The surprise visit of President Obama to the Bagram military base outside Kabul on May 25 was followed in quick succession by the release by the Taliban of the American soldier Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl on May 31. Observers are wondering whether the proximity of the two events is coincidental or as some think more likely, that the deal for Bergdahl's release, in return for five Taliban prisoners incarcerated for many years at Guantanamo Bay, was finalized during Obama's sojourn in Afghanistan. The release of Bergdahl, the only American soldier in Taliban custody, resulted in considerable media attention. For some conservative groups in the US, the exchange should not have taken place, as Bergdahl was, according to them, a deserter who had gone over to the enemy. It is too early to be definitive about the murky circumstances surrounding Bergdahl's capture by the Taliban. Now that he is to return to the United States, he will be extensively debriefed about what happened to him during the five years that he was in Taliban custody. A more nuanced and accurate picture of the event is therefore likely to emerge, rather than the speculative comments that are currently circulating in the media. What is clear is that Bergdahl's release represents, for Obama, closing the chapter on the US war in Afghanistan -- the longest war in US history.
Obama and his spokesmen had emphasized that, under the US military code, every effort has to be made to retrieve an injured soldier or one captured by the enemy. Under this code of conduct, the American war in Afghanistan would not have been finished until Bergdahl had come home. The same feelings had informed US efforts after Vietnam, where strenuous efforts were made over many decades to locate the whereabouts of soldiers who were missing or had died during the conflict. This is an honorable thing to do. I believe other armies also have similar procedures.
Finally, with regard to whether Bergdahl was a deserter and therefore should not have been retrieved by surrendering five senior Taliban operatives, it is premature to make such claims. When an accurate picture emerges of the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of Bergdahl from his post in Paktika province and his subsequent capture by the Taliban, appropriate action can be taken under the US military regulations. In the meantime, one can felicitate Bergdahl's parents who had campaigned vigorously for his return and who must be feeling joyful at reuniting with their only child. Sgt. Bergdahl's war is over. He now has to be helped to reintegrate into US society.