2 Jun 2014

Afghan president angry at US/Taliban prisoner exchange

Afghanistan accuses the US of going behind President Hamid Karzai’s back in striking a deal to free a US soldier in exchange for five Taliban militants, and says international law has been breached.

Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, held for nearly five years in Afghanistan, was freed in a deal with the Taliban brokered by the Qatari government.

Five Taliban militants, described by Senator John McCain as the “hardest of the hard core,” were released from the US prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and flown to Qatar.

We didn’t negotiate with terrorists. US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel

On Monday, a source at the presidential palace in Kabul said Mr Karzai was now “even more distrustful” of US intentions in Afghanistan.

The source said: “He is asking: How come the prisoner exchange worked out so well, when the Afghan peace process failed to make any significant progress?”

The palace official also said Mr Karzai was worried about further deals being cut without his knowledge. “It indicates that other deals could be negotiated behind the president’s back,” he said.

‘Big victory’

President Karzai, who has been increasingly critical of the US administration, is yet to publicly comment on the prisoner exchange. The deal was made without the Afhgna government’s knowledge, and a statement from President Karzai’s press office said it was a breach of international law.

It won’t help the peace process in any way, because we don’t believe in the peace process. Taliban spokesman

However, the Taliban moved quickly to dismiss suggestions that the exchange could rekindle peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

“It won’t help the peace process in any way, because we don’t believe in the peace process,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said on Sunday.

The Afghan Taliban’s leader Mullah Mohammad Omar also issued a rare public statement in which he called the exchange a “big victory”.

“I extend my heartfelt congratulations to the entire Afghan Muslim nation,” he said.


Back in the US, Senator John McCain questioned whether a deal to free a US soldier in exchange for five Taliban militants amounted to a negotiation with terrorists.

While Sergeant Bergdahl’s release on Saturday was celebrated by his family and his home town, Mr McCain and other Republicans questioned whether the administration had acted properly in releasing the militants.

“These are the highest high-risk people. Others that we have released have gone back into the fight,” said Mr McCain.

“That’s been documented. So it’s disturbing to me that the Taliban are the ones that named the people to be released.” he said on CBS’s Face the Nation.

Medical treatment

As the Obama administration sought to counter the criticism, Mr Bergdahl was flown to Landstuhl medical centre in Germany for treatment.

After receiving care he will be transferred to another facility in San Antonio, Texas, US defence officials said, without giving a date for his return to the United States.

US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said he hoped the exchange might lead to breakthroughs in reconciliation with the militants and rejected accusations from Republicans that it resulted from negotiations with terrorists, saying the swap had been worked out by the government of Qatar.

“We didn’t negotiate with terrorists,” Mr Hagel said in an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press.

“As I said and explained before, Sergeant Bergdahl was a prisoner of war. That’s a normal process in getting your prisoners back.”

Mr Bergdahl, 28, was handed over on Saturday to US forces who had flown in by helicopter. The Taliban said they had released Bergdahl near the border with Pakistan in eastern Afghanistan.

His parents, Bob and Jani Bergdahl, told a news conference on Sunday they had not yet spoken to their son and were aware of the long task ahead as he adapts to being free, saying he needed time to decompress.

“It is like a diver going deep on a dive and he has to stage back up through recompression to get the nitrogen bubbles out of the system. If he comes up too fast, it could kill him,” his father said.

‘Violation of US military regulations’

Mr Bergdahl, from Idaho, was the only known missing US soldier in the Afghan war that began soon after the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States to force the Taliban – accused of sheltering Al-Qaeda militants – from power.

He was captured in unknown circumstances in eastern Afghanistan on 30 June 2009, about two months after arriving in the country. Many US government officials believe Mr Bergdahl was seized after walking away from his unit in violation of US military regulations.

But US officials have indicated there is little desire to pursue any disciplinary action against him given what he has been through.

His release followed years of on-off negotiations and suddenly became possible after harder-line factions of the Afghan Taliban shifted course and agreed to back it, US officials said.