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Deal to free American prisoner of war Bergdahl generates criticism and questions

June 2, 2014 at 6:13 PM EDT
The exchange of five senior Taliban leaders -- transferred to Qatar -- for prisoner of war Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has provoked some pushback. The Afghan government complained it was bypassed, while GOP lawmakers warned of the risk of releasing Taliban inmates. Jeffrey Brown gets views from James Kirchick of the Foreign Policy Initiative and former Defense and State Department official Vikram Singh.

Note: This video has been edited due to web restrictions. The transcript and audio reflect the original broadcast version.
GWEN IFILL: It’s been two days since the emotional announcement of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl’s release from his Taliban captors. Criticism of the deal, which includes the transfer of five Guantanamo prisoners to Qatar, came soon after and is intensifying.

Jeffrey Brown reports.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl remained today at the U.S. military hospital at Landstuhl, Germany, undergoing evaluation and debriefing after five years in captivity.

But questions swirled in Washington and in Kabul, especially about the five senior Taliban leaders swapped for Bergdahl. They’d been held at the Guantanamo Bay prison and were flown to Qatar on Sunday. The Afghan government complained today that it was never consulted.

AHMAD SHEKIB MUSTAGHNI, Foreign Ministry Spokesman (through interpreter): The recent release of five Afghan citizens in exchange for American Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl goes against the agreement we have had with the U.S. government and their transfer to the Qatar government wasn’t agreed upon by the Afghan government.

JEFFREY BROWN: The released men are all in their mid to late 40s. The most senior is Khirullah Said Wali Khairkhwa, a founding member of the Taliban, former interior minister, and an associate of Osama bin Laden’s; he was handed over to the U.S. by Pakistan in 2002.

Mullah Mohammed Fazl was the Taliban army chief of staff. He is wanted by the U.N. for possible war crimes against Shia Afghans prior to 9/11. Abdul Haq Wasiq was Taliban deputy minister of intelligence, and helped run the group’s alliances with al-Qaida and other groups. Mullah Norullah Noori was a provincial governor. And Mohammed Nabi Omari was a communications official who helped al-Qaida members escape to Pakistan.

Qatar has agreed to keep in the emirate, under supervision, for a year.

But Arizona Senator John McCain and other Republicans warned of what happens later.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R, Ariz.: I think the big issue here is what’s going to happen to these five individuals. If they reenter the fight, then it is going to put American lives at risk, and none of us want that to happen, not Secretary Hagel or anybody.

JEFFREY BROWN: There were also questions today about whether the president breached a longstanding protocol against negotiating with terror groups.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney:

JAY CARNEY, White House Press Secretary: Although, as you know, we dealt with the Qataris in order to secure his release, it was absolutely the right thing to do, because he was a uniformed member of the U.S. military who was in captivity as a prisoner, not as a hostage, and so we sought his recovery and succeeded in recovering him.

JEFFREY BROWN: Meanwhile, the circumstances of Bergdahl’s capture in June 2009 remain murky. He gave this explanation on a video released by the Taliban shortly after his capture.

MAN: What were you doing?

SGT. BOWE BERGDAHL, U.S. Army: I was behind a patrol. I was lagging behind the patrol and I was captured.

JEFFREY BROWN: Men who served in Bergdahl’s unit say that was untrue.

Writing today in The Daily Beast, former soldier Nathan Bradley Bethea wrote: “There was no patrol that night. Bergdahl was relieved from guard duty, and instead of going to sleep, he fled the outpost on foot. He deserted.”

Bethea said several soldiers were killed in the ensuing search. Nonetheless, he wrote he’s glad Bergdahl was released.

On his way to Afghanistan yesterday, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel declined to discuss claims that Bergdahl had deserted. Instead, he said: “Other circumstances that may develop, they will be dealt with later.”

And in his Saturday announcement, with Bergdahl’s parents at his side, President Obama focused not on the capture, but the release.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We also made an ironclad commitment to bring our prisoners of war home. That’s who we are as Americans. It’s a profound obligation within our military and, today, at least in this instance, it’s a promise we have been able to keep.

JEFFREY BROWN: The White House has acknowledged that in arranging the exchange, it didn’t give the congressionally mandated 30-day notice before prisoner transfers from Guantanamo. But National Security Adviser Susan Rice said Sunday the priority was Bergdahl’s health.

SUSAN RICE, National Security Adviser: We had reason to be concerned that this was an urgent and an acute situation, that his life could have been at risk. We didn’t have 30 days to wait.

JEFFREY BROWN: The administration has also disputed the requirement of the 30 days’ notice to Congress. It argues the mandate infringes on executive branch powers.

And we pick up on all of this now with Vikram Singh. He held a number of senior jobs in the Defense and State Departments focusing on Afghanistan and South Asia in the Obama administration. He’s now vice president for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress. And James Kirchick is a fellow at the Foreign Policy Initiative, another nonprofit policy organization.

Welcome to both of you.

Vikram Singh, first with you. Is this prisoner exchange in the best interest of the United States?

VIKRAM SINGH, Former Defense and State Department official: Yes, this is absolutely, Jeff, in the best interests of the United States, but most importantly in the best interests of Bowe Bergdahl and his family.

When somebody puts on the uniform and goes to fight for America, that’s a sacred commitment, a sacred obligation by our society is to look for those people, find them, bring them home if they’re ever in harm’s way.

Anybody who has a POW/MIA flag should be cheering for Bowe Bergdahl and his family and for their opportunity to be reunited.

JEFFREY BROWN: James Kirchick, your initial reaction?

JAMES KIRCHICK, Foreign Policy Initiative: I think it’s a little more ambiguous.

Americans should be happy obviously that he’s coming home, but at the same time, the circumstances of his being captured in the first place are now very much in question. We have all — many of the men who served with him saying that he deserted.

Six people died trying to save him. And then, in response to that, we gave up five of the most high-value terrorists who are in Guantanamo Bay. These were not low-level men that we gave back to the Taliban. So I think it’s a much more ambiguous story than the administration wants us…

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, those are two of the key issues that have number out there. Start about the one about the exchange, the fairness of the exchange, and the Taliban leaders.

VIKRAM SINGH: So, there’s a lot been made about giving back senior Taliban leaders to Afghanistan in exchange for Bowe Bergdahl.

I would say that this was really a very good deal, if you look at what was going to happen with these Taliban prisoners in any case. This war is ending. This is now going to be the Afghans’ battle to take forward or peace process to take forward, should we be so fortunate as to have the Taliban decide to reintegrate into Afghan society.

These are leaders of the former Taliban government, the government we went to war with because they harbored al-Qaida. They were eventually going to be going home in any case. Guantanamo will eventually close. These people will be going home. We got an American soldier back in exchange for them. And we guarantees that should prevent them from going back to fight against the Afghan government.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so there’s not a reason to worry, as we heard John McCain and others, that they may eventually come back into the fray?

VIKRAM SINGH: I think there’s always reason to worry when you have people who are enemies of the United States or enemies of an ally or a partner that they may do things that are detrimental to your interests.

I just don’t think that those would override the value of getting Bowe Bergdahl home and moving closer to the conclusion of the Afghan war.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you think there still is reason for concern?

JAMES KIRCHICK: I don’t — well, yes, I don’t think wars end because you say they end. And the president has basically given a deadline of when we’re going to be pulling our troops out.

And, unfortunately, that’s not how the world works. If your enemy still wants to keep on fighting you and fighting your allies, then the war is still going on. So I’m not so sanguine that Guantanamo would just shut down in two years’ time. I think it’s quite possible that it could be open indefinitely.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the circumstances — the other issue that James brought up at the beginning, the circumstances of his capture? Does it matter?

VIKRAM SINGH: No, I don’t think it matters at all.

I think you put on the uniform, these things happen. We don’t know the circumstances. We don’t know the facts around what happened to Bowe Bergdahl. We have heard a lot of accusations. We have heard a lot of things coming out. And I’m sure we will learn about that in time as he comes back.

But I think it’s more important to focus on getting our men and women in uniform home, should they be captured. And in this case, he was captured, he was missing in combat, thought to be captured, and it’s good that we’re — it’s good that we’re getting him home.

And to the point of wars not ending, I think it’s important that the Afghan war come to an end. We have achieved our core objective, which was to hit core al-Qaida, which was to get Osama bin Laden, which was to help the Afghan government get to a point where it could potentially function, be more stable, build up its own society.

They have just had a successful election. It’s been held with us in the background. And it’s time for us to focus on transition and helping them continue going forward.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about that, because that is the larger context here, after all, right?

JAMES KIRCHICK: Could I just add, to the first part, I think it does matter if someone deserts? Then the amount of resources that you are going to expend to get that person back is not the same as if he had been captured just fighting in the open.

Certainly, you are not going to ask young men and women to go out and risk their lives to go rescue someone who knowingly left the fight to go wander off? And so I think that absolutely should play a role, not only in the amount of force that is used to return him, but also in what we were willing to give up.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, do you want to come back on that?

VIKRAM SINGH: I think if an American soldier is captured, it is unlikely that you know the exact circumstances.

I think it is extraordinarily risky for people to start saying that somehow we shouldn’t have worried about Bowe Bergdahl because of the way he might have been lost to the Taliban. Did he stray off from a patrol and get captured? Did he desert? Did he wander off his post?  Was he in some kind of emotional distress? Was he suffering from anything from dehydration to just excessive stress?

I think the first obligation is to get our people back, and then we can figure out what actually happened.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the issue, another one, that’s been raised about negotiating with the Taliban? Now, the administration says it went through — it was using the third party from Qatar, but what does it look like to you in terms of how the U.S. conducted itself that way?

JAMES KIRCHICK: Well, the United States has often negotiated with bad guys. We have done that throughout our history.

That’s not what bothers me, as much as the fact that we kept our Afghan allies in the dark. They are the ones who are going to have to deal with the brunt of this, as Vikram said. And this was a total surprise to them, not only to them, but also to members of Congress.

We can get into the legal issues here of what the Obama administration did, completely keeping Congress in the dark, which, under statute, they’re supposed to give them 30 days’ notice before something like this

JEFFREY BROWN: And — but we heard the explanation from Susan Rice.

JAMES KIRCHICK: Yes, and I don’t know if it’s a really good pattern that we want to be getting on, where the president can decide which statutes he wants to respect and ignore.

And this was someone that he criticized President Bush for a lot when he was running for president.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think about that?

VIKRAM SINGH: I’m sure that — I think that the statute and the restrictions are actually an excessive constraint on the executive.

And I’m sure there’s a legal argument that could be made there, and the administration has protested it. But, in this particular case, the key issues is that you were trying to do a prisoner release. And that is something that you couldn’t afford to have leaked. And I think that they have a very rational reason for the unusual circumstances of this particular case.

JEFFREY BROWN: And just getting back to the wider consequences here which Vikram raised about the Afghan war coming to an end, does this have any implications for — starting with you, James, does this have any implications that you see, larger implications?

JAMES KIRCHICK: Well, I think this is reflective of the Obama administration foreign policy, which is one of retreat, coming back from Afghanistan, basically leaving all the responsibilities that we have in that country.

And so we’re trying to clean up as we move out. And so I do think it’s part of that broader narrative. It’s part of that broader story.

JEFFREY BROWN: And brief last word from you on this.

VIKRAM SINGH: Well, my two last words are, one, losing Afghan prisoners that we have had for so long, who no longer have any intelligence value, and gaining Bowe Bergdahl, who has been with the Afghan Taliban for the last five years is going to be of real value to the United States. We’re going to learn a lot from him.

And, two, this is just not a policy of retreat. This war has to have a political conclusion in the final analysis. At some point, Afghans have to reconcile with Afghans. And if the United States can help with that, we should. And I hope that this is a part of a bigger process, and not just a prisoner exchange.

JEFFREY BROWN: Vikram Singh, James Kirchick, thank you both very much.

Note: This video has been edited due to web restrictions. The transcript reflects the original broadcast version.