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Deal for Last U.S. POW in Afghanistan: Promise Kept or Moral Hazard?

By Derek Wallbank and Gopal Ratnam
June 01, 2014 9:08 AM EDT 156 Comments
The last remaining prisoner of war from Afghanistan, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, was freed in a prisoner exchange.
Source: U.S. Army via Bloomberg
The last remaining prisoner of war from Afghanistan, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, was freed in a prisoner exchange.

As President Barack Obama celebrated the release of the last U.S. prisoner of war in Afghanistan, debate began on whether the deal to free him was a dangerous concession to terrorists, or a necessary move that will aid the violence-wracked country’s long-term stability.

Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, 28, captured in 2009, was delivered yesterday to U.S. forces in exchange for five detainees who’d been held at the U.S. military-detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Taliban had long sought their release. Qatar officials negotiated the deal, agreeing that the detainees would stay in their country for a year.

Those released included Afghanistan’s deputy defense minister under Taliban rule and others who played roles in the regime that helped shield people involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The arrangement raised concerns among Republican lawmakers that it would encourage the kidnapping of more Americans abroad.

“The Qatari government has given us assurances that it will put in place measures to protect our national security” as it assumes responsibility for the released prisoners, Obama said last night in the White House’s Rose Garden, where he was flanked by Bergdahl’s mother, Jani, and father, Bob.

The exchange fulfills an “ironclad commitment to bring our prisoners of war home,” he said. “That’s who we are as Americans.”

Still, the deal drew criticism from senior congressional Republicans who, while welcoming Bergdahl’s release, expressed concerns at the way it was arranged.

‘Little Confidence’

Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who leads the House Intelligence Committee, said the U.S. “negotiated with terrorists and agreed to swap five senior Taliban leaders who are responsible for the deaths of many Americans.”

He also said he had “little confidence in the security assurances regarding the movement and activities of the now-released Taliban leaders and I have even less confidence in this administration’s willingness to ensure they are enforced.”

Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, said the released Taliban prisoners will have “restrictions on their movement and behavior” in Qatar, while declining to discuss details.

Rice denied Rogers’ claim that the U.S. negotiated with terrorists to secure Bergdahl’s release. The U.S. negotiated through the government of Qatar, she said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program today.

Health Concerns

The Obama administration decided to move quickly and forgo a requirement to provide 30 days’ notice to Congress for the release of Guantanamo prisoners out of concern for Bergdahl’s health, Rice said.

“Our concern was increasing with every passing day,” she said. “We also had indications that indeed his health was growing more fragile” and he had lost weight.

An administration official, responding to the Republican reaction, said the threat posed by the detainees would be sufficiently mitigated and that the agreement was in U.S. national-security interests.

The swap is consistent with Obama’s push to both close Guantanamo Bay and transfer security responsibility in Afghanistan to that nation’s government as U.S. combat operations come to a close, said the official, who requested anonymity to discuss administration strategy.

Settlement Prospect

The official’s comments hinted that the deal is seen as potentially helping the Afghan government, which soon will have a new president, in efforts to end strife with the Taliban -- a point seconded by Jonah Blank, a senior political scientist at the Santa Monica, California-based RAND Corporation.

“The Taliban prisoners released weren’t mere bargaining chips: It’s quite possible that, as influential figures, they’ll facilitate a broader negotiated settlement,” in Afghanistan, said Blank, a former staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The detainees released from Guantanamo Bay, according to a U.S. defense official with direct knowledge of the matter, are: Mohammad Fazl, Mullah Norullah Noori, Mohammed Nabi, Khairullah Khairkhwa, and Abdul Haq Wasiq. Fazl is a former deputy defense minister for the Taliban, Wasiq is a former deputy intelligence minister, and Norulla Noori and Khairkhwa were regional governors.

Fazl has been connected to the murder of thousands of Shiite Muslims, and “was noted having a long record of human rights abuses,” according to a classified 2008 Defense Department detainee assessment that previously has been posted online by WikiLeaks, an anti-secrecy group.

‘High Risk’

“If released, detainee would likely rejoin the Taliban and establish ties with anti-Coalition militias participating in hostilities against U.S. and Coalition forces in Afghanistan,” the assessment read. Fazl was rated as a “high risk, as he is likely to pose a threat to the U.S., its interests and allies.”

The means by which the U.S. secured Bergdahl’s freedom needs to be carefully examined, Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma and Representative Howard “Buck” McKeon of California said in a joint statement yesterday.

The prisoner swap “may have consequences for the rest of our forces and all Americans,” they said. “Our terrorist adversaries now have a strong incentive to capture Americans.”

McKeon heads the House Armed Services Committee, while Inhofe is the leading Republican on the Senate Armed Services panel.

‘Standard Practice’

Blank, of the RAND Corp., disputed the notion that the exchange was a break with past procedures.

“Exchange of prisoners is a standard practice in warfare, so there’s no precedent set here,” he said. “The U.S. traded captured fighters with Nazi Germany and Communist North Korea, so it’s not a stretch to make a similar arrangement with the Taliban.”

Bergdahl was transferred to U.S. custody in eastern Afghanistan along the border with Pakistan at about 10.30 a.m. New York time yesterday.

Several dozen U.S. Special Operations forces flew in helicopters to the transfer site where about 18 Taliban awaited with Bergdahl, a senior Pentagon official told reporters traveling with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in Singapore. The handover took place peacefully and quickly, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss it.

Bergdahl’s Question

Once aboard the helicopter, Bergdahl wrote on a paper plate “SF?” to ask if his rescuers were from the Special Forces, the defense official said. The soldiers, shouting above the roar of the blades, responded, “Yes. We’ve been looking for you for a long time.”

At that point Bergdahl started to cry, the official said.

After a stop at Bagram Airfield Base in Afghanistan, Bergdahl arrived at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Landstuhl, Germany, for medical treatment, a Pentagon official said today. He will then return to the U.S. to be reunited with his parents.

Bob Bergdahl, in his comments in the Rose Garden, expressed gratitude to all those involved in achieving his son’s release.

“The complicated nature of this recovery was, will never really be comprehended,” he said.

Bowe Bergdahl, from Hailey, Idaho, had been missing from his base in Afghanistan since June 30, 2009. U.S. officials have said they suspected he was being held by the Haqqani network, an ally of the Taliban.

Go-Betweens

The Taliban indicated an interest in resuming talks on him several weeks ago, according to a U.S. official who spoke anonymously to discuss the matter. Qatar facilitated indirect negotiations that led to a breakthrough about a week ago, leading to a call from Obama to the country’s emir on May 27.

The Qataris acted as go-betweens until Bergdahl was in U.S. custody, the official said. The mediation was based on “humanitarian considerations,” Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid bin Mohamed Al-Attiyah told reporters in Doha today.

Obama announced earlier this week that all U.S. troops will leave Afghanistan by the end of 2016. The U.S. invaded the country in October 2001 to drive its Taliban rulers from power after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Obama said he plans to reduce the force to 9,800 at the beginning of 2015 from the 32,000 U.S. military personnel currently posted there.

Asked if Bergdahl’s release was tied to the U.S. troop announcement, the defense official who disclosed details of the transfer said there was no linkage.

Bergdahl, ranked private first class when he was captured, was promoted twice during the time he was held.

“It is our ethos that we never leave a fallen comrade,” Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey said in a statement. “Welcome home Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Derek Wallbank in Washington at dwallbank@bloomberg.net; Gopal Ratnam in Washington at gratnam1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jodi Schneider at jschneider50@bloomberg.net Mark Rohner

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