Why ‘leave no one behind’ isn’t the controlling principle in the Bergdahl case

Why ‘leave no one behind’ isn’t the controlling principle in the Bergdahl case

Apparently, the left needs this explained.

The issue here isn’t whether Bergdahl should have been retrieved.  The issue is how it was done.

The issue is also not whether we negotiated with terrorists.  Sometimes we do; it can be done in different ways, and the proper objective is to get our man back but ultimately make the terrorists regret the whole business.

Which Candidate Do You Support in the Republican Primaries?

The issue is the price we paid to get Bergdahl back: the release of five of the original Taliban, some of Mullah Omar’s top lieutenants, at a time when Afghanistan’s future hangs by a thread precisely because the Taliban – quietly backed by Pakistan – is fighting to retake the country.

Not only is it legitimate to consider price in what we do to get our prisoners back – it’s essential.  It’s especially essential when we’re fighting a war, and the price of retrieving our man will set the war effort back.

Of course “do everything possible to get Bergdahl back” doesn’t mean “blow off Congress and undermine the whole purpose of the War on Terror to get Bergdahl back.”  Who would think it did?

As long as we’re in instructional mode here, consider this point.  Military observers and conservatives have not blamed Obama for the deaths of the servicemen who lost their lives during the months when the search for Bergdahl in Paktika Province preempted other tactical efforts, and sucked up resources.  They’ve blamed Bergdahl.

Their anger is not because it’s wrong for the Army to try to recover a POW.  Trying to recover a POW with the military resources you have available is indeed a priority, if not the highest priority.  The anger is because Bergdahl’s platoon-mates report that Bergdahl walked off into the Afghan countryside voluntarily.  It was his action that subsequently usurped every other mission for his unit – jeopardizing the overall mission of U.S. forces in the Afghan campaign – and put his comrades-in-arms at risk for months afterward.

There is much more that could be said here, but I’ll make one final point.  Retrieving our prisoners isn’t the highest priority of all armed actions.  Everyone in uniform knows that.  That reality can be made into an excuse, and often a pusillanimous or invalid one, for not doing everything that can legitimately be done to get our men or women back.  But that point itself reflects the underlying reality that priorities involve tradeoffs, and are dictated by the overall objectives.  It’s those overall objectives that can be chosen wisely, or not (cf. Benghazi, as well as Afghanistan).

We don’t fight for the primary purpose of protecting our servicemembers.  That’s the whole point: we fight with armed force, which is inherently risky for those under arms, to win our most important national objectives.  Any military commander would tell you that if we’re in a situation where we’re having to prioritize own-force protection over accomplishing decisive objectives, then we’re effed up, and our policy or strategy (or both) needs to change.

It’s because of their amazing courage, discipline, and skill that the American troops in Afghanistan haven’t yet reached that “effed-up” point, in spite of years of temporizing and hair splitting at the top policy level.  The Obama administration has literally favored a policy of not trying to win the Afghan countryside from the Taliban, and yet being there anyway.  But until now, the troops have on the whole held their own, keeping the requirement for own-force protection in balance with the main purpose of turning a working security regime over to the Afghans.  They may not have been equipped to achieve a more decisive outcome, but for the most part, they’ve managed to avoid being sitting ducks.

That is perilously likely to change for the worse, as we draw down to fewer than 10,000 troops in country.  At that force level, in the larger context of the threat situation, own-force protection will inevitably become the top priority.  And that is one of the biggest morale- and discipline-killers there is.  If you’re there mainly to keep from being killed or kidnapped, heck, you could do that much more effectively, and with far less inconvenience to yourself, back home.

It was never wrong to try to retrieve Bergdahl, but the price matters.  Our national objectives and priorities matter equally to whether we’re putting our soldiers in a viable situation for military operations.  An administration that doesn’t understand when it’s made a bad prisoner trade is unfortunately likely to keep getting the bigger things wrong too.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.


For your convenience, you may leave commments below using Disqus. If Disqus is not appearing for you, please disable AdBlock to leave a comment.