Bowe Bergdahl: hero or scapegoat?

U.S. imperialism’s political switches can be breathtaking. It only took two days for Bowe Bergdahl to change from a diplomatic tool to a political football.

That dizzying switch has one positive result: It helps expose the reactionary character of the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan and gives an opportunity to review U.S. imperialism’s role in that country.

For readers who missed a week of intensive media coverage, Bergdahl is a U.S. soldier who in 2009 disappeared from his U.S. Army unit that was occupying a mountainside in Afghanistan. Taliban resistance fighters captured the soldier and held him for the past five years as a prisoner of war.

The media have presented him alternately as a war hero or a traitor — to U.S. imperialism. His messages to his family in 2009 reveal him as a soldier sensitive to the gap between U.S. propaganda about Afghanistan and the reality on the ground.

This May 31 the Taliban returned Bergdahl to the U.S. Army in exchange for five prisoners, associated with the Taliban, who had been held in the Guantanamo prison camp. While the U.S. government often describes the prisoners at Guantanamo as “terrorists,” these were Taliban officials at the time of the U.S. invasion and occupation in 2001.

The prisoner exchange was a step in deepening negotiations between the U.S. government and the Taliban. The U.S., with its NATO allies, has been occupying Afghanistan for 13 years. The Taliban has been the main force resisting the occupation.

Washington has been holding discreet talks with the Taliban since 2010, according to a June 5 Wall Street Journal article, with freeing the five Taliban officials a key point of the talks.

Making the exchange for Bergdahl was a side point to the talks. Regarding U.S. political infighting between the two big capitalist parties, Republicans like Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire had earlier pressed President Barack Obama to win Bergdahl’s release. When Obama highlighted the effort as one to bring Bergdahl home, however, the entire Republican Party looked for and found a way to use the exchange to attack Obama — as they do on every issue.

Role of the Taliban

Starting in July 1979, the U.S. intervened in Afghanistan’s civil war, supporting the most reactionary landlord and religious-based guerrillas against a progressive, pro-socialist government. This government in Kabul requested and received aid from the Soviet Union, which sent troops.

The U.S. then stepped up its aid, sending billions of dollars in weapons and funds to the most reactionary organizations, including Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda. The Taliban arose after the Soviet troops left and the progressive government was crushed. The Taliban were similar to these groups in their political and social outlook. They received much support from U.S.-ally Pakistan and its intelligence agency ISI and seized power in Kabul in 1996.

The Taliban were definitely reactionary, especially toward Afghan women, but this had nothing to do with U.S. hostility. The Taliban allowed bin Laden to remain as a guest in their country, and after Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. used the World Trade Center attack as an excuse to attack and occupy Afghanistan, a strategic position in Central Asia.

Though the U.S. propaganda machine demonized the Taliban and presented the occupation as being helpful to Afghan women, this was just a pretext. Washington made allies of a whole series of “warlords,” who were just as reactionary toward women as is the U.S.-installed government in Kabul.

Now the Obama administration is trying to negotiate a settlement with the Taliban that will leave 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and the prisoner deal is part of it. As a senior U.S. official told the WSJ after the deal, “There is a door slightly open here.”

Bergdahl’s role

Bergdahl is still held by the U.S. Army at a military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, and his story reaches the media through government officials.

Though explanations are all couched in terms of protecting Bergdahl’s mental health, it is apparent the Army is also controlling his story. Media attacks versus some defense of his role in Afghanistan are all based on whether the goal is to attack the Obama administration or defend its diplomacy.

The controversy, fueled by right-wing media in their battle against Obama, has already forced Bergdahl’s hometown to cancel his welcome-home parade, although most of his neighbors, when interviewed, still seemed favorable to him.

A long article in the June 8 New York Times showed how Bergdahl’s entire unit was functioning poorly and was unhappy with their role. But how could they not be? They were occupying a hostile land and people who most of them didn’t understand. There was a complete dichotomy between what the Army told them and what they saw.

During the U.S. war against Vietnam, such dichotomy led to units refusing to go out on missions or to them making sure they went where they would find no “enemy.” In extreme cases, hundreds of them killed their officers.

So it is a relatively mild reaction for a soldier to have a moment of temporary sanity and slip away from a horrible imperialist occupation.