WASHINGTON: U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel expressed hope Sunday that the release of the only American prisoner of war in Afghanistan would lead to direct talks with the Taliban.
“It could, it might and we hope it will present an opening,” Hagel said in an interview from Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan with NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Hagel noted that Washington had engaged in talks with the Taliban before, until they were broken off in 2012, and that it strongly supported an Afghan-led effort to reach a peace agreement with the Taliban.
“So maybe this will be a new opening that can produce an agreement,” he said.
Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, 28, was released Saturday near the Afghan-Pakistani border after nearly five years in Taliban captivity, in a surprise development that came as Washington winds down its 13-year intervention in Afghanistan.
Hagel credited Qatar and its emir with Bergdahl’s release in a trade for five high-level Taliban militants held at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
A senior Gulf source confirmed that the five arrived Sunday in Doha but that they would not be permitted to leave Qatar for a year, adding that their families had been flown in from Afghanistan.
Hagel denied that Washington had negotiated with terrorists, as Republican critics are charging, and defended the trade as an effort to save Bergdahl’s life.
“This is a guy who probably went through hell for the last five years,” he said. “And let’s focus on getting him well and getting him back with his family.
“We didn’t negotiate with terrorists. As I said and explained before, Sgt. Bergdahl was a prisoner of war. That’s a normal process in getting your prisoners back.”
Bergdahl, who was flown to a U.S. military hospital in Germany Sunday, was captured in unknown circumstances in eastern Afghanistan on June 30, 2009, about two months after arriving in the country.
U.S. officials referred to the release of the Taliban detainees as a transfer and said the restrictions placed on them included monitoring of their activities.
Those assurances were greeted with skepticism by U.S. Republicans and some Afghan officials, who voiced concerns that the men, described as senior Taliban figures, would rejoin the insurgency.
There was no immediate comment from President Hamid Karzai, who Hagel said was not informed in advance of the swap.
In Washington, Republicans suggested the administration bypassed a requirement to notify Congress about a prisoner swap that amounted to negotiation with terrorists. Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas called it a “dangerous price” to pay.
“Have we just put a price on other U.S. soldiers? What does this tell terrorists, that if you capture a U.S. soldier, you can trade that soldier for five terrorists we’ve gone after,” Cruz said on the ABC news program “This Week.”