White House under fire for Taliban swap to get U.S. POW

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

WASHINGTON -- Joy over the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl yielded Sunday to questions about Obama administration decision-making in the deal for the American prisoner of war, which included the release of five high-ranking Afghan Taliban detainees.

Congressional Republicans and others focused on a series of concerns that are likely to reverberate in coming days: whether the deal breached U.S. policy forbidding negotiations with terrorists, whether sufficient safeguards are in place to ensure that the released Taliban prisoners do no further harm to the United States and whether Congress was informed about the prisoner trade, as required by law.

Separately, some inside the military raised questions about the cost associated with rescuing Sgt. Bergdahl, who walked off his base and away from his unit five years ago after becoming disillusioned with the war effort.

Most of the immediate concern expressed by military experts, including a former national security adviser to President Barack Obama, centered on the five Taliban prisoners who were released Saturday from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"It's very, very important for the government of Qatar to make sure that these people are kept under control and do not return to the battlefield," said Gen. James Jones, who served as Mr. Obama's national security adviser until November 2010. He noted in an interview on CNN's "State of the Union" that previously released Taliban prisoners had returned to the battlefield.

Susan Rice, the current national security adviser, said Sunday that the White House had received a "series of very specific assurances" from the government of Qatar about its role in keeping the released prisoners in the Persian Gulf state. The promises the emir of Qatar made directly to Mr. Obama "enable us to have confidence that these prisoners will be carefully watched, that their ability to move will be constrained. And we believe that this is in the national security interests of the United States," Ms. Rice said.

The released Afghan detainees, including former Taliban deputy defense minister Mohammad Fazl, will be subject to a yearlong travel ban in Qatar, according to a memorandum of understanding signed by U.S. and Qatari officials.

The Obama administration declined to provide details of the memo, and congressional Republicans expressed concern about it Sunday.

"It is disturbing that these individuals would have the ability to re-enter the fight," Sen. John McCain, Ariz., said in an interview on CBS's "Face the Nation."

"These are the hardest of the hard-core," said Mr. McCain, who was held prisoner for more than five years in Vietnam after his plane was shot down during that war.

On Saturday evening, Mr. McCain said that he shared "the joy that the Bergdahl family feels." But he said that he is "eager to learn what precise steps are being taken to ensure that these vicious and violent Taliban extremists never return to the fight against the United States."

Separately, Mike Rogers, R-Mich., House Intelligence Committee chairman, said the White House made a mistake by deciding to "negotiate with terrorists" for the release of prisoners. He said the deal puts other Americans at risk from a group that routinely uses kidnappings and ransom demands to get results.

"This fundamental shift in U.S. policy signals to terrorists around the world a greater incentive to take U.S. hostages," Mr. Rogers said late Saturday. He has called for a full Intelligence Committee review of the matter. On Sunday, Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., House Armed Services Committee chairman, said his panel will hold hearings on the prisoner exchange.

The congressional queries provoked a strong response from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who stopped in Afghanistan on Saturday while en route from Asia to meetings in Brussels.

"We didn't negotiate with terrorists," Mr. Hagel said in an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Since the negotiations were handled mostly by Qatar, the United States did not negotiate directly with the Taliban. The administration's announcement of Sgt. Bergdahl's release said only that negotiations began several weeks ago through the government of Qatar, and there was no indication of any direct contact between the United States and the Taliban.

Congressional Republicans have complained that the administration did not consult with Congress about the negotiations within 30 days of the prisoners' release, as required by law.

"I think they violated the law," Mr. Rogers said. "There is a reason that Congress is involved by law, by statute, by constitutional authority in these decisions," he added, noting that plans to raid the compound of Osama bin Laden were shared with key members of Congress months before the event. "So some notion that this [Bergdahl rescue] was so secretive and so sensitive that it couldn't happen is just wrong."

Mr. Hagel told reporters traveling with him that the veil of secrecy was necessary because of Sgt. Bergdahl's urgent health situation.

He confirmed that Afghan President Hamid Karzai was not informed of the operation in advance and that he was told about it afterward in a call from Secretary of State John F. Kerry.

The deal produced a mixed reaction from the Afghan government Sunday. A statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs welcomed the release of the Taliban prisoners but said that the decision to send the men to Qatar violated "international laws, which say that no government can submit a citizen of another country to a third nation as a prisoner."

The Afghans asked for the former detainees' "unconditional freedom."

In addition to assurances Mr. Obama received by telephone, he met personally with former Qatari emir Sheik Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York on Wednesday, where the president gave a graduation address.

Sgt. Bergdahl was flown to the U.S. military's medical center in Landstuhl, Germany, where he was being evaluated Sunday. His parents met briefly with reporters in Boise, Idaho, on Sunday. They said they had not yet spoken with their son and used the news media appearance to communicate with him.

"Give yourself all of the time you need to recover and decompress," said his mother, Jani Bergdahl. "There is no hurry. You have your life ahead of you. ... You've made it. ... You are free."

As Defense Department officials contemplated what was described as a likely transfer of Sgt. Bergdahl soon to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, there was another emotional reunion -- in Doha, Qatar.

The Taliban posted several photos of the released detainees meeting with other Taliban officials. The images showed men with long, graying beards in emotional embraces.

The Taliban also released a rare public statement from its leader, Mohammad Omar.

"I extend my heartfelt congratulations to the entire Afghan Muslim nation," the statement said.

Mr. Omar also thanked the government of Qatar "for their mediation and for hosting them."

The releases occurred just after the United States announced its plans for its drawdown of troops in Afghanistan.

The last time a senior Taliban official was released from Guantanamo Bay, in 2007, the detainee, Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, returned to Afghanistan and became director of military operations.

Officials said "dozens" of Special Forces troops went to the site in helicopters for the meeting with the 18 Taliban members delivering Sgt. Bergdahl, while additional militants waited in the distance.

It was a rare battlefield meeting for fighters on two sides of a deadly war.

After being released by his Afghan captors, Sgt. Bergdahl walked onto the waiting U.S. aircraft.

Once airborne, he scribbled the letters "SF?" on a paper plate, seeking confirmation that he was with Special Forces troops.

"Yes!" one of the troops yelled back above the din of the aircraft's blades, according to a defense official who described Sgt. Bergdahl's first moments of freedom. "We've been looking for you for a long time."

Sgt. Bergdahl then broke down in tears.

Join the conversation:

Commenting policy | How to report abuse
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to socialmedia@post-gazette.com and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner. Thank you.
Commenting policy | How to report abuse


You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here