On Saturday, the Taliban released American prisoner of war Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held captive near the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan for nearly five years. As part of the deal, which was brokered by the Qatari government, the United States released five Afghan detainees from Guantanamo Bay. Those men — Mohammad Nabi Omari, Mullah Norullah Noori, Mullah Mohammad Fazl, Abdul Haq Wasiq, Khirullah Said Wali Khairkhwa — have all been described as onetime Taliban officials. According to information contained in the files leaked by Chelsea Manning, Omari was “one of the most significant former Taliban leaders detained,” while Noori and Fazl are believed to have overseen the killing of thousands of Shiite Muslims. Naturally, news of the exchange has prompted members of the GOP to accuse the Obama administration of having negotiated with terrorists.
In a Saturday statement, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel acknowledged that the administration did not inform Congress of the plan to trade Guantanamo Bay prisoners for Bergdahl, as Obama has previously argued that he is not legally obligated to do so. Representative Adam Kinzinger, a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, did not agree. “The release of five mid-to-high-level Taliban is shocking to me, especially not coming to Congress. It says in the law you have to notify Congress,” said the Illinois Republican on Meet the Press. “You now are going to have five people on the ground, targeting American troops, the Afghan troops and the Afghan people.”
And Ted Cruz shared his thoughts on This Week. “We can go in and use military force, as needed, to rescue our fallen compatriots,” he insisted. “The idea that we’re now making trades, what does that do for every single soldier stationed abroad?” he continued, arguing that the agreement made it so “every other terrorist has an incentive to capture more soldiers.” John McCain, who spent years as a POW himself, didn’t argue with the administration’s decision to not tell lawmakers about Bergdahl’s impending release, though he did call the prisoner exchange “disturbing.” “I think the big issue here is what’s going to happen to these five individuals,” he said. “If they re-enter the fight, then it is going to put American lives at risk, and none of us want that to happen.”
Hagel, meanwhile, defended the administration’s actions. “We didn’t negotiate with terrorists,” he said on Meet the Press. “Sgt. Bergdahl is a prisoner of war, that’s a normal process in getting your prisoners back.” He also said that he believed that the United States could prevent the newly freed Taliban, who will been banned from traveling outside of Qatar for one year, from posing a threat in the future. “We don’t let anyone out of Guantanamo, and I will not sign off on any detainee coming out of Guantanamo unless I am assured … that we can efficiently mitigate any risk to American security.” Hagel also told reporters that the United States moved to retrieve Bergdahl “essentially to save his life.” According to the secretary of Defense, the intelligence “was such that Sgt. Bergdahl’s safety and health were both in jeopardy and in particular his health deteriorating.”
Hagel also avoided questions about the circumstances of Bergdahl’s 2009 capture, which happened after he walked away from his base in eastern Afghanistan in the middle of the night. Before he was taken hostage, the now 28-year-old had expressed disillusionment with the American military, and many believe that he was trying to desert the Army when the Taliban came upon him. “I’m not surprised that there are still questions, and until we get the facts exactly what the condition of Sergeant Bergdahl is, we can’t go much further in speculating,” he said on Meet the Press. “But, you know, this is a guy who probably went through hell the last five years and let’s focus on getting him well and getting him back with his family.” National Security Advisor Susan Rice echoed Hagel’s comments when asked if the desertion allegations were being “investigated” on This Week. “Certainly, anybody who has been held in those conditions in captivity for five years has paid an extraordinary price, but that is really not the point. The point is he’s back. He’s going to be safely reunited with his family. He served the United States with honor and distinction,” she said. “We’ll have the opportunity to learn eventually what happened in the past years. But what’s most important now is his health and well-being and that he have the opportunity to recover in peace and security and be reunited with his family which is why this is such a joyous day.”
On Saturday evening, Bergdahl’s parents, Bob and Jani, stood next to President Obama in the Rose Garden to discuss their son’s return. “The complicated nature of this recovery will really never be comprehended,” said Bob Bergdahl. “So we look forward to continue the recovery of our son, which is going to be a considerable task for our family and we hope that the media will understand that that will keep us very preoccupied in the coming days and weeks as he gets back home to the United States.”