The sole U.S. soldier being held captive in Afghanistan was deemed at risk of losing his life, prompting a hushed-up operation to swap him for five Taliban detainees at Guantánamo Bay, senior administration figures stressed Sunday amid criticism of the exchange.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Sunday that the military operation to free Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl came after intelligence suggested the 28-year-old’s “safety and health were both in jeopardy, and in particular his health was deteriorating.”
The decision to spring him in return for the release of five Taliban members at Guantánamo Bay was not relayed to Congress because officials believed Bergdahl’s life would be further endangered. “We couldn’t afford any leaks, for obvious reasons,” Hagel said. But the secretive nature of the order, plus concern over the release of five senior Taliban figures, has led to a backlash, largely from Republican lawmakers who claimed that it could endanger other Americans.
The operation to secure the release of Bergdahl took place Saturday, with Taliban members handing him to U.S. forces close to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Later in the day, the Taliban detainees were flown from the controversial U.S. detention camp in Cuba to Qatar, which brokered the exchange.
On Sunday they arrived in Doha, where they said to be receiving medical assessments.
The decision by President Barack Obama to order the exchange was made “essentially to save his life,” Hagel said. It was deemed that the president had the authority to order the operation under Article 2 of the Constitution.
But the Pentagon did not give Congress the required 30-day notice for the release of Guantánamo detainees, as agreed under a law enacted last year. A senior administration noted in a Washington Post article that when Obama signed the legislation last year, he issued a statement saying that he could supersede it if need be.
But the move has angered top Republican politicians, some of whom have accused Obama of violating the law.
Moreover, some have questioned the White House over safeguards put in place to ensure that the now released Taliban members would not pose a threat to U.S. interests.
In a joint statement released to the news media, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. McKeon, R-Calif., and the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, James M. Inhofe, Okla., criticized the exchange.
“Trading five senior Taliban leaders from detention in Guantánamo Bay for Bergdahl’s release may have consequences for the rest of our forces and all Americans. Our terrorist adversaries now have a strong incentive to capture Americans. That incentive will put our forces in Afghanistan and around the world at even greater risk,” the statement read.
The White House attempted to assuage fears over the release, with officials noting that the transferred detainees would be subject to restrictions in Qatar, including a minimum one-year ban on their traveling outside the Gulf state.
But U.S. Republicans and some Afghan officials have greeted those assurances with skepticism.
There was no immediate comment from the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who Hagel said was not informed of the prisoner exchange in advance.
But the Afghan Foreign Ministry sent a statement to a the U.S. embassy calling the transfer of the detainees to a third country illegal.
Under international laws, “no government can hand over a country’s citizens to a third country as a prisoner,” it said, adding that Kabul is “strongly protesting” the move.
Meanwhile, Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar on Sunday hailed their release as a “big victory.”
The five released Guantánamo detainees — Mohammad Fazl, Mullah Norullah Noori, Mohammed Nabi, Khairullah Khairkhwa and Abdul Haq Wasiq — were all high-ranking members of the Taliban government toppled by the U.S. in 2001.
The exchange came as the result of long-standing efforts to facilitate negotiations with the Taliban.
Hagel said he was hopeful the prisoner exchange could lead to further breakthroughs, "maybe this could provide some possible new bridge for new negotiations."
The handover mission seemingly went off smoothly. “No shots were fired. There was no violence,” Hagel said from the Bagram military base near Kabul.
Bergdahl had been held in captivity for nearly five years. Originally from Idaho, he was listed as the only known missing U.S. soldier in Afghanistan.
Questions remain about the circumstances of his 2009 capture. There has been some speculation that he willingly walked away from his unit, raising the question of whether he could be charged with being absent without leave or desertion. Hagel would not be drawn on the question when asked Sunday.
After his release, Bergdahl was flown to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany for the beginning of his “reintegration process,” officials said.
He will then likely be transferred to a military medical facility in San Antonio, Texas.
In a press conference Sunday, the soldier’s parents acknowledged that the road to full recovery would be difficult and long. Bob and Jani Bergdahl confirmed that they had not as yet spoken to their son but urged him to listen to the people working with him, adding that he needed time to “decompress.”
Bergdahl’s release comes just days after Obama outlined a plan to withdraw all but 9,800 American troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year and the rest by 2016, ending more than a decade of U.S. military engagement.
A U.S. official said he did not see a link between the agreement and Obama’s announcement. “This predates the decision on troops. This is just a matter of this coming together with the help of the Qataris and the Taliban realizing that we were serious.”
But the exchange has sparked some hopes that it could kick-start a faltering peace process.
While U.S. and Taliban envoys have met directly in the past, there were no direct U.S.-Taliban contacts during the most recent negotiations, according to U.S. officials. Messages were passed via Qatari officials.
The final stage of negotiations, held in the Qatari capital, Doha, began a week ago, U.S. officials said. Obama and Qatar’s emir spoke on Tuesday and reaffirmed the security conditions under which the Taliban members would be placed, they added.
Al Jazeera and wire services