NEW YORK -- On Saturday, American soldier Bowe Berghdahl was released by the Taliban after spending almost five years in captivity in Afghanistan. Cause to rejoice, yes? Not exactly. Reaction to the 28-year-old’s release (he was 23-years-old when captured in June 2009) has been mixed in the US - an oddity in a country in which members of the military rank only slightly lower than Jesus in the collective national consciousness.
Securing Berghdahl’s release came at a cost. In exchange for the American’s freedom, five senior members of the former Taliban government of Afghanistan were released from Guantanamo Bay, with the quintet currently heading for Qatar. And these are not foot soldiers but high level Taliban officials; as John McCain warned on Sunday, "the hardest of the hard core", with one, Khairullah Khairkhwa, a former interior minister with close ties to Osama bin Laden.
The Qatari government has promised to monitor the former detainees for a year under house arrest, yet few think it unlikely that some if not all won't make their ways back to their former stomping ground in the future, strengthening the Taliban at a time when the US footprint in Afghanistan is winding down.
Questions over whether Berghdahl’s release came at too high a price have been muddied by confusion over how he was taken in the first place, with reports suggesting that the soldier from Idaho abandoned his post immediately prior to his capture. At least six soldiers were killed in subsequent searches for the soldier, with many of his comrades taking to social media in recent days to question whether a "deserter's" release should be celebrated.
Former Sergeant Matt Vierkant told CNN: "Bergdahl deserted during a time of war and his fellow Americans lost their lives searching for him," while a Facebook page entitled, "Bowe Bergdahl is NOT a hero!" has gained more than 5,900 members, and features pictures of the six paratroopers who lost their lives while looking for the captured soldier.
Berghdahl was, however, the only US prisoner of war in Afghanistan, a fact that led both Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and White House national security adviser Susan Rice to defend the deal on Sunday, with Hagel claiming the soldier’s life was at risk. "We needed to get him out of there," said Hagel on Sunday, despite negotiations for the exchange stretching back more than three years.
"The US does not negotiate with terrorists," has been a long-held mantra in Washington. Not so, according to Texas senator Ted Cruz, with the likely Republican presidential candidate asking on Sunday, "Have we just put a price on other US soldiers?"
Perhaps most damaging for the Obama administration was a declaration by fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who gloated on Sunday that the release of the five Taliban detainees was a "big victory". "I extend my heartfelt congratulations to the entire Afghan Muslim nation, all the mujahedeen and to the families and relatives of the prisoners for the big victory," said Omar.
What’s more, the president has also come under fire from the Congress in Washington and the government in Kabul, with the Afghan Foreign Affairs Ministry reminding Obama on Sunday night of a pertinent stipulation of the US withdrawal plan: "No government can transfer citizens of a country to a third country as prisoners."
In Washington, Republicans have grabbed on to Berghdahl’s release, arguing that the deal was illegal due to a law that requires the President to inform Congress 30 days before any prisoners are released from Guatanamo. This was not done.Yet little of the political debate will matter to Berghdahl’s parents, who are awaiting their son's repatriation to the US from his hospital bed in Germany. Speaking during the press conference on Sunday, Bob Bergdahl spoke of his pride: "Most of all, I'm proud of how much you wanted to help the Afghan people, and what you were willing to do to go to that length... And I think you have succeeded."