Debate over prisoner swap that freed Bowe Bergdahl intensifies

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in a still from a recent video released by the Taliban

Last Updated Jun 2, 2014 4:38 AM EDT

WASHINGTON -- Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl can expect a buoyant homecoming after five years in Taliban hands, but those in the government who worked for his release face mounting questions over the prisoner swap that won that freedom.

Even in the first hours of Bergdahl's handoff to U.S. special forces in eastern Afghanistan, it was clear this would not be an uncomplicated yellow-ribbon celebration. Five terrorist suspects also walked free, stirring a debate in Washington over whether the exchange will heighten the risk of other Americans being snatched as bargaining chips and whether the released detainees - several senior Taliban figures among them - would find their way back to the fight.

U.S. officials said Sunday that Bergdahl's health and safety appeared in jeopardy, prompting rapid action to secure his release. "Had we waited and lost him," said national security adviser Susan Rice, "I don't think anybody would have forgiven the United States government."

Republicans said the deal could set a troubling precedent - one called it "shocking." Arizona Sen. John McCain said of the five Guantanamo detainees, "These are the hardest of the hard core."

Tireless campaigners for their son's freedom, Bob and Jani Bergdahl, thanked all who were behind the effort to retrieve him. "You were not left behind," Bob Bergdahl told reporters, as if speaking to his son. "We are so proud of the way this was carried out." He spoke in Boise, Idaho, wearing a long bushy beard he'd grown to honor his son, as residents in the sergeant's hometown of Hailey prepared for a homecoming celebration.

Bergdahl's parents praised their son's resilience and asked for time for him to adjust to his freedom.

"The recovery and reintegration of Bowe Bergdahl is a work in progress," Bob Bergdahl said.

Bergdahl, 28, was being treated at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.

Officials of the medical center issued a statement Monday saying Bergdahl "will continue the reintegration process here.

"Trained and highly capable military health care providers will evaluate his condition, begin any necessary medical care and assist in his recovery process. There is no pre-determined amount of time involved in the reintegration process.

"The Landstuhl staff is sensitive to what Sgt. Bergdahl has been through and will proceed with his reintegration at a pace with which he is comfortable."

Afghanistan's government protested the deal, asserting transfer of the prisoners from Guantanamo Bay to Qatar broke international law, the Reuters news agency reports.

"The prisoner swap has stoked anger in Afghanistan, where many view the deal as a further sign of a U.S. desire to disengage from Afghanistan as quickly as possible. Washington has mapped out a plan to fully withdraw all of its troops by the end of 2016," Reuters says.

"No government can transfer citizens of a country to a third country as prisoners," the Afghan Foreign Affairs Ministry said in a statement late Sunday that was quoted by Reuters.

The five detainees left Guantanamo aboard a U.S. military aircraft flying to Qatar, which served as go-between in the negotiations. They are to be banned from leaving Qatar for at least a year. Among the five: a Taliban deputy intelligence minister, a former Taliban interior minister with ties to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and a figure linked by human rights monitors to mass killings of Shiite Muslims in Afghanistan in 2000 and 2001.

U.S. officials did not offer details about Bergdahl's health to support their contention that his release had to be arranged without delay. Rice, on one hand, 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 2009 capture. Defense Secretary Chuck 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, visiting troops in Afghanistan, was met with silence when he told a group of them in a Bagram Air Field 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 that 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.

A senior administration official said the release of Bergdahl and transfer of the Guantanamo detainees is part of "a broader reconciliation framework" between the U.S. and the Taliban.

"U.S. efforts to facilitate reconciliation with the Taliban began in November 2010, and since May 2011 the recovery of Sgt. Bergdahl has been a central element of our reconciliation efforts," the official said. "For all that time, our efforts have been coordinated at the highest levels of the U.S. government."

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?"

Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois said, "I'm going to celebrate him coming home," but added that the release of "five mid- to high-level Taliban is shocking to me, especially without coming to Congress."

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