POLITICS: PennAve

Bowe Bergdahl deal provides shape of things to come in Afghanistan

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Politics,White House,Barack Obama,Afghanistan,National Security,PennAve,Susan Crabtree,Magazine,Taliban,Bowe Bergdahl

The Obama administration's swap of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban leaders was like an inkblot test on national security.

What lawmakers saw in the messy outlines of the deal largely reinforced what they already thought on a number of related topics: ending the war in Afghanistan, closing the Guantanamo Bay prison facility and applying the laws of war to detainees.

Although President Obama touted the swap at the White House rose garden with Bergdahl's parents, his team quickly retrenched in the face of criticism and sought to minimize its implications on other policies, especially on a law requiring the administration notify Congress ahead of time.

In testimony before Congress, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel stressed that it was "the last, best chance" to win Bergdahl's freedom and argued that "war is a dirty business."

But if Obama's team looked at the inkblot and saw just a small dark spot, Republicans saw a scarier shadow of things to come.

GOP lawmakers who oppose Obama's decision to declare the end to the Afghan conflict and dramatically draw down troop levels there argued that the Bergdahl deal will inevitably embolden and strengthen the Taliban at a crucial time for the future of the Afghan government.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the release of the Taliban leaders was a boost to the Taliban and predicted that it would create a “morale issue with military personnel” serving in Afghanistan.

In the long term, he said, it could have a far more serious impact on the safety of U.S. citizens and the ability of Afghanistan's government to operate.

“These guys are hardcore terrorists that are going to be going back home and they are going to re-engage,” he told the Washington Examiner. “These are not fighters — these are planners and designers, and these are intel operators and folks who are going to be plotting and scheming at the management level against Americans.”

Democrats on Capitol Hill all saw the deal a little differently, but they did not find the inkblot as ominous as Republicans.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, wasn't overly exercised about releasing terrorists with close ties to Osama bin Laden.

“I assume the five detainees have some hero status among the Taliban since they are back home — but we're also told that they're back home 10 or 12 years older and out of touch with the current Taliban force structure, so what value they have in the field even if they wish to return is anybody's guess,” he said.

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., another Democrat on the panel, said the U.S. has shed too much blood and treasure in Afghanistan and now it's time for the Afghans to take care of their own security needs.

"[The Taliban] is a reality in their country and they have to deal with that reality,” he told the Examiner.

Even Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who chairs the Intelligence Committee and sharply criticized the administration for cutting her out the loop, by mid-week said the Obama is “justifiably proud” for bringing Bergdahl home and keeping the country's commitment to do everything possible not to leave soldiers behind.

As accusations surfaced from Bergdahl's fellow soldiers that he may have deserted and that the search for him may have even cost lives, many Americans began to view the deal with skepticism.

But polls show that public opposition to the swap had less to do with Bergdahl himself than how Obama handled the transfer.

A USA Today poll released June 10 found 43 percent of Americans believe it was wrong for Obama to make the deal, compared to 34 percent who said it was the correct decision.

He fared far worse with veterans, a group already angered over the long waits for care at the Veterans Affairs Department. Of the 128 veterans included in the poll, 68 percent said Obama made the wrong decision, while only 16 percent said it was the right one.

Considering the Bergdahl fallout, Obama may steer clear of setting off a similar furor by releasing more Taliban or detainees, but there's no guarantee of that.

When asked if the administration would interpret the Congressional notification law the same way again on another detainee transfer during Wednesday's hearing on Capitol Hill, Hagel left the door open.

“Not unless there's an extraordinary set of circumstances like this one,” he said.

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