Thursday, June 5, 2014

Ghosts of War

John McCain is certainly not known for his consistency, but at age 77 you would at least think he would stick to his guns on one issue.  Unfortunately, he wants to have it both ways on the prisoner swap that led to the release of Bowe Bergdahl.

Only three months ago he said to Anderson Cooper that he was open to a deal with the Taliban, which indicates the Obama administration was keeping Congress informed of its intended actions.  McCain was first approached in 2012 along with other Senators in regard to the proposed deal.  He expressed his concerns but was open to a swap then as well.  Now that it has actually happened, McCain is airing his criticism of the deal, couching it in the hyperbole we have come to expect from Republicans.

The odd thing is that McCain himself was part of a prisoner swap back in March 1973 when the United States began its withdrawal from Vietnam.  He was in a second wave of American POW's being released in exchange for Vietcong.  Nixon had declared an end to hostilities in January, but there would be further bombing missions that summer, and the war not officially drawn to a close until April 30, 1975, with the Fall of Saigon.

Not much different circumstances than we find in Afghanistan today with Obama having officially declared an end to hostilities last month although he already had begun a drawdown last year, with the reduction of 60,000 American troops to 32,000 this year.  Fortunately, there was only one known POW in Afghanistan, who had languished in a Taliban cell for five years, probably much worse conditions than that McCain faced at the "Hanoi Hilton."

However, our good senator seems to feel the deal was too rich, that the five Taliban prisoners who had been incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay since 2002 pose a serious threat to the remaining troops in Afghanistan, should they ever make it back there.  They have been handed over to authorities in Qatar, who apparently will keep them in country for at least one year. Enough time one presumes to complete the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

It wasn't like these guys presented a serious threat to US and NATO forces to begin with, since they were rounded up in the first year of the war.  Yet, they were considered "the worst of the worst," blamed for atrocities committed in pre-war Afghanistan.  One of them, Khairulla Khairkhaw, was considered close to One-Eyed Omar.  You figure the main reason they were held so long was to get information out of them, which I would think at this point would be badly dated.

But, the US apparently needs bad guys and conservative Congressmen like McCain and Lindsey Graham apparently need a perpetual war.  They have been against the drawdown from the start, and now seem upset because this swap represents one more nail in the Coffin of the Afghan War that appears to be soon laid to rest.

Prisoner swaps are nothing new and are usually carried out during withdrawal not afterward.  This was certainly the case in Vietnam with massive prisoner exchanges beginning in February 1973, and continuing through the summer before the US finally announced a cease fire in August.  Israel does prisoner swaps all the time.  Israeli authorities released over 1000 Palestinian prisoners for the return of Gilad Shalit in 2011.  He too had been held for five years by Hamas.

By comparison, the return of Bowe Bergdahl seems like a pretty good deal, but conservatives are fuming over the exchange, which they feel will embolden the Taliban, who are slaughtering sheep in celebration of this historic swap.  American soldiers will now have bounties on their head, Lindsey Graham cries in one of his rhetorical flourishes.

 I would think these soldiers had been targeted all along. It's just that the Taliban didn't expect one to walk right into their hands when Bowe Bergdahl stupidly decided to leave his unit in the remote Paktika region.  Most soldiers are smart enough not to stray far from their unit no matter what misgivings they might have, but Bowe was apparently driven by some Calvinist urge to follow his conscience.

Congressional Republicans of course want a hearing into the matter, but McCain voiced the futility of such a hearing as the deal is done.  It seems what he is most upset about is being left out of the loop, as if he should be personally advised of all the President's actions as they take place.  Like it or not, Obama is the Commander in Chief and can call his own shots without Congressional approval in these cases.

Bowe Bergdahl will not be hailed as a war hero like John McCain was in 1973.  McCain trumpeted his POW experience to win him an Arizona Congressional seat in 1983.  He has continually reminded us ever since of his call to duty in his speeches and books.  His long internment didn't seem to diminish his commitment to military action, supporting both wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and even accepting the Bush administration's use of torture to pry information out of suspected terrorists like the detainees at Guantanamo.

In many ways, John McCain is a more curious case than Bowe Bergdahl.  For whatever reason, McCain seems to live in a state of perpetual war as if trying to exorcise the demons of Vietnam.  He identifies himself with fallen soldiers like Pat Tillman because he believes the war in Afghanistan is just and should be waged until the insurgency begs for mercy.  It seems that only then will he be able to rid himself of his demons.  Sadly, it seems it will never be done.

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