Exchange of detainees for soldier sets off debate
WASHINGTON - An American soldier who spent nearly five years in Taliban captivity was freed Saturday in exchange for five members of the Taliban who had been imprisoned for years at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, in an unprecedented prisoner exchange that sparked both jubilation and controversy.
Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, 28, the only U.S. soldier taken captive by the enemy in 12 years of the Afghanistan conflict, was turned over to a U.S. military task force in Afghanistan about 10:30 a.m. Eastern time, U.S. officials said. Less than four hours later, the five Taliban detainees took off from Guantanamo, headed for the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, which brokered the deal. Under the terms of their transfer, they are to remain in Qatar at least a year.
President Obama, flanked by Bergdahl's parents, made brief televised remarks Saturday evening, thanking the foreign governments, American diplomats, and U.S. military personnel who were behind the release effort.
"Sergeant Bergdahl has missed birthdays and holidays and simple moments with family and friends which all of us take for granted," Obama said. "But while Bowe was gone, he was never forgotten."
Bergdahl's parents, Jani and Bob Bergdahl, echoed the president in short, emotional remarks in which they suggested their son faced a long recovery after his years under Taliban control. Bob Bergdahl said his son was having trouble speaking English. Then he addressed his son directly in Dari, one of the languages spoken in Afghanistan. "I am your father," he then translated.
The deal resolved the question of whether the U.S. military would withdraw from Afghanistan without Bergdahl, who went missing from his base on June 30, 2009. But it immediately sparked controversy.
For one, the Obama administration failed to notify Congress 30 days in advance that it was transferring the five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo, as U.S. law requires. Congress was notified as the detainees were turned over to Qatari diplomats.
"This is a case of the commander in chief exercising his prerogative to get one of his soldiers back," said one official, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to address the issue publicly.
But some members of Congress were unimpressed. "Our joy at Sergeant Bergdahl's release is tempered by the fact that President Obama chose to ignore the law, not to mention sound policy, to achieve it," said a joint statement by Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R., Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Sen. James Inhofe (R., Okla.), the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
There were also questions about the wisdom - and precedent - of freeing five high-ranking Taliban members, all on the list of detainees not eligible for release, in exchange for one American service member.
The five freed "are hardened terrorists who have the blood of Americans and countless Afghans on their hands," said Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), who was a POW in Vietnam. "I am 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 and our partners."
There also were questions about the circumstances of Bergdahl's captivity. How he came to leave his base has never been clear, and some have suggested he should be treated as a deserter, not a captive.
Bergdahl's hometown of Hailey, Idaho, where nearly every tree bears a yellow ribbon in his honor, erupted in jubilation as news of his release spread. A truck with a loudspeaker circled the city announcing his release, eliciting cheers from residents.
Bergdahl was able to walk and speak, a defense official said. After receiving medical treatment at Bagram air base in Afghanistan, he was to be flown to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, a U.S. military hospital in Germany, for further care, and then was to travel to the San Antonio Military Medical Center, the official said. "Depending on the wishes of his family, we're working to connect him with his family via telephone or video conference soon, and at this point we expect they'll be reunited in Texas," the defense official said.