President Barack Obama’s decision to swap five high-ranking Taliban for a U.S. soldier some regard as a deserter has ignited a furore over whether deal-making with terrorist groups increases the risk of attack.
“We didn’t negotiate with terrorists,” insisted Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, explaining that it was a prisoner-of-war exchange and thus different.
But many regard Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, now 28, as a deserter, not a soldier captured by the enemy. After sending e-mails to his family denouncing the war, then-Private Bergdahl shed his helmet and weapons and walked away from a remote mountain outpost in Afghanistan’s Paktika province five years ago.
At least six U.S. soldiers were subsequently killed in the massive hunt to find the disenchanted missing soldier who had dabbled in Buddhism and tried – but failed – to join the French Foreign Legion.
“I don’t understand why we’re trading prisoners at Gitmo for somebody who deserted during a time of war, which is an act of treason,” Matt Vierkant, a member of the same army unit, told CNN, using the shorthand name for the U.S. detention centre at Guantanamo Bay naval base.
Senator John McCain, the former naval aviator who spent five years as a prisoner of war being tortured in North Vietnam, said he understood the impulse to bring every American home, but decried the deal as an example of Mr. Obama’s deeply flawed Afghanistan exit strategy.
He warned that the senior Taliban who were ordered released by Mr. Obama were among “the hardest of the hard core” and could pose a threat to the United States. “If they re-enter the fight, it will put American lives at risk,” Sen. McCain said, noting the only known conditions on their release to Qatar was that they not be free to leave the wealthy Gulf emirate for a year.
Susan Rice, the President’s national security adviser, played down the threat. “In all likelihood,” she said, “they will not pose a national security risk.”
In Kabul, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who was reportedly kept in the dark about the swap, “is now even more distrustful of U.S. intentions,” said one of his aides.
The Taliban dismissed notions that freeing the five from Guantanamo, where they have been held for 12 years, will help long-stalled talks between insurgents and the Afghan government.
“It won’t help the peace process in any way, because we don’t believe in the peace process,” said Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the radical Islamic group that ruled Afghanistan and sheltered al-Qaeda before being toppled after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
In Washington, the President’s critics denounced the swap.
“It sends a message,” said Senator Ted Cruz, the Canadian-born Republican from Texas. “Capture a U.S. soldier [and] you can trade that soldier for five terrorists.”
Senior administrations officials defended the swap even as it emerged that former Obama cabinet members, including Hillary Clinton, had rejected freeing high-ranking Taliban prisoners.
Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, said: “I am extremely troubled … that the United States negotiated with terrorists,” warning “this decision will threaten the lives of American soldiers for years to come.”
The White House ducked questions about whether Sgt. Bergdahl had voluntarily left his post. The Pentagon “has been and will continue to be the lead in terms of evaluating all of the circumstances surrounding his initial detention and his captivity,” said Mr. Obama’s spokesman Jay Carney.
Nothing by way of explanation has yet been heard from Sgt. Bergdahl, who was plucked from a remote rendezvous spot by U.S. Special Forces and flown first to Bagram air base near Kabul and then to Germany. He will eventually return to the United States to face intense scrutiny – and possibly a court martial.
In messages home shortly before he walked away from his post, Sgt. Bergdahl, who has twice been promoted while in captivity, made clear his disillusionment with the war. “Life way too short to care … I am ashamed to even be American … I am sorry for everything. The horror that is America is disgusting,” he wrote in e-mails first made public by Rolling Stone magazine two years ago. “The U.S. army … is the army of liars, backstabbers, fools, and bullies,” he wrote – views that sparked a renewed firestorm on social media in the last few days.
Meanwhile, the tiny Idaho town of Hailey was festooned with yellow ribbons and balloons awaiting the sergeant’s return. “There’s a lot of controversy,” Adam Marks told The Los Angeles Times. “People are saying he’s a traitor and that he deserted his post. But everybody here is just happy he’s coming home.”