President Barack Obama’s decision to swap five detained Taliban operatives for an American soldier captured in Afghanistan has baffled lawmakers, with many questioning the military and political merits of the controversial exchange.
Some warned that the president, already burdened by a series of crises, has sunk deeper into political quicksand by negotiating with terrorists, keeping Congress in the dark or manufacturing a military success story in order to mask other scandals.
Obama stands accused by a senior member of his own Democratic Party, Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein, of breaking US law by failing to provide lawmakers 30 days’ notice before transferring prisoners out of Guantanamo.
In addition to its legality, Republicans and Democrats alike questioned the timing, political optics and price of the operation that saw US Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl released by his Taliban captors after five years of captivity in Afghanistan.
The White House has offered several explanations for acting without congressional notification to recover Bergdahl.
At first, it argued his health and safety were in immediate jeopardy. Later, it said a delay would interfere with the president’s constitutional function of protecting Americans.
Dramatically complicating the defense of the swap are the questionable circumstances of Bergdahl’s capture, with some soldiers accusing the 28-year-old of desertion and the US military announcing it will investigate whether he should be disciplined.
“It doesn’t look good,” Senator Joe Manchin winced on Wednesday ahead of a classified briefing for all 100 senators in which officials provided details on the exchange.
But Manchin said he emerged with more questions than answers.
With the backlash growing, officials in Bergdahl’s hometown of Hailey, Idaho cancelled a June 28 homecoming parade “in the interest of public safety,” saying the town was too small for a large influx of supporters and journalists.
The town of 8,000 said it lacked the infrastructure to host a major event, citing expectations of a large crowd of “people who both want to support or protest against it,” according to a statement posted on Bergdahl supporters’ website.
– Political backlash –
One persistent question circulating in Washington: did Obama, whose administration spent years studying options for gaining Bergdahl’s release, misgauge the potential political fallout of his move?
“I think he probably didn’t understand the backlash to releasing the ‘Fab Five’ from Gitmo,” Republican Senator Mark Kirk told AFP.
He added that Obama, still feeling the political heat from a scandal that led to Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation last week, might have rushed the Bergdahl swap in order to change the headlines.
“My worry is that he thought this was going to be a great military-related story that could pull attention from the VA,” Kirk said.
“I think the sense is that this has gone pretty sour for the president politically.”
Instead, it’s become another talking point flummoxing fellow Democrats and arming Republicans with more criticism about the president’s decision-making.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a national security hawk, fueled the argument that Obama approved the deal as a way to whittle down the number of detainees at Guantanamo.
“Here’s what bothers a lot of people in Congress: many of us believe they seized an opportunity here to release five problematic detainees,” Graham told reporters.
“Their goal is to empty that jail.”
Obama acknowledged the sensitivity of trading the Taliban prisoners, and how their possible “recidivism” could see them return to anti-American hostilities.
Senator John McCain, himself a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, lashed out at the release, saying it was a terribly high price to pay to get Bergdahl home.
“I promise you, in a year from now, if not before, they will be back in Afghanistan and in the fight.”
Congress will hold a series of Bergdahl hearings beginning next week.
They are supported by House Speaker John Boehner, who said Obama bypassed Congress on the swap “because the administration knew it faced serious and sober bipartisan concern and opposition.”