Debate stirs over US-Taliban captive swap

June 2, 2014

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 his 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.”

And in Kabul Monday, the Afghan Foreign Ministry called the swap “against the norms of international law” if it came against the five imprisoned Taliban detainees’ will. The ministry said: “No state can transfer another country’s citizen to a third country and put restriction on their freedom.”

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.

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.

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?”