Cutting through politics of US, Taliban prisoner swap

AUSTIN -- Joe Donahue has experience working in foreign countries for decades, and he knows what it's like to be locked up in a hostile nation.

"It's beyond nervousness, it's fear," explained Donahue, who says the worst part was not knowing when -- if ever -- he would be a free man.

A former U.S. Army Special Forces infantryman, Donahue was performing foreign aid work with USAID in Northern Iraq in 1994 when a routine trip across Turkey took an unexpected turn. His group was stopped at the border, where Turkish military forces were outraged by the discovery of a few rounds of rifle ammunition accidentally left in the group's vehicle by their Kurdish bodyguards.

Donahue was released after a week in a Turkish jail, but Turkish authorities, upset by the circumstances of his exit, filed an arrest warrant on Donahue's passport through the international law enforcement organization, Interpol. A few years year, the warrant caught up to Donahue in Croatia and he was thrown in jail. Thanks to a sympathetic police chief and a clandestine phone call to a friend in the U.S. military, Donahue was able to return home, where he immediately set about getting the warrant revoked.

Donahue returned to the Middle East in 2002 after the warrant had been rescinded, but word had yet to make it to authorities in Lebanon. Arrested once more, he would spend another week in a Beirut jail before authorities acknowledged their error and finally set him free. Donahue reached out to KVUE after watching coverage of the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl following five years in the custody of the Taliban, and in an interview Monday explained that Bergdahl has been through an ordeal he can only begin to relate to.

"You do a lot of soul-searching and self-criticism. What did I do wrong? What could I have done differently?" said Donahue.

The first process Bergdahl will experience is a government debriefing already underway at a U.S. military facility in Germany. Through a series of interviews, government officials will assess him physically and psychologically and attempt to learn as much as possible about his captivity.

It's a process that's "more art than science," says Fred Burton, Vice President of Intelligence at Austin-based geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor. While working for the U.S. Diplomatic Security Service, Burton conducted countless debriefings. Burton suggests the focus will include the 24 hours before Bergdahl's capture, the final 24 hours of his captivity, and reconstructing the five years of his confinement to the best of his memory. Based on his experience, Burton says there is one aspect of Bergdahl's case that appears unusual.

"In years gone by, in the cases that I've worked, whether it be hostages that have been held for a long period of time or those in a short period of time such as in an aircraft hijacking oversees, you're going to want to introduce the family into the environment so you can get the baseline of normalcy back," said Burton. "And the fact that the family has not been brought back into this environment tells me that there's something else going on."

The haziness surrounding Bergdahl's initial disappearance and the emergence of a letter suggesting he'd grown disillusioned with the Army have cast clouds around the entire story. Yet perhaps more political controversy has erupted over his release in exchange for five notorious Taliban leaders -- deal facilitated by the third-party nation of Qatar. Several Texas lawmakers weighed in with statements to KVUE Monday.

"This is another example of the lawless nation President Obama is creating," said Rep. John Carter (R-TX) of Round Rock. "Every law that is inconvenient to the President's political agenda is swept under the rug and the laws that fit his agenda are enforced to their fullest extent. This is not what we call a rule of law country. We can't pick and choose the laws that we want to abide by."

"I am glad when any U.S. service member returns safely home, but I have serious concerns about the President's decision to release five Taliban leaders with no assurances they will not return to the fight," U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) said. "I'm also concerned the Administration's actions have placed a price on the heads of U.S. service members overseas. We need a thorough review of the Administration's actions as many questions remain unanswered."

"The return of an American soldier from the clutches of the Taliban is good news," responded Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX). "This prisoner of war swap was not on the terms that I would personally have sought, but neither do I nor the critics know all of the still classified, surrounding circumstances. Hopefully, this exchange indicates that negotiations toward a resolution of the overall Afghan conflict can advance."

While politicians argue over the trade for the release of five Taliban leaders, Burton says back channel deals are nothing new.

"We always negotiate with terrorist organizations behind the scenes, we just may not publicly admit it," said Burton. While the merits of the trade can be debated, he adds context is also important.

"If this was your son, you would want the government to do everything in their power to bring him home and bring him home safely," said Burton. "Let others be the judge as whether it's smart to actually swap five hardcore Taliban prisoners that at some point in time would eventually be let go anyway with our withdrawal from Afghanistan and the closing of Gitmo."

"I'm very concerned," Donahue said. "It places people like me at greater risk when local bad guys think that they might be able round somebody like me up and hold me and get some comrades released and make a healthy profit on top of it."

Yet both Burton and Donahue are in agreement that people should wait before jumping to conclusions over the nature of Bergdahl's capture -- and that it will likely take him a very long time to fully recover.

"He is certainly going to need a good amount of time to reintegrate with his family first, with society writ large, to decompress," Donahue said. "Because you're really under a lot of tension and fear for an extended period."

"I think the important thing for your viewers to understand would be to wait and see what comes out of this debriefing process, and let's see where the next 48 or 72 hours lead us," Burton said.


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