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US town cancels celebration for soldier captured by the Taliban over safety fears

Bowe Bergdahl’s release has sparked a national debate in the US: was he an American prisoner of war? Or a deserter who abandoned his unit?

A PLANNED CELEBRATION for US soldier Bowe Bergdahl in his hometown to mark his return after five years of being held by the Taliban has been cancelled due to security concerns.


Bergdahl’s release has sparked a national debate in the US: was he an American prisoner of war who should be welcomed home after years in the enemy’s hands or a deserter who abandoned his unit who should be punished accordingly?

For those who knew Bergdahl and his family in this small central Idaho town surrounded by forests and mountains, the politics of war have no place. They just want Bergdahl back home.

“It’s like a modern day lynching. He hasn’t even been able to give his side of the story yet. This community will welcome him back no matter what,” said Lee Ann Ferris, who lives next door to the Bergdahl family and watched Bowe grow up.

He’s a hometown kid and he’s already suffered enough.

The town of 8,000 has been swamped with hate mail and angry calls, labeling the 28-year-old Bergdahl un-American and a traitor. Given the prospect of large crowds on both sides of the debate, organisers abruptly canceled their welcome home celebration.

Captured Soldier Bowe Bergdahl AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

“If you had 10,000 people, 5,000 on one side and 5,000 on the other, then just due to the national attention, we don’t know what to expect,” Police Chief Jeff Gunter said.

Hailey Chamber of Commerce President Jane Drussel said she and the organisation had gotten angry mail and calls from people lambasting the town’s plans.

“The joy has all of a sudden become not so joyful,” she said.

Freedom after five years

Bergdahl was captured after walking away from his unit, unarmed, in 2009. He’s currently at a military hospital in Germany, where he was reported in stable condition.

Brendan Plank / YouTube

His parents have spoken publicly only briefly since his release. Several cars were parked outside their home on Wednesday behind a closed gate with signs that read, “Guard dog on duty” and “No Trespassing.”

US politicians and others have also complained that Congress should have been consulted about the prisoner exchange, that the deal will embolden the Taliban to snatch more American soldiers, and that the released Afghans will filter back to the battlefield.

Obama Captured Soldier Bowe's parents, Jani and Bob Bergdahl during a news conference with US president Barack Obama AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

A Taliban statement quoted leader Mullah Mohammad Omar as saying the release of the five Taliban was a significant achievement. President Barack Obama has defended the swap, citing a “sacred” obligation to not leave men and women in uniform behind.

How the US made the deal

Hoping to ease mounting criticism, officials from the US State Department, Pentagon and intelligence agencies briefed senators behind closed doors last night They showed the politicians a 1½-minute video provided by the Taliban that proved Bergdahl was alive and indicated to the administration that his deteriorating health required quick action.

Captured Soldier Congress US Senator Patrick Leahy on his way to the closed-door briefing with intelligence officials about the rescue operation AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

US negotiations with the Taliban to secure Bergdahl’s release have gathered steam since April. Besides the chance that his health was in decline, administration officials also wanted to make a deal because they knew that the decrease in the number of US troops in Afghanistan would decrease resources on the ground and reduce the amount and quality of intelligence from the area.

The administration is required to notify Congress 30 days before transferring Guantanamo detainees, but the White House thought waiting was too risky — that too much could go wrong in a month so they went forward with the fast-moving negotiations.

Complaints about the rescue

Bergdahl was released less than 30 days after the US signed a memorandum of understanding with Qatar that gave the White House assurances that the detainees, after being transferred to Doha, the capital of Qatar, would adhere to a one-year travel ban and other restrictions. Bergdahl was freed just one day after the White House received a green light from the military that the operation was a go — and less than an hour passed between the time the US learned the transfer was about to happen and Bergdahl walked to freedom.

Some of Bergdahl’s former comrades have complained that U.S. soldiers died during the search for him after he walked away. The military has not confirmed such a link.

US  Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the Army will review the case, and cautioned against drawing conclusions.

Read: Taliban release video showing US soldier Bowe Bergdahl being released after 5 years > 

Read: Only US soldier held prisoner in Afghanistan freed after five years > 

Associated Foreign Press
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