According to a senior Defense official, the handover occurred at approximately 10:30 am Eastern time Saturday along the eastern Afghanistan border with Pakistan, and took place quickly without incident, peacefully and without violence. Berghdal was in the custody of about 18 Taliban fighters and was ushered onto a waiting helicopter by U.S. special operations forces. Once aboard, Berghdal wrote on a paper plate “SF?,” asking over the loud aircraft engines whether he was being rescued by special forces operators. The official said the troops replied loudly “yes, we’ve been looking for you for a long time.” Berghdal then broke down crying…
The transfer was not directly negotiated with the Taliban, but through the Amir of Qatar, officials said, whose help is being called “instrumental” to the agreement. Talks to bring about Berghdal’s release resumed only in the last several weeks, after the Taliban showed interest in resuming dialogue regarding Berghdal and its prisoners being held at Guantanamo. Obama called the Amir Tuesday to confirm the transfers, and the Qataris facilitated the handing over of Bergdahl…
“I am 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 and our partners or engage in any activities that can threaten the prospects for peace and security in Afghanistan,” added [John] McCain.
The Taliban has long sought freedom for the “Gitmo Five,” all of whom are experienced jihadists and helped run the Taliban’s operations in pre-9/11 Afghanistan. They served in various military and intelligence roles.
All five of the detainees were deemed “high” risks to the US and its allies by Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO). Two of the five, according to files prepared at Guantanamo, have been wanted by the UN for war crimes.
One of them served as a key intermediary between the Iranian regime and the Taliban after 9/11. During meetings between these two former foes, the Iranians pledged to assist the Taliban in its war against the US…
A key goal of those talks is to get the Taliban to renounce al Qaeda, something Mullah Omar’s group has declined to do. It is difficult to see how the prisoner swap helps to achieve that goal. All five of the now ex-Gitmo detainees were closely allied with al Qaeda prior to their detention. And Bergdahl was initially captured by members of the Haqqani Network, which remains one of al Qaeda’s strongest allies to this day.
Top Republicans on the Senate and House armed services committees went so far as to accuse President Obama of having broken the law, which requires the administration to notify Congress before any transfers from Guantanamo are carried out…
The law requires the defense secretary to notify relevant congressional committees at least 30 days before making any transfers of prisoners, to explain the reason and to provide assurances that those released would not be in a position to reengage in activities that could threaten the United States or its interests…
A senior administration official, agreeing to speak on the condition of anonymity to explain the timing of the congressional notification, acknowledged that the law was not followed. When he signed the law last year, Obama issued a signing statement contending that the notification requirement was an unconstitutional infringement on his powers as commander in chief and that he therefore could override it.
“Due to a near-term opportunity to save Sergeant Bergdahl’s life, we moved as quickly as possible,” the official said. “The administration determined that given these unique and exigent circumstances, such a transfer should go forward notwithstanding the notice requirement.”
“This is the only issue we’ve discussed with the Taliban in recent months,” said one senior Obama administration official involved in the talks. “We do hope that having succeeded in this narrow but important step, it will create the possibility of expanding the dialogue to other issues. But we don’t have any promises to that effect.”
But word of renewed, secret negotiations with the Taliban brought immediate criticism from some lawmakers, including Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. “I have 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,” he said. “I believe this decision will threaten the lives of American soldiers for years to come.”
A Western official in Kabul said the Afghan government was not told ahead of time that the Taliban were going to hand over Sergeant Bergdahl or that the release of prisoners from Guantánamo Bay was proceeding, though the Afghans were broadly aware that the talks had been rekindled. American officials feared leaks could scuttle the deal.
I do not agree, as some Republicans are already arguing, that these individuals should not have been released. In my view, the U.S. would not be able to hold them forever. Indeed, it is likely that the U.S. would be required, as a matter of international law, to release them shortly after the end of 2014, when U.S. combat operations cease in Afghanistan. The Administration appears to have reached a defensible, hold-your-nose compromise by arranging, in exchange for the release of Sergeant Bergdahl, for the individuals to be held in Qatar for a year before they return to Afghanistan.
The backgrounds of these Taliban leaders does underscore, however, that the detainees in Guantanamo were not all “innocent” people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, a narrative that has been urged by many critics of Guantanamo, especially in Europe.
Moreover, the Taliban leaders’ backgrounds demonstrate that it would have been legally difficult, if not impossible, to prosecute them in federal courts — as many human rights groups have urged — because U.S. criminal statutes did not apply to their activities in Afghanistan and because the U.S. military had not collected evidence about them that would have been admissible in federal court. And, if the Taliban had actually been treated as POWs under the Geneva Conventions (for which there has always been a good argument), they would have had to be prosecuted in a military court, not a civilian court, pursuant to Article 102 of the Third Geneva Convention.
On Obama’s side, the argument is that the statute is unconstitutional, a congressional encroachment on presidential power. There’s no way to undo the exchange, and acting in secrecy, without informing Congress, is an exercise of the very power that the President says the statute violates. Taking this action embodies an argument that this power does and should rest with the President. Is there anything that can be done now to press the opposing argument? We can criticize the President, as we always already do. The only other alternative I see is to impeach the President.
Go ahead. He’s daring you. Perhaps part of his motivation for the prisoner trade was a predicted political boost as the President’s opponents are distracted into seeming to complain about the return of a hero and tripping all over themselves as they posture about impeachment.
But for the young soldier – 23 when he became a prisoner of war, now 28 – those debriefings also will include difficult questions about how and why he happened to be in a position where he fell into the hands of Taliban fighters.
There have been no reports that he was captured during direct combat, that the “fog of war” had put him involuntarily in a vulnerable location.
At this point in the developing narrative, Sgt. Bergdahl seems to have grown disillusioned with the mission, bitter about the Army and especially higher ranking enlisted men and officers, and simply walked off – gone “outside the wire” or protective base limits – and disappeared.
That could indicate that he had gone AWOL (Absence Without Leave), also referred to as “Unauthorized Absence” (UA), which could bring charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ)…
“The US army is the biggest joke the world has to laugh at,” he wrote from Afghanistan. “It is the army of liars, backstabbers, fools, and bullies. The few good SGTs are getting out as soon as they can, and they are telling us privates to do the same.”
Within an hour of the announcement that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was handed over to U.S. special forces by the Taliban Saturday evening, Army Times’ Facebook page lit up with hundreds of comments reacting to the news…
“He is a dirtbag that now should spend the next 20yrs+ in Leavenworth … his fellow soldiers were affected by his actions, he is a sympathizer and deserves to be tried for desertion,” said Kirouac, whose Facebook profile identifies him as a company commander at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Many others felt no matter the circumstances, the military has a duty not to leave any of its members behind.
“My opinion, we never should leave our own [with] the enemy [and] if he needs to be punished, that should be left up to his former chain of command to ensure it happens!!!!” said Tom Robinson, whose Facebook profile identifies him as a veterans counselor for New York State.
I say the following fully respecting the fact that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl*and his family/loved ones might have an extremely understandably different opinion on the situation:
1. The people we exchanged for Sgt. Bergdahl will end up running terrorist operations in Afghanistan if we’re lucky, and Afghanistan and abroad if we are not. And they will likely be doing it considerably sooner than a year from now.
2. The Taliban will step up their kidnapping campaigns, because from their point of view said campaigns have been proven to work.
3. Democratic, liberal, and progressive partisans will freak if you point out either #1 or #2 to them. That particularly smarmy freaking that the more obnoxious examples do when they think that they’ve got the moral drop on you.
“What we did was ensure that, as always, the United States doesn’t leave a man or a woman on the battlefield,” Rice said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“If we got into a situation where we said, ‘Because of who has captured an American soldier on the battlefield we will leave that person behind,’ we would be in a whole new ear for the safety of our personnel and for the nature of our commitment to our men and women in uniform,” she continued. “Because it was the Taliban that had him did not mean that we had any less of an obligation to bring him back.”