American POW Exchanged for Five Taliban Prisoners

On Saturday, prisoner of war Bowe Bergdahl returned to the United States after the government agreed to an exchange. The Army sergeant, who was the only American prisoner of war from Afghanistan, was returned by his captors to American Special Operations troops near Afghanistan's border with Pakistan nearly five years after he was captured. In exchange, the American government released five of its own detainees from Guantánamo Bay.

Bergdahl was first captured in June 2009 after he was separated from his unit (the circumstances surrounding the separation remain shrouded in mystery). He is believed to have been held prisoner by the militant Haqqani organization in Pakistan near its border with Afghanistan. Bergdahl's release, said one Obama aide to the New York Times, was "the only issue we’ve discussed with the Taliban in recent months."

By Sunday, the administration was already on the defensive regarding the prisoner exchange. Republican lawmakers have slammed the move. Ted Cruz characterized it as as "very troubling," and former POW John McCain, while praising Bergdahl's release generally, called the exchange itself "disturbing." The politicians' primary concern seems to be potential lives lost to the newly freed Taliban members. "Our terrorist adversaries now have a strong incentive to capture Americans," argued House Intelligence Chair Mike Rogers in a statement. "That incentive will put our forces in Afghanistan and around the world at even greater risk."

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel maintained Sunday that the exchange was necessary because Bergdahl's "safety and health were in jeopardy," though he declined to give details. "In particular his health was deteriorating," he explained. "It was our judgment that if we could find an opening and move very quickly, we needed to get him out of there, essentially to save his life." Meanwhile, National Security Advisor Susan Rice told CNN that when an American soldier is captured, "we still have a sacred obligation to bring that person back," even if that means dealing with terrorists.

In the White House's official statement, President Obama sidestepped criticism while still making clear the government's motivations for the decision:

Today we also remember the many troops held captive and whom remain missing or unaccounted for in America’s past wars. Sergeant Bergdahl’s recovery is a reminder of America’s unwavering commitment to leave no man or woman in uniform behind on the battlefield. And as we find relief in Bowe’s recovery, our thoughts and prayers are with those other Americans whose release we continue to pursue.