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Hagel Defends Bergdahl Swap as Life-Saving 'Prisoner Exchange'

by Victor Beattie June 02, 2014

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has defended a Qatari-mediated agreement to gain the release of U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl in exchange of five detained Taliban fighters. He also defended the decision not to inform Congress before the exchange took place, as required by law.

'After five years, he's been a prisoner of war,' he said. 'As to notification of Congress, yes there is a 30-day notification. I notified the appropriate committee leadership yesterday [Saturday]. That's part of the responsibility I have as secretary of defense. This was essentially, in our opinion, to save the life of Sgt. Bergdahl. We had information that his health could be deteriorating rapidly. There was a question about his safety. We found an opportunity. We took that opportunity. I'll stand by that decision.'

Asked if the deal might pave the way for a resumption of peace talks with the Taliban, Hagel said it might:

'As you know, we've strongly supported an Afghan-led effort to come to an agreement with the Taliban. As you know, we have engaged with the Taliban until 2012. They broke off those negotiations. We've had no formal relationship since then,' he said.

The defense secretary says he does not believe the agreement will endanger U.S. military personnel or civilians by encouraging hostage-taking for ransom. He says the U.S. record on going after terrorists and hostage-takers is pretty clear. ​​Republican Senator John McCain, himself a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, said Sunday on the CBS program Face the Nation the five Taliban militants freed from the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo, Cuba are the "hardest of the hardcore" and might be responsible for the deaths of thousands. McCain also says others released earlier are documented to have returned to the fight.

'I think the big issue here is what's going to happen to these five individuals. If they re-enter the fight, then it's going to put American lives at risk and none of us want that to happen, not Secretary Hagel or anybody. But, if they are able, after a year in Qatar, to do whatever they want to do there's no doubt they're re-enter the fight. Other ones who've been released from Guantanamo have re-entered the fight,' he said.

A fair exchange?

RAND Corporation South Asia analyst Jonah Blank says there is no reason to doubt Hagel's concern over the timing of the soldier's release and fear for his safety. He says some Taliban factions may have been inclined to support a public execution of a U.S. soldier. And, he believes the exchange of Bergdahl for five Taliban fighters was a fair exchange.

'Let's remember that prisoner exchanges are nothing new,' he said. 'The United States has engaged in prisoner exchanges ever since the Revolutionary War [of the 18th century], straight through the Civil War [19th century], World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam War [20th century]. If we can have an exchange of prisoners with Nazi Germany and Communist North Korea, it doesn't seem to me that the Taliban should be off-limits.'

Blank says the exchange probably would not have been made had al-Qaida figures been involved. But, the Taliban, he says, is an insurgent force.

And, with this exchange, Blank says he does not think American military or civilian personnel are at any more risk than they already are to hostage-taking. He says the Taliban has always wanted to capture Americans.

The circumstances surrounding Bergdahl's capture remain unclear. Hagel says the soldier's health is of paramount concern and questions about the nature of his capture and captivity will come later. Blank says, while questions remain about his disappearance, Bergdahl was promoted twice by the Army during his captivity and that suggests to him his actions were nothing less than honorable.

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