Shadow Government

The Real Scandal of Bergdahl's Release

It doesn't matter if U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl turns out to have been a deserter. It was the right call to try to get him back. Every soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine in the U.S. armed forces needs to know that if the enemy captures them, the U.S. military will stop at nothing to get them back. That confidence helps American troops take risks and act with courage and boldness.

Even if Bergdahl deserted his post, which seems probable judging from the reports now emerging about him, that was not a widely known or proven fact over the past five years. His recovery was still important for the morale of the rest of the force. Staying loyal to the men and women in uniform -- even if they do not reciprocate that loyalty -- is a matter of national security.

The means of his recovery -- a swap for five high-ranking Taliban commanders -- is more worrying, but only slightly. Prisoner swaps have ample historical precedent, although it seems more prudent to wait until after a war is over before returning potential combatants to the battlefield. The issue today is more legally complex -- but not morally so -- because of the Bush and Obama administrations' decisions to classify the Taliban as illegal combatants. Legal niceties notwithstanding, a war is a war.

The silver lining to this swap is that it might lead to serious talks with the Taliban. It is likely that the Obama administration agreed to this exchange precisely because it hoped to spur talks to end the war in Afghanistan as the U.S. withdraws. Considering the administration's intent to withdraw American forces and the military situation in Afghanistan, its desire to resolve the Bergdahl situation and simultaneously jump-start talks with the Taliban is understandable.

And talks with the Taliban appear to be the best option for stabilizing Afghanistan, under the circumstances. It seems unlikely that the U.S. military will defeat the Taliban with the resources and time allotted to it by the administration; thus, negotiations are the best option. The exchange seems to be the administration's attempt to wrap up loose ends as it gears up for the full withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of 2016.

In other words, the United States backed itself into a corner with its strategy towards Afghanistan -- by sending too few troops under the Bush administration, and undermining their efforts with a premature withdrawal deadline under the Obama administration -- such that it now has no good options for the endgame, or for resolving situations like Bergdahl's.

Acceding to a prisoner swap for Bergdahl is a highly visible symptom of a much larger problem. The problem is that the United States never explicitly made its goal in Afghanistan the defeat of the Taliban insurgency; never built up the forces required to secure its interests; and is withdrawing before the war is over. It never leveraged its power to compel the enemy to do its will, which is the essence of war. The United States treated Afghanistan more like a management problem than a war.

Given those realities, negotiating for Bergdahl and for the end of the war as a whole is the next-best option. Better to negotiate for Bergdahl than let him rot as a hostage to the United States' political unwillingness to do what is necessary to defeat his captors.

Critics upset at the prisoner exchange, or at the prospects of negotiating with the Taliban, are either late to the game or are disingenuous with their critique. The right time to be outraged was years ago, when U.S. policymakers made the decisions that created the situation that forced the United States into swapping prisoners and negotiating with the enemy. By the same token, critics who supported the withdrawal deadline cannot now in good faith be upset at the conditions the deadline has created.

As for Bergdahl, if he is convicted of desertion, perhaps his prison time should be reduced to time already served in a Taliban cell. That, and the dishonor he will carry with him for the rest of his life, should be punishment enough.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

What Can Obama Do About the Surge of Minors from Central America?

Last fall, as part of Shadow Government's 12-Step Plan to recovering Obama's foreign policy mojo, I suggested launching an initiative to protect the young hearts and minds of unaccompanied minors crossing international borders. One of the crises an initiative like this might have averted is now upon us, and the administration is struggling to handle it: The growing number of unaccompanied minors migrating from Central America to the United States has become a "surge" with no end date in sight. Last week, the president declared it a humanitarian crisis and ordered FEMA officials to coordinate the response. He also is asking Congress for $1.4 billion to help the agencies cope.

The youth, mostly teenage boys, although with a growing number of girls and younger children, primarily are fleeing gangs and related violence in their home countries. You can read some of their harrowing stories here, here, and here. While I do not believe the administration caused the disaster as some are arguing, it was hardly unexpected. The dramatic increase in numbers began during Obama's first term, and he cannot shift blame for this serious lack of preparedness. Federal agencies now are scrambling to cope by opening military bases for temporary housing and busing the kids back to border states for deportation. States like Texas, Oklahoma and Arizona are bristling at the influx of children in Federal custody coming to be sheltered there. One local county official in Arizona has even accused federal agency personnel of child abuse for violating state laws. Recent photos from Texas reveal the extent of the crisis and the inability of the agencies to manage this population.

Ignoring the brewing crisis did not make it go away. Now the administration has another chance to proactively address the underlying issues even as they rush to meet immediate needs. My pleas for better coordination of diplomacy and foreign aid to strengthen child protection globally (here, here, and here) have fallen mostly on deaf ears. Perhaps this emergency will prompt long needed fixes. I have two suggestions.

First, the administration should prioritize support for the "source" countries to improve their own child protection systems. Some countries like Guatemala, which contributes the largest percentage of these young people, are trying to make changes. We should help them by channeling assistance through the U.S. Action Plan on Children in Adversity to improve programs for children who are abandoned, vulnerable, or in conflict with the law and to handle the re-integration of deported children. The State Department also should help by supporting Guatemalan first lady Rosa Leal de Pérez who has turned this into her signature issue. She has initiated regional discussions to include the First Lady of Mexico but would likely welcome more diplomatic support from the United States for her efforts. With Texas as ground zero and children ending up further away in Chicago as well, former First Lady Laura Bush and First Lady Michelle Obama are well positioned to join their counterparts south of the border to help. Preferably, they might join forces to do so. It could be a wonderful model of bipartisan leadership on an issue both strategic and humanitarian for the United States and their respective home states.

Second, the administration should keep an eye on the big picture of unaccompanied youth globally in the midst of the urgency of this particular crisis. The president has directed the Department of Homeland Security to establish an interagency "Unified Coordination Group" to respond to the current situation. It would be wise to make permanent this group along the lines of the President's Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons and its Senior Policy Operating Group (SPOG) to manage the complex legal and operational issues that accompany work with children and that have both national security and domestic policy elements. If Congress agrees, it also would be wise to use some of the $1.4 billion to invest in improved and coordinated data management systems in both the United States and Central America. Full disclosure: I have launched an organization called Each Inc. that is building new technology tools for this purpose. But there are other systems that could be adapted to track the identity and case history of these children. However it's done, we need better interagency coordination, underpinned by better ways to track these children securely across borders. Without it, the surge will become a perpetual flood, and the administration will have only itself to blame.

John Moore/Getty Images