As America’s only prisoner of war in Afghanistan was transferred back to U.S. custody, Republicans challenged the Obama administration’s insistence it did not negotiate with terrorists in securing the soldier’s release and say the move was illegal and could embolden terrorists around the globe.
As his parents and residents of his Idaho hometown celebrated the negotiated release of Sgt. Bowe Berdahl over the weekend, the circumstances surrounding the release — and the sudden freeing of five Taliban figures held at the Guantanamo detainee prison — were producing a full-scale controversy in Washington.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel insisted the U.S. did not negotiate with terrorists in the process of exchanging the transfer of the five terrorism suspects for the release of Sgt. Bergdahl, now 28, who had been in Taliban hands since June 2009.
“We didn’t negotiate with terrorists,” Mr. Hagel said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “And I said and explained before, Sgt. Bergdahl is a prisoner of war. That’s a normal process in getting your prisoners back.”
Sgt. Bergdahl arrived at a U.S. military hospital in Germany Sunday after he was handed over to U.S. special operations forces by the Taliban Saturday, with the government of Qatar serving as a go-between.
In an emotional press conference Sunday afternoon in Boise, Idaho, Sgt. Bergdahl’s father, Bob, likened his son’s return to a deep-sea diver resurfacing and urged a gradual re-assimilation process.
“If he comes up too fast, it could kill him,” said Mr. Bergdahl, thanking supporters and government officials for their help in the process. “The recovery and rehabilitation of Bowe Bergdahl is a work in progress.”
Jani Bergdahl told her son to give himself all the time he needs to recover.
“I love you, Bowe — I’m so very proud of you,” she said. “We praise God for your freedom.”
Administration officials too said the focus right now should be on the fact that the only U.S. POW from the Afghan conflict is coming back home, even as President Obama is winding down the 13-year war there.
National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice told CNN that what officials did was ensure that the United States doesn’t leave a man or woman on the battlefield.
“And in order to do this — it’s very important for folks to understand, if we got into a situation where we said, you know, because of who has captured an American soldier on the battlefield, we will leave that person behind, we would be in a whole new era for the safety of our personnel and for the nature of our commitment to our men and women in uniform,” Ms. Rice said. “So [just] because the Taliban had him did not mean that we had any less of an obligation to bring him back.”
But complicating the administration’s narrative was a rare public statement Sunday from Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, who said the prisoner swap marked a “great victory” for the Islamist movement that led the military resistance against the U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan for more than a decade.
“The sacrifice of our mujahedeen have resulted in the release of our senior leaders from the hand of the enemy,” Mullah Mohammed Omar said.
Ms. Rice and other administration officials insisted that, at the diplomatic level, the U.S. was negotiating with the government of Qatar, not the Taliban or its Afghan allies. But the handover followed secret and indirect negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban, and Qatar is taking custody of five of the Afghan detainees that had been held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.