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Taliban Welcomes 'Victory' After US Exchange

Taliban leader issues rare public statement congratulating Islamists over US terrorist release; Afghan government livid over the swap.
By Tova Dvorin
First Publish: 6/1/2014, 9:46 PM

Taliban
Taliban
Reuters

Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar issued a rare public statement Sunday, according to BBC News, calling the US's exchange of Islamist terrorist prisoners for an American soldier a "big victory."

"I extend my heartfelt congratulations to the entire Afghan Muslim nation," Omar said, in a video clip.

The five Afghani Taliban prisoners are widely thought to be the most senior terrorists held by the US at Guantamano Bay, and concerns have been raised that their return could facilitate a major rise in terrorism in the volatile region. 

The five include Khairullah Khairkhwa, a governor of Afghanistan's Herat province alleged to have direct links to Osama Bin Laden; Noorullah Noor, senior Taliban military commander implicated in mass murder against Shia Muslims; Mohammad Fazl, also implicated in war crimes against Shia Muslims and the Taliban's deputy defense minister during the 2001 war with the US; Mohammad Nabi Omari, senior military and security commander; and Abdul Haq Wasiq, deputy chief of the Taliban's intelligence service, who was said to be a key player in the Taliban's alliances with other Islamist groups to fight the US. 

A blow to diplomatic relations?

On Saturday, US officials announced the exchange, which saw the five terrorists transferred to Qatar in exchange for US Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, 28. Bergdahl, who went missing in 2009, is thought to be the only US soldier to have been in Taliban captivity. 

The Afghan government stated Sunday that they had not been informed of the exchange beforehand, and strongly condemned the move as a breach of international law. 

"Handing over prisoners to a third country is a breach of international law," Afghanistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated Sunday. "We are strongly opposed to it. We want Qatar and the US government to let the men go free."

US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel noted Sunday that Afghan President Hamid Karzai was informed of the prisoner-swap "after the fact", further angering critics abroad and in Washington.

Members of Congress noted that the exchange also stands on shaky ground on US law as well; critics say the administration violated the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, which requires a 30-day warning before releasing terrorists from the compound. 

Hagel defended the move, however, insisting that it was a lifesaving mission. 

"We believed that the information we had, the intelligence we had, was such that Sgt. Bergdahl's safety and health were in jeopardy," Hagel said. "In particular his health was deteriorating. 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."

He added that US President Barack Obama had the authority, under Article II of the Constitution, to bypass the Authorization Act in order to facilitate the swap. 

Hagel also insisted that the move was not a last-minute decision, despite the oversight.

"This didn't just start, this has been an ongoing effort," Hagel said. "The timing was right, the pieces came together. Our consistent efforts that we have been making over the years paid off."

Health concerns

Bergdahl himself was having trouble speaking English after so many years in captivity, family members told the press Sunday afternoon, but would give no greater details about his health. 

Rumors have swirled that he would be disciplined over the circumstances behind his captivity, which some suggest is the result of wandering off his base, but officials stated Sunday that he had suffered enough in captivity and would not be held responsible over the issue.