Taliban swap for US soldier a ‘tough call’
Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel has staunchly defended the swap of five Taliban detainees for a US soldier as a “tough call,” but a necessary one to secure Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl’s release.
Seeking to counter a barrage of criticism from lawmakers, Hagel insisted President Barack Obama had to act quickly given Bergdahl’s deteriorating health and that the swap deal brokered by Qatar represented the “last, best opportunity” to ensure the soldier’s freedom.
“We made the right decision, and we did it for the right reasons – to bring home one of our own people,” Hagel told a tense hearing before the House Armed Services Committee.
Hagel, the first administration official to testify publicly about the swap, said Obama faced a “tough call” but made the right choice.
He described a dramatic chain of events leading up to Bergdahl’s release, with US officials worried about Taliban militants staging an attack on special operations forces receiving the American soldier.
After signing a memorandum with Qatar on May 12 on the details of the transfer of the Taliban detainees, the Qataris issued a warning to US officials that “time was not on our side,” Hagel said.
“This indicated that the risks to Sergeant Bergdahl’s safety were growing,” he said.
Up to one hour before the release, the United States did not know the precise location where Bergdahl would be handed over, he said.
The May 31 exchange was in keeping with past US conflicts and there was no prospect of prosecuting the Taliban detainees held at the US prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Hagel said.
But Republicans at the hearing hammered away at Hagel, often interrupting him, accusing the White House of making concessions to “terrorists” and violating its legal obligation to consult with Congress.
The exchange for Bergdahl has turned into a growing political problem for the White House.
A new ABC News/Washington Post poll showed a majority of Americans opposed the deal, with 53 per cent saying they disapproved.
If Bergdahl is shown to have deserted, then 63 per cent rejected the swap.
Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and others charged the Obama administration had failed to abide by a law requiring 30 days’ notice to lawmakers before detainees are transferred out of the Guantanamo prison.