Novelist Alex Berenson on Bergdahl Deal and Bush-Obama Afghanistan Record
Bestselling thriller writer Alex Berenson had an op-ed on the Bergdahl deal in today’s New York Times. He joined me in hour two of the program and concluded the interview by awarding President Obama first place in “worst Afghan policy” category:
HH: If you open up your New York Times today, you saw an op-ed by our frequent, at least annual guest, Alex Berenson, whose John Wells novels have been so terrifically successful over the years. Alex joins me now from New York. Alex, how are you? Great to talk to you as always.
AB: I’m good. You know, I write pieces like that so I can get you to have me on more than once a year.
HH: Well, this is a three time a year deal now, and this is A Prisoner Of War, Not A Hero op-ed. Are your lefty friends upset with you? Because you tell some hard truths here.
AB: You know, it’s funny, I thought I’d get more of that, but people on the left seem to read it more, and this is very interesting to me, as a condemnation almost of the Republicans, which I don’t get at all. I thought, my mother actually said to me, and you should never confess that your mother, you know, is your critic or your fan. But she said I’ll bet President Obama reads your piece. And I said he’s not going to like this. This is critical of the White House. And she said oh, no, because she’s an old-line Democrat, she said oh, no, you know, you criticize the Republicans. And I thought, where did I do that?
HH: No, she’s clearly projecting a little bit. I like this piece, because you’re very blunt. You write, “As a reporter, I embedded for modest stints with American soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. When I’m asked about these experiences, I always say and mean that we civilians don’t deserve the soldiers we have. In this case, perhaps the reverse was true. The White House worked tirelessly to free Sgt. Bergdahl, and did not let the murk around his disappearance stop the decision to trade.” But the decision seems right to you, you write. No man or woman left behind, and I’m glad that they got him out. But clearly, they thought he was a hero, Alex Berenson, and he’s not.
AB: He’s not a hero, and I don’t know, I mean, whoever at the White House was in charge of getting those parents to the Rose Garden should be fired. And you know, there are a lot of ways they could have played this. They could have put out a one paragraph statement and said you know, he’s being evaluated medically at Landstuhl, and you know, we understand that the facts around this case are complicated, and he will be subject to a military investigation. They have stepped in this so badly, and the other thing that I think the Republicans are actually correct to complain about is it does appear that there was absolutely no reason why they couldn’t have given 30 days’ notice. Now I don’t know if you’ve seen the video, I don’t know how many of your listeners have seen the video of his actual release, but he doesn’t look like a man who’s on the verge of death. He looks scared, which I think it totally understandable, and he looks shaky. But he doesn’t look like he’s about to drop dead.
HH: Now let me ask the novelist that I’ve got here. What about the possibility of smoking the Taliban who brought him along and then double crossing them on the transfer of the five bad guys who are going to kill again, obviously?
AB: You know, I think that was never seriously considered, and I think the reason for that is a reason that a lot of Americans, you know, whether on left or right just don’t want to deal with, and that is the fact that the Taliban are a viable political party. We may not like them, but they are going to have a voice in Afghanistan going forward. You know, I was actually talking to Jamie Rubin, who was an assistant secretary of State for Clinton about this a few minutes ago, and he said oh, I don’t think the Taliban represent a lot of Afghans. And well, you know, maybe not in northern Afghanistan, but in southern Afghanistan, they represent a lot of Pashtuns. And we’re leaving. We’re not fighting them anymore. We’re going to have to deal with them, and you know, this is what this transfer said. And that’s why they put out the video. And you know, that’s the part where I would say the Republicans should not overreach, because pretending that the Taliban aren’t going to be a force that we have to deal with is just going to make matters more complicated for whoever is president in 2017.
HH: Well, you know, Alex, the one thing that I told people when Bergdahl originally was released is I said you know, we really don’t know the circumstances. It could be a scenario where there’s a lot going on behind the scenes, and we don’t know. And I had John Wells in mind, right, someone who goes over on the…
HH: We just don’t know. He’s probably just a dope who got, who talked himself into doing a stupid thing, and then paid a five year price which is going to cost lots and lots of lives, and already cost six American lives trying to get him back. But I did want to go to the end of your piece where you write, “The anger and confusion surrounding Bergdahl’s release has generated seems somehow fitting a messy and inconclusive end to a war that went on far too long without a clear purpose.” Now I want to say, I want to argue that with you, that the clear purpose was keeping the Taliban from issuing passport stamps to people who would fly into our buildings. The clear purpose was getting women an education and health care throughout the vast majority of Afghanistan, even if not in the tribal region. Hasn’t the United States succeeded, and they just had a very successful election. They got a new legitimate government coming in. Who knows if they can hang onto it, but heck, if we stayed as long there as we’ve stayed in South Korea, they might make a go of this thing.
AB: You know, I know that that argument is appealing. I don’t agree with it. You know, South Korea was not a war after the first five years. You know, we had garrisons there, but you know, we didn’t, we weren’t fighting the Germans in 1957. This was a war. There were a lot of people in Afghanistan who never accepted our presence, who were never going to accept our presence, and eventually, you can’t stay. You cannot stay forever in those circumstances, and you certainly can’t stay forever if you’re the United States in 2014, and you’re not going to really occupy the country. We’re not colonialists, and we never were, and we’re never going to be. So at some point, you’ve got to go home, and the people who are living there have to make their own decisions. And it’s not clear at all to me that that country is going to look very different next year, in 2016, than it did in 1999. So I agree with you. I agree with you that we have every right to say to them do not harbor people who want to harm our country, and if you do that, we are going to blow you to smithereens. But short of that, you’ve got to go home.
HH: You see, and I do not minimize what it meant to lose 119 soldiers in 2013. That’s how many American servicemen died either via car bombs or hostile fire or helicopter crashes. Those are the undisputed numbers. And 119 lost lives is a lot. But are you saying that that, this country can’t bear that price to keep the Taliban from overrunning a government?
AB: You know, I think it’s not just the lives lost. It’s the wounded, it’s the harm done to the soldiers. You know, it’s the cost in the psychic trauma to the soldiers who go and endlessly rotate through. And it’s the financial cost. And at some point, you have to ask yourself what are we getting out of this. And I don’t know what we were getting out of this by last year. Now again, if whoever comes to power there in the next five years allows al Qaeda or an al Qaeda-like force to come storming back, we are going to have a big problem. And I guess we’re just going to go through the whole thing again. But we, that’s why I believe we have to negotiate and engage with the Taliban, like it or no.
HH: Boy, I disagree with that. Let me ask you this. Did we incentivize people to snag, you know, nab Americans?
AB: No, no, they had tremendous incentive to do that anyway. Yeah, that part, I don’t buy. You know, American hostages, whether civilian or military, are very valuable to terrorists.
HH: Of course, they are. But didn’t, you always, incentives matter, and if you can get five for one, what’s it going to take to get Khalid Sheikh Mohammed?
AB: Sure, but again, this comes down to the question of our, is the Taliban an ultimately, at this point, a political force? In other words, at some point, if they are going to represent, be a political party as well as this guerrilla/terrorist group, their leaders have a right to be free. And you know, it’s Ireland, right? It’s Sinn Fein. And at some point, you recognize that this group, which you may find distasteful, represents the legitimate aspirations of a large group of people, and you just have to deal with him.
HH: Well, you know, I’m going to have to disagree with that only because when you’re talking about the IRA, there was an end game where you would imagine them not blowing up people forever. The Taliban being pan-Afghanistan, they want the Pakistani nukes, we really can’t come to, this is the problem that the IRA doesn’t present. They don’t have weapons of mass destruction being run by the ISI next door.
AB: You know, and that is a very good question. It’s a very legitimate fear. I think, and I would like to think that the Taliban, you know, sort of have learned in the last 15 years also that they would rather not spend their lives in the hills in Waziristan, and that if they provoke us, we will attack them again. But that doesn’t mean we should occupy Afghanistan indefinitely. It means what we want is for them to be afraid of us, right? We want…but you know, understand that we are not going to be at perpetual war with them.
HH: Well, I think that’s true. If they do not, if they lay down their ambitions to send terrorists to America, or to get their hands on WMD, then it’s really not going to be our problem long term.
AB: Right. Right. However they run their country, you know, to some level, who cares? They may be jerks, but…
HH: Well, I do care for those girls. I do care for those girls who are never going to get to see a doctor again. But let me ask you this to close, Alex Berenson. This administration’s made a hash of it. They’re utter dopes.
HH: They’re dopes on so many ways.
HH: So who’s worse – President Bush or President Obama when it comes to Afghanistan policy?
AB: Wow, that’s a tough one, but I’ve got to give the honor to President Obama, because he managed to spend, you know, six years, leave with no glory, and his very seemingly last act, he completely hashed up. So we’ll give the award to President Obama.
HH: Alex Berenson, for a liberal Democrat, let me take my hat off to you. Honesty points. I appreciate it. Take care.
End of interview.