BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan – Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel arrived in Afghanistan on Sunday for an unannounced visit to United States troops where all the talk was about one man: freed American POW Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
Hagel defended the Obama administration’s decision to swap five Taliban prisoners for one American soldier without giving Congress prior notice and despite any precedent the trade may set for negotiating with future terrorist demands.
While Defense Department officials have not said whether Bergdahl walked off his base in 2009 and should be considered a deserter, increasingly U.S. officials are indicating they feel that 5 years in captivity is more than enough punishment for whatever misconduct the former prisoner of war may have committed to end up in Taliban hands.
The military is focusing on Bergdahl’s health and return to his family, Hagel said. He met with the special operations team that carried out the exchange, but not with Bergdahl himself. Bergdahl, 28, of Hailey, Idaho, arrived at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Ramstein, Germany, for treatment on Sunday, Pentagon officials said. Questions surrounding the circumstances of his disappearance from his base, Hagel said, “will be dealt with later.”
Bergdahl’s recovery at the cost of five Guantanamo Bay detainees, two of which were high-ranking Taliban government officials who have been imprisoned since 2002, has angered critics, including members of Congress, who argue the trade may signal to the world that the U.S. will now negotiate with terrorists – especially to recover American troops.
“Could this embolden terrorists? Again I remind you, this was a prisoner of war exchange. He was a prisoner,” Hagel told reporters aboard his plane en route to Afghanistan from Singapore, where he was attending the Shangri-la Dialogue. “As we know, certainly from what we’re dealing with all over the world today with terrorist groups, they take hostages, they take innocent schoolgirls, they take business people, they will take any target that they can get to.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a former Navy fighter pilot who was a POW in Vietnam for 6 years, said he was concerned that the released Guantanamo prisoners would return to the battlefield. “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,” McCain said in a statement.
President Barack Obama said the five prisoners would go to Qatar where they would be placed on a travel ban for one year.
In a joint statement, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., and Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said they worried that the prisoner exchange would set a bad precedent. “America has maintained a prohibition on negotiating with terrorists for good reason. Trading five senior Taliban leaders from detention in Guantanamo Bay for Berghdal’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.”
They also said Obama violated an agreement to inform Congress 30 days in advance of releasing any prisoners from Guantanamo. But Hagel said the operation was kept secret, even from Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has backed U.S. efforts to release Bergdahl, to protect his life. “We couldn’t afford any leaks anywhere, for obvious reasons,” Hagel said.
Hagel said it would be a bonus if the trade helps restart peace talks with the Taliban but that was not the main reason for making the deal. “Whether that could lead to possible new breakthroughs with the Taliban, I don’t know. Hopefully it might. But we pursued this effort specifically to get Sgt. Bergdahl back.”
Now that Bergdahl is in U.S. military hands, troops among his own ranks are showing mixed reactions to whether their fellow soldier should be punished for allegedly walking off his base and into Taliban hands, 5 years ago. Many have expressed anger over several troops who were killed in the search for Bergdahl. Hagel deflected those concerns, instead focusing on the rare, modern day success of finding a missing solider alive and returning him home.
“Sgt. Bergdahl is a member of the United States Army. He’s a sergeant in the United States Army. Our first priority is assuring his wellbeing and his health and getting him reunited with his family. Other circumstances that may develop, the questions, those will be dealt with later,” he said.
“I think I am like, I hope, every American. I know the president feels strongly about this — when you can bring one of your own people home, and you think of what he has endured the last five years — my own experience in Vietnam as we had POWs taken, I do have some personal reflection of that time,” Hagel said. “So, I am as intensely happy and gratified as I suspect anybody is.”
Hagel said senior administration officials have kept in close contact with Bergdahl’s family and praised their resolve as “remarkable.” Obama has met with Bergdahls family “several times” and in recent months met with Hagel at the Pentagon. Obama had Bergdahl’s parents, Bob and Jani, at his side on Saturday when he announced Bergdahl’s release at the White House.
For the military, Hagel said, the top priority was simple: bring him home.
“Yes, there is some emotion for me on this, because of my own experiences and the people that I know, John McCain and others, who have endured many, many years of being separated and being held in solitary confinement. In this case Bergdahl was being held by himself, as far as we know there were no other Americans.”
“This is a happy day. A happy day,” Hagel said.
Stephanie Gaskell contributed from Washington, D.C.