A sign June 2 announces the release of US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl his hometown of Hailey, Idaho. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)
MAZAR-I-SHARIF, AFGHANISTAN — The White House on Monday defended the release of five Guantanamo detainees in exchange for a US soldier held by the Taliban, as many ordinary Afghans criticized the deal for emboldening the militants.
Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl — the only US soldier held by the Taliban after being captured in Afghanistan — was freed on Saturday in a dramatic deal brokered by Qatar.
In exchange, five Taliban prisoners were turned over to the Arab emirate where they will remain for a year, raising hopes for peace as the US prepares to leave Afghanistan.
But the deal has also sparked sparked criticism from some Republicans, who claimed they could return to the battlefield and pose a threat to Americans abroad, as well as revulsion among Afghans in those parts of the country traditionally opposed to the Islamists.
Of the five men, Norullah Noori, the ex-governor of the northern province of Balkh, was seen as the most controversial among the people AFP spoke to in the area, where he is accused of taking part in the 1998 genocide of thousands of Shiites.
“Our close relatives and loved ones and neighbors were killed during Noori’s term as governor,” said Hussain Ali, a taxi driver in the Balkh provincial capital of Mazar-i-Sharif.
“We are very disappointed to hear about the release of these prisoners.”
Amir Mohammad Ziaye, a prominent Shiite leader, said: “These prisoners should not have been handed over to Qatar, they should have been handed over to the Afghan government and Noori should have been tried for war crimes.”
The allegations around Noori center on an August 1998 massacre of up to 8,000 Shiites at the hands of the Taliban, who in turn had set out to avenge the killing of 2,000 of their own men the year earlier.
Noori’s Guantanamo Bay detention file notes he is “wanted by the United Nations for possible war crimes including the murder of thousands of Shites,” though the Afghanistan Analysts Network said no clear evidence has been presented to back up the allegation.
But the move has been hailed by some, particularly in Pashtun-dominated parts of the country, and by a senior government negotiator.
“I think it shows all sides’ goodwill for trust-building and start of the peace talks in near future,” Ismail Qasimyar, of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, said of the deal Sunday.
Khalid Zia, a university lecturer in eastern city of Nangarhar, said he saw potential for the exchange to do good.
“We consider the release a positive move that will help pave the way for peace negotiations and strengthen morale.”
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel expressed hope Sunday the release would lead to direct US talks with the Taliban.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has not officially commented but his government has criticized the release as “illegal” for transferring the men to a third country.
Facing growing criticism in the United States, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney took to the US morning talk shows to play down the threat posed by the men.
“We have a history in this country of making sure that our prisoners of war are returned to us, we don’t leave them behind,” Carney told CNN.
“And it’s entirely appropriate, given the determination made by the secretary of defense in consultation with the full national security team, that the threat potentially posed by the returned detainees was sufficiently mitigated to allow us to move forward and get Bowe Bergdahl back home where he belongs.”
Bergdahl’s almost five years in captivity saw him transferred between various militant factions along the volatile Afghanistan-Pakistan border, finally ending up in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal district, according to militant sources.
The circumstances of the Idaho native’s disappearance, from a base in Afghanistan’s eastern Paktika province in 2009, remain unclear.
He arrived Sunday at the US military medical center in Landstuhl in southern Germany where he is to continue his “reintegration process,” the army said.