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 U.S. should have negotiated with the Taliban over prisoners.
U.S. officials said Sunday that Bergdahl’s health and safety appeared in jeopardy, prompting rapid action to secure his release. Republicans said the deal could place U.S. troops in danger, especially if the freed detainees return to the fight – one called it “shocking.” Arizona Sen. John McCain said of the five detainees, “These are the hardest of the hard core.”
Visiting troops in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel stepped forward at Bagram Air Field to thank the special operations forces who retrieved Bergdahl, who officials said was the only American prisoner of war still held by insurgents in that conflict.
Tireless campaigners for their son’s freedom, Bob and Jani Bergdahl thanked all who were behind the effort to retrieve him. He spoke in Boise, Idaho, as residents in the sergeant’s hometown of Hailey prepared for a homecoming celebration.
The Taliban handed Bergdahl over to special operations forces in an area of eastern Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border, U.S. officials said. In a statement on its website, the Taliban put the location on the outskirts of Khost province.
Bergdahl, 28, was taken to Bagram Air Field for medical evaluations, then transferred to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany before he is reunited with his family in the U.S., probably at the San Antonio Military Medical Center, officials said.
Officials did not offer details about Bergdahl’s health. National security adviser Susan Rice said he had lost considerable weight and faced an “acute” situation. Yet she said he appeared to be “in good physical condition” and “is said to be walking.”
Questions persisted, too, about the circumstances of Bergdahl’s capture; Hagel declined to comment on earlier reports that the sergeant had walked away from his unit, disillusioned with the war. Such matters “will be dealt with later,” Hagel said.
Hagel was met with silence when he told troops in a Bagram hangar: “This is a happy day. We got one of our own back.” It was unclear whether the absence of cheers and applause came from a reluctance to display emotion in front of the Pentagon chief or from any doubts among the troops about Bergdahl.
In weighing the swap, U.S. officials decided it could help the effort to reach reconciliation with the Taliban, which the U.S. sees as key to more security in Afghanistan. But they acknowledged the risk that the deal would embolden insurgents, perhaps encouraging them to grab U.S. troops or citizens as bargaining chips for the release of others in U.S. custody.
Republicans pressed that point. “Have we just put a price on other U.S. soldiers?” asked Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. “What does this tell terrorists, that if you capture a U.S. soldier, you can trade that soldier for five terrorists?”
Administration officials and lawmakers pressed their points on the Sunday news shows. Republicans said the deal violated requirements that Congress be given 30 days’ notice before any exchange of captives at Guantanamo.
Rice said “an urgent and an acute situation,” which she did not specify, did not allow that time.
Several dozen U.S. special operations forces, backed by multiple helicopters and surveillance aircraft, secured Bergdahl’s transfer from about 18 Taliban members. He is believed to have been held by the Haqqani network since June 30, 2009. Haqqani operates in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and claims allegiance to the Afghan Taliban.
“I’m going to celebrate him coming home,” said Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois. But the release of “five mid- to high-level Taliban is shocking to me, especially without coming to Congress.”
Profiles of the 5 detainees swapped for U.S. soldier
Snapshots of the five people released from the Guantanamo Bay detention center in a swap for Taliban-held U.S. Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl:
■ Abdul Haq Wasiq, who served as the Taliban deputy minister of intelligence
■ Mullah Norullah Nori, a senior Taliban commander in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif when the Taliban fought U.S. forces in late 2001
■ Khairullah Khairkhwa, who served in various Taliban positions, including interior minister, and had direct ties to Taliban leader Mullah Omar and al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden
■ Mohammed Nabi, who served as chief of security for the Taliban in Qalat, Afghanistan, and later worked as a radio operator for the Taliban’s communications office in Kabul
■ Mohammad Fazl, who Human Rights Watch says could be prosecuted for war crimes for allegedly presiding over the mass killing of Shiite Muslims in Afghanistan in 2000 and 2001 as the Taliban sought to consolidate control of the country
Under the conditions of release, the five are to stay within the borders of Qatar for at least a year.