Taliban Free American POW In Prisoner Trade
The only American prisoner of war from the Afghan conflict was freed in exchange for five Taliban members held in Guantanamo Bay on Saturday, unleashing a political firestorm over the soldier’s case and what some have called negotiating with terrorists.
In a tense but brief exchange with 18 Taliban officials near the Afghan-Pakistan border, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was handed over to U.S. Special Forces. The soldier reportedly broke down and cried when he was told he was free.
Sgt. Bergdahl’s freedom comes after a week of secret negotiations between Qatar, acting on behalf of the U.S., and the Taliban. In exchange for Sgt. Bergdahl, the U.S. agreed that five Taliban prisoners would be released from Guantanamo Bay and sent to Qatar, under security and a one-year travel restriction.
The White House has not used the words “transfer” or “swap” in their statements about the issue, instead opting for the term “recovery.”
President Obama made a brief statement about the “recovery” in the Rose Garden on Saturday evening. Flanked by Sgt. Bergdahl’s parents, Bob and Jani, the president said America “made an ironclad commitment to bring our prisoners of war home. It’s who are are as Americans. Today, at least in this instance, it’s a promise we’ve been able to keep.”
The president told reporters that “the Qatari government has given us assurances that it will put in place measures to protect our national security.”
Afghan President Karzai was not notified in advance out of concern over leaks. Afghanistan is protesting the release.
The five Taliban members freed from Gitmo are:
• Mohammad Fazl: served as the Taliban’s deputy defense minister during the U.S. military campaign in 2001. Accused of possible war crimes, including the murder of thousands of Shi’ih Muslims.
• Khirullah Khairkhwa: a senior Taliban official serving as interior minister and governor of Herat, Afghanistan’s third largest city. Alleged to have had direct links to Osama bin Laden.
• Abdul Haq Wasiq: the Taliban’s deputy minister of intelligence. Said to have been central in forming alliances with other Islamist groups to fight against U.S. and coalition forces.
• Mullah Norullah Noori: a senior Taliban military commander and a governor. Also accused of being involved in the mass killings of Shi’ih Muslims.
• Mohammad Nabi Omari: held multiple Taliban leadership roles, including chief of security. Alleged to have been involved in attacks against U.S. and coalition forces.
Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar issued a rare public statement, hailing the exchange as a “big victory.” “I extend my heartfelt congratulations to the entire Afghan Muslim nation.”
Military officials have said Sgt. Bergdahl was captured after he voluntarily walked off his post in eastern Afghanistan. According to first-hand accounts from soldiers in his platoon, Bergdahl, while on guard duty, shed his weapons and walked off the observation post with nothing more than a compass, a knife, water, a digital camera and a diary.
E-mails reported by the late Michael Hastings in Rolling Stone in 2012 reveal Bergdahl no longer supported the war effort. “The future is too good to waste on lies,” one e-mail read. “And life is way too short to care for the damnation of others as well as to spend it helping fools with their ideas that are wrong … I am sorry for everything. The horror that is America is disgusting.”
Many of Sgt. Bergdahl’s fellow troops said they signed nondisclosure agreements agreeing never to share any information about Sgt. Bergdahl’s disappearance and the efforts to recapture him. Some soldiers, willing to dismiss that document, have said that at least six soldiers were killed in subsequent attempts to free Sgt. Bergdahl. Taliban attacks seemed to increase against the U.S. in Paktika Province in the days and weeks following his disappearance, they have said.
“I was pissed off then and I am even more so now with everything going on,” said former Sgt Matt Vierkant, a member of Sgt Bowe Bergdahl’s platoon when he went missing on 30 June 2009. “Bowe Bergdahl deserted during a time of war and his fellow Americans lost their lives searching for him.”
Contrary to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s assertion that Sgt. Bergdahl was isolated and in bad health during his five years of captivity, the American soldier grew fluent in Pashtu and Dari, developed a love for Afghan green tea, taught his captors badminton and celebrated Christmas and Easter with the hardline Islamists.
A senior defense official indicated punitive action against Sgt. Bergdahl was unlikely. “Five years is enough,” he said. “Whatever he may have done, I think he’s more than paid for it.”
During a brief, unannounced trip to Afghanistan on Sunday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel deflected reporters’ questions about the prudence in negotiating with terrorists, insisting it was a “POW exchange.”
“He was a prisoner,” Hagel said. “As we know certainly from what we’re dealing with all over the world today with terrorist groups, they take hostages, they take innocent schoolgirls, they take business people.”
Political fallout back in the U.S. began on Sunday, with Republicans claiming the deal to free Sgt. Bergdahl could allow dangerous Taliban leaders to return to the fight, might encourage terrorist groups to seize American hostages and possibly violate a law requiring notification of Congress.
“If you negotiate here, you’ve sent a message to every al Qaeda group in the world – by the way, some who are holding U.S. hostages today – that there is some value in that hostage in a way that they didn’t have before. That is dangerous,” said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), chair of the House Intelligence Committee, on CNN.
Speaking on ABC, National security adviser Susan Rice repeated what appears to be the White House talking point – that Sgt. Bergdahl “wasn’t simply a hostage; he was an American prisoner of war captured on the battlefield. We have a sacred obligation that we have upheld since the founding of our republic to do our utmost to bring back our men and women who are taken in battle, and we did that in this instance.”
Repeating the line, Secretary Hagel said on NBC, “We didn’t negotiate with terrorists. In war, things are always dangerous and there are vulnerabilities … but our record, the record of the U.S.A., in dealing with terrorists and hunting down and finding terrorists, is pretty good.”
House Armed Service Committee will hold hearings on the prisoner exchange. There will be a full House Intelligence Committee review of the matter.
Republican lawmakers have also questioned the failure of the Obama administration to give Congress the required 30 days notice of releases from Guantanamo. “I think they violated the law,” Congressman Rogers said.
Rice said it was an “urgent and acute situation,” adding, “had we waited and lost him, I don’t think anybody would have forgiven the U.S. government.”
When President Obama signed the law last year, he issued a signing statement contending that the notification requirement was an unconstitutional infringement on his powers as commander-in-chief and that he therefore could override it.
An anonymous senior administration official acknowledged that the law wasn’t followed. “Due to a near-term opportunity to save Sgt Bergdahl’s life, we moved as quickly as possible.”
Sen John McCain (R-AZ) said on CNN, “It is disturbing that these [Taliban] individuals would have the ability to re-enter the fight, and they are big, high-level people, possibly responsible for the deaths of thousands” of Shi’ih Muslims in Afghanistan
Rice said the Qatar government would be monitoring the freed Taliban members closely.