WASHINGTON – Only one American prisoner of war remained in Afghanistan until Saturday, when the Obama administration orchestrated the return of Army Sgt.
Bowe Bergdahl, held in captivity for five years. But the terms of Bergdahl’s release – the United States let go five Guantanamo Bay prisoners as part of a negotiated settlement with the Islamist insurgent Haqqani network – dampened the mood.
Already on Sunday, some members of Congress who claim they were not properly informed of the deal suggested that the Obama administration had compromised one cardinal rule for another: the commitment to leave no man behind had led it to negotiate with terrorists.
Congressman Mike Rogers (R-Michigan), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, celebrated Bergdahl’s release with trepidation, in concert with Republican colleagues.
“The methodology and what we used is very troublesome,” Rogers told CNN on Sunday. “We have now set a price. So we have a changing footprint in Afghanistan, which would put our soldiers at risk for this notion that, if I can get one [American], I can get five Taliban released.”
But President Barack Obama, who took a victory lap in the Rose Garden on Saturday afternoon, disagreed.
“He wasn’t forgotten by his community in Idaho, or the military, which rallied to support the Bergdahls through thick and thin,” Obama said, flanked by Bergdahl’s parents, moved by the developments. “And he wasn’t forgotten by his country, because the United States of America does not ever leave our men and women in uniform behind.”
Surrogates from the president’s cabinet and national security team had scheduled appearances on the Sunday television shows to discuss his foreign policy speech at West Point earlier in the week. Yet they were questioned almost exclusively on the terms of the Bergdahl deal.
“We didn’t negotiate with terrorists,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told NBC’s Meet the Press from Afghanistan, where he was on a surprise visit after Bergdahl’s departure.
“I think America’s record is pretty clear on going after terrorists, especially those who take hostages, and I don’t think what we did in getting our prisoner of war released in any way would somehow encourage terrorists to take our servicemen prisoner or hostage.”
Responding to similar questions, National Security Advisor Susan Rice said that technically the US government had negotiated with the government of Qatar to facilitate the release.
“If we got into a situation where we said, because of who has captured an American soldier on the battlefield, we will leave that person behind, we would be in a whole new era for the safety of our personnel and for the nature of our commitment to our men and women in uniform,” Rice asserted.
In the Rose Garden, given a chance to speak after the president, Bergdahl’s father thanked the administration for its efforts and made only one final request: space and patience from the media.
Reuters contributed to this report.