KABUL/Washington: Five years a captive from the Afghanistan war, Sgt Bowe Bergdahl is back in American hands, freed for five Guantanamo terrorism detainees in a swap stirring sharp debate in Washington over whether the US should have negotiated with the Taliban over prisoners.
US officials said yesterday that Bergdahl’s health and safety appeared in jeopardy, prompting rapid action to secure his release. Republicans said the deal could place US troops in danger, especially if the freed detainees return to the fight — one called it “shocking”. Another, Arizona Sen John McCain, said of the five detainees: “These are the hardest of the hard core”.
US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said that an operation to free soldier Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for Taliban prisoners was undertaken to save his life. Hagel even suggested it could provide a breakthrough for peace in Afghanistan.
Hagel provided new details on the operation to free the 28-year-old Bergdahl to reporters while en route to Bagram air base north of Kabul, where he paid a brief, unannounced visit to meet with more than a dozen members of the team that carried out the rescue mission.
“We believed that the information we had, the intelligence we had, was such that Sergeant Bergdahl’s safety and health were both in jeopardy, and in particularly his health deteriorating,” Hagel said, according to a Pentagon transcript. “It was our judgement that if we could find an opening and move very quickly with that opening, that we needed to get him out of there, essentially to save his life.”
Dozens of US Special Forces troops backed up by helicopters were sent to an undisclosed location in eastern Afghanistan where Taliban militants handed over Bergdahl, defence officials have said. “Fortunately, no shots were fired,” Hagel explained. “There was no violence. It went as well as we not only had expected and planned, but I think as well as it could have.”
In an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press” from Bagram, Hagel said the prisoner trade could provide a window of opportunity for peace in Afghanistan. “So maybe this will be a new opening that can produce an agreement,” he said, noting that the United States had engaged in talks with the Taliban in the past.
A Pakistani militant commander said that Bergdahl developed a love for Afghan green tea, taught his captors badminton, and even celebrated Christmas and Easter with the hardline Islamists during his time in captivity. “He never missed his religious festivals. He used to tell his handlers they were coming up weeks before Christmas and Easter and celebrated it with them,” the commander said.
A defence official said Bergdahl has yet to speak to his parents, who appeared at the White House with Obama on Saturday. “While Bowe was gone, he was never forgotten,” Obama said.
Bob Bergdahl indicated his son might be having difficulty speaking English after five years with Pashto-speaking Afghans. But officials said the soldier was in “good” condition and able to walk on his own. The circumstances of his disappearance remain unclear.
Hagel demurred when asked by reporters if Bergdahl had gone AWOL (absent without leave) or deserted his post, saying only that “other circumstances that may develop, and questions — those will be dealt with later”.
Pentagon officials said Bergdahl was brought to Bagram for medical treatment, and was then flown to the US military medical facility in Germany for further treatment and evaluation. Bergdahl will now remain at the Landstuhl centre in southern Germany while he continues his “reintegration process,” the army said.
Several opposition Republicans issued statements welcoming the release of Bergdahl. But several Republicans also claimed that his exchange for “terrorists” held in the Guantanamo Bay detention centre would just encourage more kidnappings of US soldiers.
Lawmakers were not told of the Guantanamo prisoner transfer until after the swap, the Washington Post reported. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House intelligence committee, said that he is “pleased that Sergeant Bergdahl is free and will be returning to his family in the United States.” However he was “extremely troubled” that US officials “negotiated with terrorists” to reach the swap deal.
“This fundamental shift in US policy signals to terrorists around the world a greater incentive to take US hostages,” Rogers said. “I believe this decision will threaten the lives of American soldiers for years to come,” he said.
Influential Republican Senator John McCain demanded to know what steps were being taken to “ensure that these vicious and violent Taliban extremists never return to fight against the United States and our partners”. He described the men being released as “hardened terrorists who have the blood of Americans and countless Afghans on their hands.”
The top Republicans on the House and Senate armed services committees were even harsher on US President Barack Obama, claiming the president broke the law. “America has maintained a prohibition on negotiating with terrorists for good reason,” Representative Howard “Buck” McKeon and Senator James Inhofe said in a joint statement.
“In executing this transfer, the president also clearly violated laws which require him to notify Congress thirty days before any transfer of terrorists from Guantanamo Bay and to explain how the threat posed by such terrorists has been substantially mitigated.” The law was indeed not followed, a senior US official told the Post.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, congratulated Obama for “taking decisive action” to reach the deal. The president “recognized our solemn obligation to take every possible measure to protect and defend the men and women who serve our nation,” Reid said in a statement.
The transfer of the five Taliban members leaves 149 detainees in the US military prison in Cuba, including 12 Afghan nationals, four of whom have been approved for transfer.