclear weapons.”
One lone witness on the panel supported the trade. “Sometimes you end up sitting across the table from those who have the blood of your friends on their hands to bring peace,” said Mark Jacobson, a senior advisor for the Truman National Security Project. He called talks with the Taliban a key step in restoring peace in Afghanistan.
Many at the hearing condemned the trade not just for its risk to American security, but also for the message it sent about Bergdahl. Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., called the swap “an attempted deception of the public.” Obama concealed his foreign policy error, DeSantis said, by inflating Bergdahl’s service, turning him into a hero, and congratulating his administration for bringing the soldier home.
Did Bergdahl deserve the praise? Both Waltz and Cody Full, a retired Army specialist, recalled their units’ work to retrieve him in 2009. Waltz claimed he and the men under his command, while respecting the leave-no-man-behind principle, “commonly understood” that Bergdahl had walked off his post and were “absolutely furious and resentful frankly” that he had put his fellow soldiers in harm’s way. Full, sure of Bergdahl’s deliberate desertion, offered a better principle: “Leave no honorable man behind, not leave no man behind.”
Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., one of the few members of Congress who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, said the Obama administration took leaving no one behind to an “offensive and insulting” extreme on Bergdahl’s behalf. He hearkened back to his Ranger School training: “We didn’t promise that we would exchange five stone-cold Taliban killers for each other.”