Joy about Bergdahl release gives way to questions

Joy about 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 were 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 Bergdahl, who drifted away from his unit five years ago under curious circumstances.

Most of the immediate concern expressed by military experts, including a former national security adviser to President 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 L. Jones who served as 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 received a “series of very specific assurances” from the government of Qatar about its role in keeping the released prisoners in the Gulf state. The promises the Emir of Qatar made directly to 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,” Rice said.

The released Afghan detainees, including former Taliban deputy defense minister Mohammad Fazl, will be subject to a year-long 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 reenter the fight,” Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) said in an interview on the CBS’s “Face the Nation” show Sunday. “These are the hardest of the hard core,” said McCain, who was held prisoner for more than five years in Vietnam after his plane was shot down during the war.

On Saturday evening, McCain said he shared “the joy that the Bergdahl family feels.” However, he said 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, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) 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 ransoms to get results.

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

In exchange for the release of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. agreed to free five Taliban commanders from the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. They were among the Taliban’s most influential commanders. (Tom LeGro and Natalie Jennings/The Washington Post)

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,” 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 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,” 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,” Rogers said.

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

“It was our judgment that . . . we needed to get him out of there essentially to save his life,” he said.

Hagel 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.

Hagel defended keeping the operation secret — from the Afghan government and others.

“This was an operation . . . that had to be very closely held,” he said. “We did not want to jeopardize [it], we couldn’t afford any leaks anywhere.”

The deal produced a mixed reaction from the Afghan government Sunday. A statement from the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs welcomed the release of the Taliban prisoners but said 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 reassurances Obama received by telephone, he met personally with 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. The sheik is the father of the current emir, who turned power over to his son last year.

Bergdahl was flown to the U.S. military’s medical center in Landstuhl, Germany, where he was being evaluated Sunday. Details of his condition were not released. 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 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 the organization’s leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar.

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

Omar also thanked the government of Qatar “for their mediation and for hosting them.”

The releases occurred just after the United States announced the conclusion of its combat mission in Afghanistan. The Afghan army is preparing to take over the ongoing battle with the Islamic hard-line Taliban.

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.

Hagel and other officials said that every precaution was taken to reduce the margin for possible error or miscalculation.

“Fortunately, no shots were fired,” he said. “There was no violence. It went as well as we not only had expected and planned, but I think as well as it could have.”

The commander of the U.S. Special Operations team that retrieved Bergdahl on Saturday was in direct contact with his Taliban counterpart as the two sides arranged and approached their rendezvous near Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan, senior Defense Department officials said.

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

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

Once released by his Afghan captors, 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 Bergdahl’s first moments of freedom. “We’ve been looking for you for a long time.”

Bergdahl then broke down in tears.

Sieff reported from Kabul. Karen DeYoung in Bagram, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.

Tom Hamburger covers the intersection of money and politics for The Washington Post.
Kevin Sieff has been The Post’s bureau chief in Nairobi since 2014. He served previously as the bureau chief in Kabul and had covered the U.S. -Mexico border.
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