Sen. Ayotte criticizes Taliban-U.S. prisoner swap
U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte is urging the Senate Armed Services Committee to hold a hearing on a prisoner swap that saw Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl released from an Afghanistan prison in exchange for five “high risk” Taliban commanders.
The Taliban detainees were transferred from U.S. military custody at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to Qatar; Bergdahl was sent from Afghanistan to Germany.
The only known U.S. prisoner of war in Afghanistan, Bergdahl, 28, was held captive for five years.
Ayotte’s concerns are that the exchange could allow the Taliban commanders to reengage in terrorist activities against the U.S. and could encourage the Taliban and other terrorist groups to capture more Americans.
“With 29 percent of former Guantanamo detainees having reengaged or being suspected of reengaging in terrorism, the administration’s decision to release these five terrorist detainees endangers U.S. national security interests,” Ayotte said. “It also sets a precedent that could encourage our enemies to capture more Americans in order to gain concessions from our government.”
Ayotte, who is a member of the committee, said the hearing should convene at the earliest possible date.
Sen. John McCain and other Republicans also questioned whether the administration had acted properly in releasing the militants Saturday.
“These are the highest high-risk people. Others that we have released have gone back into the fight,” said McCain, a former prisoner of war and Vietnam War veteran.
On Monday, Reuters reported that Afghan President Hamid Karzai is angry at being kept in the dark over the deal,
“The president is now even more distrustful of U.S. intentions in the country,” said a source close to President Karzai’s palace in Kabul, who declined to be identified.
“He is asking: How come the prisoner exchange worked out so well, when the Afghan peace process failed to make any significant progress?”
Karzai’s press office said in a statement that the U.S. deal to transfer five Taliban militants from a Guantanamo Bay jail to Qatar violated international law.
“No government can transfer citizens of a country to a third country as prisoners,” said the statement, issued on behalf of the foreign ministry.
The prisoner swap has stoked widespread anger in Afghanistan, where many view it as a sign of a U.S. desire to disengage from the country as quickly as possible. Washington has mapped out a plan to fully withdraw all of its troops by the end of 2016.
U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham, speaking to reporters in Kabul, said the Karzai administration had been made aware of the impending prisoners’ swap.
“It’s not behind the government’s back. The government’s known that we’re trying to (do) this for a long time, and they agreed to it and they supported it,” he said.
Under the terms of the deal, cut by Qatari intermediaries, the five Taliban detainees were released from Guantanamo Bay, where they had been held since 2002, and flown to Qatar, where they must stay for a year.
Senior officials at the Afghan intelligence agency said they believed the men would return to the battlefield and bolster the insurgency just as most foreign combat troops prepare to exit by the end of this year.
All five were classed as “high-risk” and “likely to pose a threat” by the Pentagon and held senior positions in the Taliban regime before it was toppled by a U.S.-led coalition in 2001. At least two of them are suspected of committing war crimes, including the murder of thousands of Afghan Shi’ites, according to leaked U.S. military cables.
Union Leader Staff Writer Mark Quirk and Reuters contributed to this report.