WASHINGTON – Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl can expect a buoyant homecoming after five years in Taliban hands, but those in the government who worked for his release face mounting questions over the prisoner swap that won his freedom.
Even in the first hours of Bergdahl's handoff to U.S. special forces in eastern Afghanistan, it was clear this would not be an uncomplicated yellow-ribbon celebration. Five terrorist suspects also walked free, stirring a debate in Washington over whether the exchange will heighten the risk of other Americans being snatched as bargaining chips and whether the released detainees — several senior Taliban figures among them — would find their way back to the fight.
U.S. officials said Sunday that Bergdahl's health and safety appeared in jeopardy, prompting rapid action to secure his release. "Had we waited and lost him," said national security adviser Susan Rice, "I don't think anybody would have forgiven the United States government."
Republicans said the deal could set a troubling precedent — one called it "shocking." Arizona Sen. John McCain said of the five Guantanamo detainees, "These are the hardest of the hard core."
Tireless campaigners for their son's freedom, Bob and Jani Bergdahl thanked all who were behind the effort to retrieve him. "You were not left behind," Bob Bergdahl told reporters, as if speaking to his son. "We are so proud of the way this was carried out." He spoke in Boise, Idaho, wearing a long bushy beard he'd grown to honor his son, as residents in the sergeant's hometown of Hailey prepared for a homecoming celebration.
The five detainees left Guantanamo aboard a U.S. military aircraft flying to Qatar, which served as go-between in the negotiations. They are to be banned from leaving Qatar for at least a year. Among the five: a Taliban deputy intelligence minister, a former Taliban interior minister with ties to al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and a figure linked by human rights monitors to mass killings of Shiite Muslims in Afghanistan in 2000 and 2001.
Bergdahl, 28, was being treated at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. Officials did not offer details about Bergdahl's health to support their contention that his release had to be arranged without delay. Rice on one hand said he had lost considerable weight and faced an "acute" situation. Yet she said he appeared to be "in good physical condition" and "is said to be walking."
Questions persisted, too, about the circumstances of Bergdahl's 2009 capture. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel declined to comment on earlier reports that the sergeant had walked away from his unit, disillusioned with the war. Such matters "will be dealt with later," Hagel said.
Hagel, visiting troops in Afghanistan, was met with silence when he told a group of them in a Bagram Air Field hangar: "This is a happy day. We got one of our own back." It was unclear whether the absence of cheers and applause came from a reluctance to display emotion in front of the Pentagon chief or from any doubts among the troops about Bergdahl.
That same point was made Monday morning by White House press secretary Jay Carney.
Carney, who is leaving the White House after more than three years, said, "In a situation like this, you have a prisoner of war, a uniformed military person that was detained. The United States does not leave our men and women behind in conflict. It was absolutely the right thing to do."
Asked in an NBC "Today" show interview about any victory claims by sworn enemies of the United States, Carney replied, "I caution anyone against buying the propaganda of terrorists."
In weighing the swap, U.S. officials decided that it could help the effort to reach reconciliation with the Taliban, which the U.S. sees as key to more security in Afghanistan. But they acknowledged the risk that the deal would embolden insurgents.
Republicans pressed that point. "Have we just put a price on other U.S. soldiers?" asked Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. "What does this tell terrorists, that if you capture a U.S. soldier, you can trade that soldier for five terrorists?"
Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois said, "I'm going to celebrate him coming home," but added that the release of "five mid- to high-level Taliban is shocking to me, especially without coming to Congress."
Baldor reported from Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan. Associated Press writers Deb Riechmann and Darlene Superville in Washington, Rahim Faiez in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Zarar Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.