The United States yesterday defended its decision to allow five Taliban detainees to be transferred from Guantanamo Bay to Qatar to secure the release of a US soldier held in Afghanistan, saying time was running short.
Republican lawmakers have sharply criticised the move to send the five senior Taliban figures to Qatar to facilitate the release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, saying it sets a bad precedent and endangers US soldiers still in Afghanistan.
But National Security Adviser Susan Rice said Bergdahl's health was deteriorating, and Washington had no choice but to do whatever was necessary to bring the 28-year-old army sergeant home.
"Because it was the Taliban that had him did not mean that we had any less of an obligation to bring him back," Rice told CNN.
US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel, speaking to NBC's Meet the Press from Bagram air base in Afghanistan, insisted of the deal: "We didn't negotiate with terrorists. This is a guy who probably went through hell for the last five years. Let's focus on getting him well and getting him back with his family."
Hagel expressed hope Bergdahl's release would lead to direct US talks with the Taliban. He noted that the United States had engaged in talks with the Taliban before, until they were broken off in 2012.
Several Republican leaders took a harsher view of the deal. Lawmakers were not told of the Guantanamo prisoner transfer until after the swap.
Mike Rogers, chairman of the House intelligence committee, said he was "extremely troubled" that American officials "negotiated with terrorists" to reach the swap deal.
Influential Republican Senator John McCain demanded to know what steps were being taken to "ensure that these vicious and violent Taliban extremists never return to fight against the United States".
He described the men being released as "hardened terrorists who have the blood of Americans and countless Afghans on their hands".
Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar hailed the release of five senior insurgents as a "big victory".
"I extend my heartfelt congratulations ... for this big victory regarding the release of five Taliban leaders from Guantanamo prison," Omar said of the exchange in a rare statement.
THE FIVE TALIBAN PRISONERS FREED
- Mohamed Fazl: A February 2008 US military document said Fazl served as Taliban deputy minister of defence and as a senior commander who was chief-of-staff of the Taliban army. The US military said he was wanted by the UN for possible war crimes including the murder of thousands of minority Shiites between 1998 and 2001.
- Mullah Norullah Noori: A February 2008 US document said Noori was a senior Taliban military commander in the strategic city of Mazar-e-Sharif during heavy fighting in late 2001after the US invasion. It said he also was the Taliban governor for two provinces and was wanted by the UN for possible war crimes including the murder of thousands of Shiites.
- Khairullah Khairkhwa: A March 2008 military document said Khairkhwa was a senior Taliban official serving as the minister of interior, governor of Herat and a military commander. It said that after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US, he represented the Taliban during meetings with Iranian officials seeking to support hostilities against US forces in Afghanistan.
- Abdul Haq Wasiq: A January 2008 Pentagon document said Wasiq served as the Taliban deputy minister of intelligence.
- Mohammed Nabi: A January 2008 Pentagon document said Nabi was a senior Taliban official with multiple roles. It said he maintained weapons caches and facilitated the smuggling of fighters and weapons.