Republicans question U.S. prisoner swap with Taliban

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Mon Jun 2, 2014 12:57am EDT
By Warren Strobel

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Republicans question U.S. prisoner swap with Taliban
FILE - This undated photo provided by the Bergdahl family and released by the Idaho National Guard shows then Pfc. Bowe R. Bergdahl, 23, of Ketchum, Idaho. Afghanistan's Taliban says it has suspended "mediation" with the United States to exchange captive U.S. soldier Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five senior Taliban prisoners held in U.S. custody in Guantanamo Bay, halting — at least temporarily — what was considered the best chance yet of securing the 27-year-old's freedom since his capture in 2009. In a terse Pashto language statement emailed to the Associated Press on Sunday, Zabihullah Mujahed blamed the "current complex political situation in the country" for the suspension. (AP Photo/The Bergdahl Family, File)
FILE - This undated file image provided by the U.S. Army shows Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Afghanistan's Taliban said in an emailed to the Associated Press Sunday Feb. 23, 2014 it has suspended "mediation" with the United States to exchange captive U.S. soldier Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five senior Taliban prisoners held in U.S. custody in Guantanamo Bay, halting _ at least temporarily _ what was considered the best chance yet of securing the 27-year-old's freedom since his capture in 2009. (AP Photo/U.S. Army, File)
HAILEY, ID - JUNE 01: A sign announcing the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl sits in the window of the Hailey Paint and Supply store on Main Street June 1, 2014 in Hailey, Idaho. Sgt. Bergdahl was captured in Afghanistan in 2009 while serving with U.S. Armys 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment in Paktika Province. Yesterday he was released after a swap for 5 prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay was arranged. Bergdahl was considered the only U.S. prisoner of war held in Afghanistan. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
HAILEY, ID - JUNE 01: Yellow ribbons line Main Street as the hometown of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl awaits his homecoming on June 1, 2014 in Hailey, Idaho. Sgt. Bergdahl was captured in Afghanistan in 2009 while serving with U.S. Armys 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment in Paktika Province. Yesterday he was released after a swap for 5 prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay was arranged. Bergdahl was considered the only U.S. prisoner of war held in Afghanistan. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
BOISE, ID - JUNE 01: Bob Bergdahl speaks about the release of his son Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl during a press conference at Gouen Field national guard training facility on June 1, 2014 in Boise, Idaho. Sgt. Bergdahl was captured in 2009 while serving with U.S. Armys 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment in Paktika Province, Afghanistan. Bergdahl was considered the only U.S. prisoner of war held in Afghanistan. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 31: President Barack Obama makes a statement about the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl as his parents, Jani Bergdahl (L) and Bob Bergdahl (R) listen May 31, 2014 in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, DC. Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was held captive by militants for almost five years during the war in Afghanistan. (Photo by J.H. Owen-Pool/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 31: President Barack Obama walks with the parents of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, Jani Bergdahl (L) and Bob Bergdahl (R) back to the Oval Office after making a statement regarding the release of Sgt. Bergdahl from captivity May 31, 2014 in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, DC. Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was held captive by militants for almost five years during the war in Afghanistan. (Photo by J.H. Owen-Pool/Getty Images)
Gulf War veteran Ron Coumerilh wears a sticker to support captive U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl at the "Bring Bowe Back" celebration in Hailey, Idaho, Saturday, June 22, 2013. Hundreds of activists for missing service members gathered in a small Idaho town Saturday to hear the parents of the only known U.S. prisoner of war speak just days after his Taliban captors announced they want to exchange him for prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
A POW-MIA flag flies in front of a pharmacy displaying a sign in support of bringing home U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who is currently being held captive by the Taliban in Afghanistan, in Hailey, Idaho, Friday, June 21, 2013. The Afghan war, and the taking of this POW, may have long faded from the minds of most Americans. But for this community in the shadow of Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains, Bowe Bergdahl and his family's fight to free him are "omnipresent," said local Wesley Deklotz. "It's a whole community of people that are keeping him in their thoughts." (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
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(Reuters) - U.S. politicians questioned whether the deal that freed Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five Taliban militants amounted to a negotiation with terrorists as the U.S. soldier was flown out of Afghanistan to a military hospital in Germany on Sunday.

Army Sergeant Bergdahl, held for nearly five years in Afghanistan, was freed in a deal with the Taliban brokered by the Qatari government. Five Taliban militants, described by Senator John McCain as the "hardest of the hard core," were released from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and flown to Qatar.

While Bergdahl's released on Saturday was celebrated by his family and his hometown, and could be seen as a coup for President Barack Obama as he winds down America's longest war, McCain and other Republicans questioned whether the administration had acted properly in releasing the militants.

"These are the highest high-risk people. Others that we have released have gone back into the fight," said McCain, a former prisoner of war and Vietnam War veteran.

"That's been documented. So it's disturbing to me that the Taliban are the ones that named the people to be released." he said on CBS's "Face the Nation."

As the Obama administration sought to counter the criticism, Bergdahl was flown to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany for medical treatment. After receiving care he would be transferred to another facility in San Antonio, Texas, U.S. defense officials said, without giving a date for his return to the United States.

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he hoped the exchange might lead to breakthroughs in reconciliation with the militants and rejected accusations from Republicans that it resulted from negotiations with terrorists, saying the swap had been worked out by the government of Qatar.(Full Story)

"We didn't negotiate with terrorists," Hagel said in an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press". "As I said and explained before, Sergeant Bergdahl was a prisoner of war. That's a normal process in getting your prisoners back."

Bergdahl, 28, was handed over on Saturday to U.S. forces who had flown in by helicopter. The Taliban said they had released Bergdahl near the border with Pakistan in eastern Afghanistan.

SLOW RECOVERY

His parents, Bob and Jani Bergdahl, told a news conference on Sunday they had not yet spoken to their son and were aware of the long task ahead as he adapts to being free, saying he needed time to decompress. (Full Story)

"It is like a diver going deep on a dive and he has to stage back up through recompression to get the nitrogen bubbles out of the system. If he comes up too fast, it could kill him," his father said.

Bergdahl, from Idaho, was the only known missing U.S. soldier in the Afghan war that began soon after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States to force the Taliban - accused of sheltering al Qaeda militants - from power.

He was captured in unknown circumstances in eastern Afghanistan on June 30, 2009, about two months after arriving in the country. Many U.S. government officials believe Bergdahl was seized after walking away from his unit in violation of U.S. military regulations.

But U.S. officials have indicated there is little desire to pursue any disciplinary action against him given what he has been through.

His release followed years of on-off negotiations and suddenly became possible after harder-line factions of the Afghan Taliban shifted course and agreed to back it, U.S. officials said. (Full Story)]

A senior Gulf source confirmed that the five released Taliban militants had arrived on Sunday in Doha, capital of Qatar, the Gulf emirate that acted as intermediary in the negotiations.

They would not be permitted to leave Qatar for a year, the source said, adding that their families had been flown from Afghanistan.

U.S. officials said the restrictions placed on them included monitoring of their activities. Those assurances were greeted with scepticism by U.S. Republicans and some Afghan officials, who voiced concerns that the men would rejoin the insurgency. (Full Story)

"They will be very dangerous people, because they have connections with regional and international terror organizations around the world," a senior Afghan intelligence official said.

In Washington, some Republicans suggested the administration had bypassed a legal requirement to notify Congress 30 days in advance about prisoner releases from Guantanamo and said the deal amounted to a negotiation with terrorists.

Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas called it a "dangerous price" to pay.

But Obama's national security adviser, Susan Rice, said the administration was concerned about Bergdahl's health and upheld a "sacred obligation" to return soldiers from the battlefield.

"We had reason to be concerned that this was an urgent and an acute situation, that his life could have been at risk," Rice said on ABC's "This Week." "We did not have 30 days to wait. And had we waited and lost him, I don't think anybody would have forgiven the United States government."

'HIGH RISK'

Some members of the U.S. Congress worried even before the prisoner exchange took place over the release of the five, particularly of Mohammed Fazl, a "high-risk" detainee who is alleged to be responsible for the killing of thousands of Afghanistan's minority Shi'ite Muslims between 1998 and 2001.

A U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, identified the five men as Fazl, Mullah Norullah Noori, Mohammed Nabi, Khairullah Khairkhwa and Abdul Haq Wasiq.

Pentagon documents released by the WikiLeaks organization said all five were sent to Guantanamo in 2002. They were classified as "high-risk" and "likely to pose a threat" to the United States, its interests and allies.

According to leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, Noori, for example, was a senior Taliban military commander wanted by the U.N. for possible war crimes and Wasiq was a Taliban deputy minister of intelligence who was a central figure in the group's alliance with other Islamic fundamentalist groups.

The prisoner exchange deal came days after Obama outlined a plan on Tuesday to withdraw all but 9,800 American troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year and the remainder by 2016, ending more than a decade of U.S. military engagement.

(Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni and Jessica Donati in Kabul, David Brunnstrom in Bagram, Amena Bakr in Doha and Missy Ryan, David Morgan, Phil Stewart and Bill Trott in Washington; Writing by Alex Richardson and Jim Loney; Editing by Jeremy Laurence, Lynne O'Donnell and Frances Kerry)

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